I’ve been thinking about the Western canon (a.k.a. dead white men) and the recent attempts to diversify the canon. About different perceptions on the matter, how there’s a misconception with the rejection of the canon in certain colleges, about Harold Bloom, and a lot of other things.
I’m writing this post to lay out an counterargument against a very specific comment concerning the recent rise in diverse literature, most notably authors like Toni Morrison, Ocean Vuong, etc.
The argument that is given against the diversification of the canon is that the experiences marginalized writers write about their race or culture or identity, that, to indirectly quote a review I found online, the greatest limit of Toni Morrison is that she only writes about the black experience and oppression. To follow the logic of this argument, only writers like Shakespeare and Hemingway and Fitzgerald are worth reading, because they are not limited by factors of race, because their subject matter (Love and War and Masculinity) are universal.
While I admire Hemingway and adore Fitzgerald (Shakespeare still hasn’t clicked for me) and fully support them remaining in the canon, I think that the argument presented above is so narrow-minded and white-centric that I couldn’t just ignore it. So here’s my case.
The very question of would writers of color write about white people is based on a white-centric world view. To say that writing about the black experience is limiting fully takes on the assumption that black people, and other writers of color, are a part of The Other, and not The Normal, The Blank Canvas. To believe that the issues Morrison tackles with aren’t universal because white people were not enslaved is self-contradictory. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare writes about two high-class angsty teenagers who kill themselves. Very specific. Probably not a lot of people reading it have experienced that.
But, but, someone will argue, Shakespeare’s writing about LOVE, and the DENIAL OF LOVE. Morrison writes about black people; Vuong only writes about immigrants. That’s the difference.
To that, bullshit.
Again, of course the experiences in each book are different, and to say that because marginalized writers only write about the group that they identify with, their experiences are not universal dehumanizes them and again, puts the accolades of the white man on a pedestal. Because Morrison writes slave narratives, her stories don’t contain universal truth? Bullshit.
The complicated love between Sula Peace and Nel Writing is one of the most intricate ones I’ll ever read. The experiences that marginalized groups have had through history don’t limit them, they increase social and self awareness.
I’ve always thought of reading as a means of helping develop empathy and sympathy, which, in my opinion, are the two of the most important characteristics to have nowadays. The diversification of the western canon will not weaken it as some has predicted, but will strengthen it.