Sometimes, being handed the course reading for a semester of English Literature just feels a bit like a hypocritical slap in the face. We spend so much of our time learning the theory behind race, gender, class, and postcolonialism. We are being given lectures by experts on the importance of all of these theories, and how they can be applied to analyzing literature. Yet somehow, these same experts fail to put their beloved theories into practice when it comes to selecting appropriate texts to read for their courses. I am told by fellow students that this is not something isolated to English Literature, but extends into subjects like Art History and even Comparative Literature.
I understand that it makes sense to select only the best, most relevant texts for each course, and that quality should remain a key criterion when selecting set texts. But can you really tell me that only white men have proven capable of writing literature “of value”? Sure, in the past this specific demographic has had more access to the education and means necessary to produce literature. So yes, perhaps in a course on Romanticism you would expect to see more literature written by white men; but even in such a course, great authoresses like Jane Austen or Emily Brönte should be considered.
Salman Rushdie has pointed out that ‘the English language ceased to be the sole possession of the English some time ago’. It follows that even a subject like English literature, which is indelibly tied to the English language, can expand to include nations and cultures across the globe. Colonialism meant that the English language forged its way into these other spaces, thereby opening up the world to Great Britain. Yet as Rushdie’s language indicates, the controlling power this gave the British has lost its hold, as the previous colonies have taken possession of the language and used it for their own purposes. Thus was born postcolonialism.
Whilst this is a subject often studied, rarely do we students feel the effects of it beyond the theories specifically outlining postcolonial study. Thus the reading list may include the token text (both theory and literature) of a BAME or female author, but the only lens through which we are told to explore it is race or gender. Rather than integrating diverse literature smoothly into the syllabus, allowing a truly intersectional approach and understanding, we are shown that such literature is important only for its insight into the experience of race or gender.
This use of token texts is frustrating, because its inclusion counteracts the whole idea of studying a variety of literature and theory. The whole reason for including a variety of texts is to demonstrate and explore the overlapping nature of otherwise easily separated topics, and thereby show the complexity of the world we live in. Moreover, such tokenism is an affront to the authors being studied: it makes it look as if they are on the syllabus merely as a representation of a category – it comes across as a gesture of benevolent condescension and a desperate grasp for undeserved gratitude.
But a more diverse reading list could not possibly be further away from benevolent condescension, as more than anything it would aid in creating a challenging and insightful course. There is no better way to consider the merits and shortcomings of literature by comparing it with texts and opinions that are born from a different context and understanding of the world. In such a context, rife with both differences and similarities, students would be stimulated and critical thinking would be fostered.
In no way do I mean to say that we should only read literature that comes from currently under-represented groups. I believe that an understanding of the local is just as vital as an understanding of the ominously-labelled Other. What I am advocating for is a balance of all English literature (or art in Art History). Work should be chosen for its merit, insight, and ability to challenge students, not because it has been described as an essential part of the canon, or has been studied for years past. If such criteria are included, there will undoubtedly be a radical shake-up in the reading lists we are given, and a more wholistic picture of the art and theory this world has to offer will be provided.