To read or not to read? The Canon and the 21st century

Saturday 19 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Hammerson Room Literature Wars

‘The battle is lost. These resentniks have destroyed the canon.’ Such was the view of noted American critic Harold Bloom. Bloom’s hyperbole aside, there certainly seems little doubt that the idea of a Western literary canon no longer carries the respect it once did. In British schools, for instance, familiarity with the great books of the past is no longer deemed an educational objective. This prompted UK education secretary Michael Gove to note that fewer than one in 100 GCSE students answered exam questions on novels published before 1900. But is the decline of the canon really something to be lamented?

For a number of critics during the 1970s and 1980s, the literary canon was a source of oppression as much as authority. Composed almost entirely of dead white European males, from Chaucer to Conrad, it was deemed problematic not just for those it included, but for those it excluded: women, homosexuals, the working-class and non-whites. The judgements, the attributions of value (and non-value), embodied in the canon seemed serve the interests of a white, male elite. The canon needed to be opened up to the long excluded. But was this opening up of the canon as much of a liberation as the assorted proponents of queer theory or Marxian lit-crit thought it was? Or did it simply liberate us from having to pass judgement, from discriminating between the great and the not-so-great? Indeed, is there something still to be said for the idea of canonicity, that certain works of literature, as old and as arcane as they might seem, are possessed of considerably more value than others? And by focusing on the relevant, on contemporary books that address contemporary issues, do we risk further estranging ourselves from the past, and tradition? 

In fact, is the need for the canon greater today than ever before? After all, there are more books currently published each week than there were during Samuel Johnson’s lifetime. With the emergence of e-books, the publishing boom looks set to continue. Given this ever-expanding literary edifice, should we once more set about prioritising the best which has been thought and said in the world? Or is the idea of the canon an elitist relic from a far less democratic age?

Dr Tim Black
editor, Spiked Review

Joe Friggieri
professor of philosophy and former head of department, University of Malta; poet; playwright; theatre director; three-times winner, National Literary Prize

David Herd
professor of modern literature, University of Kent

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti
prize-winning playwright and screenwriter; author, Behsharam (Shameless), Behzti (Dishonour); member of writing team, The Archers

Dr Margaret Kean
Dame Helen Gardner Fellow in English, St Hilda's College, University of Oxford

Alan Miller
chairman, Night Time Industries Association (NTIA)

Produced by
Alan Miller chairman, Night Time Industries Association (NTIA)
Recommended readings
Jane Austen: praised for being seen rather than read

As a long-suffering literature student, the campaign to get Jane Austen on a bank note warms my heart. After all, a society which honours one of its greatest writers surely has some claim to civilisation. Yet what a shame Austen is not here today to train her sharply ironic eye over the strange spectacle of being hailed for the biological fact of her existence rather than the rich content of her novels.

David Bowden, spiked, 9 August 2013

Pupils face literary diet of 'dead white men'

Dr Simon Gibbons, chairman of the National Association for the Teaching of English, told an audience of English teachers and writers that the Education Secretary’s curriculum proposals were “impoverished” and “too narrow”.

Richard Garner, Independent, 26 February 2013

Well done, Nick Hornby, but joining the canon takes time

Should Fever Pitch, the tale of a football fan, be likened to the writings of Orwell, F Scott Fitzgerald and Ian Fleming?

John Mulholland, Observer, 12 August 2012

Booker Prize: trusting the public would be novel

While literary types have arid debates about ‘readability’, the rest of us seem excluded from the conversation.

Tim Black, spiked, 18 October 2011

In praise of dead white men

Efforts to make education more “relevant” to black people can be both patronising and harmful. The western literary canon should be taught to everyone

Lindsay Johns, Prospect Magazine, 23 December 2010

The Literary Canon—What Books Should Be Required Reading?

The canon debate—whether referring to the American Literary Canon or the Western Literary Canon—has been a point of contention among academics since the sixties when liberals began fighting for more women and minorities and fewer “dead European men” to be included in the canon.

Meghan Ward, Writerland,

Session partners

in association with