The literary canon and diversity: an impossible combination?


Picture of books standing next to each other.

If you ask what a literary canon is, you’ll sometimes be told it’s a list of books that you need to have read. But is that so?


For a start, there is not one agreed list. It exists in various versions. Every country or language community can draw up its own canon, and the Dutch-language canon looks very different from the canon of American classics. Yet all these lists have one thing in common: they are Western-oriented and include almost exclusively novels by white, male authors. High time for a bit of diversity!


How did this come about, anyhow? Definitely not because there are no female authors or authors of colour. When we look at who put together the canon and which criteria were used, a great deal immediately becomes clear. Do the authors of books on the list need to be dead? Do all the books reflect the history and culture of a specific country or region? What about books we simply find exceptionally beautiful, and what about all the differences of taste and opinion that exist about them? What is a canon actually for? Is it to inspire readers, to preserve books and authors in perpetuity, or is it primarily intended to be used in schools, to educate children and young people? The reality is that a canon is usually compiled by an elite group, and the history and culture of a specific country or region are imagined as less diverse than it was in reality.


Polyphony

A canon that is not diverse represents a missed opportunity. If the canon is supposed to represent a culture, then it ought to have room for women, or for authors with a background in migration who are able to illuminate the colonial or postcolonial perspective. Just to be clear: books by male, white authors that are now part of the canon do not have to be replaced. We are advocating expanding the list by adding different perspectives. Polyphony is the keyword here. The more diverse the books and authors in the canon are, the better it will be as a whole.


You can compile a canon for any number of reasons, but you always need to make choices and selections, and these will never be the same for everyone. So let’s opt for a multiplicity of canons that invite us to talk about the books we regard as good, books that mean a lot to us and represent the plurality that’s characteristic of society.


What are your thoughts on the literary canon? A great many institutions and organizations have made suggestions for titles that could be added to the canon. Try taking a look:

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