rethinking the western canon, pt.2

As I lay quarantined in my school’s clinic (I got the flue), I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about an elaborate argument against a goodreads comment I saw a year ago about Sula. I realize I’ve written about this subject, precisely this subject before, but I was very wound up yesterday arguing with that little snarky voice in my head denying Toni Morrison’s books of universality.

I was thinking about the textbook meaning of universality and how it differs from what this particular reader had unintentionally used it. For a little more context, this is their comment, roughly paraphrased:

“The problem with Morrison’s works is that she only writes about black people; therefore, her writing can never be universal.”

Okay, hang on. By this man’s logic, black (and most likely other marginalized groups) =/= universal, while Shakespeare, with his two lovers in fair Verona == some universal truth. (Not to shit on Shakespeare of course.) This white-centric view conforms with another phenomenon that I’ve noticed while reading. When I read characters in books, unless otherwise noted, are usually white. This internalized concept of white people being the “norm”, or the “blank canvas” prevents anyone else from entering.

However, we are getting better and better at creating space for voices that have been traditionally oppressed and brought down. Toni Morrison is definitely one of the more canonical writers of the twentieth century. Virginia Woolf for another. Ocean Vuong a more modern celebrated author.

The argument not addressing the deficiencies of the Western canon because of its “universality” is old and outdated. Of course we should all read Shakespeare because he is a great poet and the first to create complex characters, but using Shakespeare as a defense for not being more inclusive is tiring. Opening up the canon for more diverse authors does not take away the importance of Shakespeare. It does not lessen the beauty of Salinger or Fitzgerald. I am tired of same old things. Universality does not mean white.

A couple of recent TV shows/books/films that have given me hope: Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge); Killing Eve (PWB again); Parasite (Bong Joon Ho); On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Ocean Vuong). These beautiful works, created by amazing people, have started to carve out more spaces in the creative sphere, to pave the path for more diverse creatives in the future.

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