The Western Literary Canon, or the Curious Case of the Male Ego

Over the last two years, I’ve read Beowulf, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, More’s Utopia, Aristotle’s Poetics, and sections from The Epic of Gilgamesh. I’ve made a project of the canon because, at 33, I felt that if I want to be the kind of writer I aspire to be, I need to know what I’m working with. I needed to map out the vast continuum of storytelling in my culture, so I can point to my relative speck in the galaxy.

But I’ve also tackled the Western canon for another reason. As a woman, I want to know how it works. Why has “elite” meant “white male” for so long? Why have women been excluded from full citizenship until the last 100 years? Why are booklists that feature more diverse authors so often framed as apologies or alternatives, as the latest booklist from Esquire this month attests? And why do men like Harold Bloom (see his 1994 book, The Western Canon) label the canonization of black female authors as the “politicization” of art? Rather than, say, a fact of existence in a diverse society?

The answers turned out to be somewhat different than I expected. I expected buckets of misogyny. Whole D-Days of woman-hating, woman-silencing men storming the beaches of intellectual life and defending that rightfully human turf against anyone else. But it’s so much simpler than that.

According to Professor John M. Bowers, the myth of the manly writer doesn’t begin with Hemingway. Nope. It goes back at least to Herodotus. He was determined to outdo Homer, and Thucydides was determined to outdo Herodotus. And from there, we’re off to the races, folks. The ancient Greeks loved a good competition, which–in most city-states–was limited to male participants and spectators–at penalty of death.

Let’s just hit the pause button right here because I want to add something. I often hear a well-meaning argument from men who are trying very hard to be enlightened: They say that competition is naturally male, and women shouldn’t feel compelled to go against their nature in order to be recognized for their contributions.

This is a nice attempt but false–and frankly, dangerous. There is nothing inherently gendered about competition at all. No one of either gender should be compelled to compete if they don’t want to. What’s more, if we look at the only spheres where women had much influence throughout Western history, then women are also cutthroat competitors. It’s just that their competitive skills have been relegated to pot roasts, mating, and fashion. Until quite recently, the canon of female success was all about Coco Chanel, Princess Grace of Monaco, and women like them–women who invested their considerable intellects into the only competitions where they were allowed.

So you see my mistake. I had thought the exclusion of women was intentional. When something closer to the truth is that there just wasn’t room in the male imagination. Literature has thus far been canonized through a cultural myth of father-figures being overthrown by rebellious sons. Not because women can’t write or don’t want to compete–but because they aren’t allowed to. It would ruin the male narrative. The Western Canon is a kind of Star Wars, repeated over and over and over again. The men serve as the Fates, one step below the gods, while the women either stay home or cheer from the sidelines. Boccaccio overthrows Dante. Chaucer overthrows Boccaccio. Shakespeare does Chaucer.

Where do women fit in this narrative?

They don’t. Let’s be honest here. The Western Bible, which launched the whole concept of canon, put us ladies in our place. Our names were veiled behind husbands, brothers, sons. We did all the birthing and nursing, and sometimes we even got to star in a little parable about loyalty, self-sacrifice, peace-making, or temptation. The Bible drew our little boxes early on so that by the time Shakespeare came around, we were so far off that list that we were precisely nowhere. Men even had to pretend to be women on the stage because they couldn’t imagine the female of the species playing herself. Much less scripting herself.

Case in point: Sir Thomas More provided his daughter with an education equal to that of the highest courtiers, and she held her own even beside Henry the VIII. But nobody cast her in a role, much less a starring one. She didn’t even write her father’s biography. Her husband did.

Even today, it’s a Catch-22 for women writers. Here’s the dilemma: To enter the competition, women must select a dead male writer–and then they must write against him. Do the opposite of what he did. Invent new rules. This is the tried and tested method for men, aspiring to enter the canon, and theoretically, it should work for women.

But here’s the catch: When women do this, from Woolf to Morrison, their reinventions are called “feminine” (which is apparently a devaluation). But their lineage to masculine authors makes terrific fodder for critics and writers who believe women can’t write without “aping” men. They are at once too feminine, hopeless without men, and a sellout for trying to “pass” as male. This impossible situation impacts the chances for even our best female authors to win awards and enter the canon.

As Nicola Griffith pointed out last spring, books by women about women don’t win awards. Which means they don’t make the cut for the canon. Which means legitimacy still eludes us. It means the voices that prevail are those of sexist students and professors who know nothing of Christine de Pisan and who think of Austen as a miniaturist, rather than a Mozart, will continue to claim that women don’t make good writers.

When, really, they just don’t consider women’s lives as narrated by women appropriate material for art–much less the next-door neighbor of Homer or Chaucer or Shakespeare. That material isn’t competitive (they think). It isn’t cutthroat. It isn’t ambitious in a way they recognize. It doesn’t matter in the way that male ambition, grief, or battle do in their eyes.

So even there, it’s still a competition. I just picked up Don Quixote, and then it will be onto Voltaire and Milton–all men trying to outdo other men. After a while, it gets a little redundant. All this jostling and dick-waving. All this idiotic shouting: Mine’s bigger than yours! If the canon really does celebrate originality as much as it has claimed to across history, isn’t it time for some more diverse authors to shake things up a bit? Isn’t it high time that the literary establishment accepted the range of human experience, including an entirely new way of measuring excellence? And what about true originality, the homegrown kind straight from the writer’s soul rather than as an intellectual exercise?

We’ve had our Miltons and Shakespeares and Mores. It’s time for more Alice Walkers and Joan Didions.

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