The Literary Canon Is Still One Big Sausage Fest

Illustration for article titled The Literary Canon Is Still One Big Sausage Fest

Let's say you're at a cocktail party that you're not supposed to get wasted at and you're wasted. Totally wasted. So wasted, in fact, that you swear someone just introduced you to Toni Morrison and you, not knowing how else to react in the presence of so venerable a literary figure, said something like, "I had to read Beloved in my Contemporary American Lit. class. I mean, not had to — it was really good!" When Toni Morrison then disgustedly takes her leave of you, you drink a little more until your eyes are foggy and you can feel your tongue flopping around in your mouth.


You look around the room for someone to talk to, but you notice that there are a lot of stony-faced older white dudes milling around, some of them openly glaring at each other. "That's weird," you think, and just as it occurs to you that a party full of old, white men is probably not the best kind of party, you spot a woman all alone huddled over by the snack bar, compulsively eating cashews one by one. You weave through the sparse crowd and sidle up next to you just as it occurs to you that this woman is none other than the great American poet Emily Dickinson. "Nice to meet you!" you say, maybe too effusively. Emily Dickinson stops chewing for a second, stares at you in horror, and makes that sound raccoons make when they're distressed, fleeing to the bathroom, where she bolts the door and shouts at anyone who knocks on it. Over your shoulder you hear some dude announce in a lilting voice that he's going to recite a poem. Everybody groans. The party, if that's what it even was, is over.

On Monday, Commentary Magazine's D.J. Myers posted a list of the top 25 American writers "as determined by the amount of scholarship on each" over the past 25 years according to the MLA International Bibliography, which reference material surprised me seeing as how I'd always believed that the Modern Language Association's sole purpose was to simultaneously make humanities majors feel like their work was super rigorous and torture science and math majors who just needed a basic writing course to graduate. What Myers' list (with which the MLA has no official connection) shows is that, of 25 lionized, aggrandized, perpetuated American scribblers, only five — or a good tip on a small lunch check — are women. They are:

8. Toni Morrison
9. Emily Dickinson
13. Willa Cather
16. Edith Wharton
19. Flannery O'Connor

There isn't a single woman in the top five and not one, most importantly, who wasn't already among the most academically investigated in 1987. Myers helpfully includes the number of places these writers have moved up or dropped down since the last ranking, and the numbers show that, though no new women made it onto the list, all five of these lady authors jumped up at least a few spots, the biggest leap having been made by Morrison at +9. Discouragingly, however, is that only writer — William Dean Howells — slipped from the list completely, replaced by Richard Wright at number 24, right in front of the poet who continues to hang to his canonical prestige by a gossamer thread, Robert Frost.

America's literary canon — our national roster of masters and masterworks — is teeming with penises. It's like a whole forest of penises that some really dedicated environmentalists have chained themselves to so that the big bad bulldozers of feminist criticism can't start clearing the land for something new and interesting, like a birth canal-themed water park. A quick (and by no means comprehensive) tour of the other literary listicles caught in the interweb shows that the forest is way bigger and denser than Myers' findings indicate.

A grandiose 2009 list of the ‘100 Greatest Writers of All Time' on This Recording included just fourteen women. Out of a hundred. Only two of those women — Virginia Woolf (14) and Gertrude Stein (5) — made the top 25, and the Brontë sisters, probably because they have the same name, so, like they count as the same person, got to share the 58th spot so they could do sisterly things like brush each other's hair and talk about how if Anne didn't start taking care of her own cat, they'd take it to the SPCA and find it a good home. The Guardian's 2003 list of best novels at least had the good sense to realize that the Brontë sissies were two different people, but it included only five lady-penned titles in its top 25. Though New York Times' 2006 25-year review of the best contemporary fiction put Toni Morrison's Beloved at the top spot, only a single other female author had been considered in the pool of runners-up. TIME's Lev Grossman, in reviewing J. Peter Zane's The Top 10, in which renowned authors onanistically list their favorite books ever, mentions only male contributors, like Tom Wolfe or Michael Chabon, and Esquire's "75 Books Every Man Should Read" looks more like a compilation of all summer reading lists for boys' schools from grades 6-12.

You might be thinking, "So what? Esquire's a rag for guys with a epidermal addiction to cologne and I've seen High Fidelity enough times to know that people love to generate lists in a sad, futile attempt to organize the inexplicable chaos that is life — this information reflects very little of my worldview." Every list has holes, every list, really, is generated not with the intention of truly and definitely compending, but with the aim to reach out to others and either assert a certain level of expertise on the part of the creator or confirm some abstract standard of taste. These lists aren't periods — they're really hesitant question marks. Does anyone else think Faulkner's awesome? Is anyone else also into To the Lighthouse? Anyone? And this is why it's so disheartening that lists like Myers' (but especially lists directed exclusively to a male audience, like Esquire's) don't contain more women because not only have women contributed at least equally masterful works to literature as men have, but women are and have always been the primary audience for the novel. An erstwhile rational essayist summed this fact up nicely in an April 2011 New Yorker article, drawing from Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel:

Ian Watt, in his classic "The Rise of the Novel," correlated the eighteenth-century burgeoning of novelistic production with the growing demand for at-home entertainment by women who'd been liberated from traditional household tasks and had too much time on their hands. In a very direct way, according to Watt, the English novel had risen from the ashes of boredom.


That was Jonathan Franzen, writing in the very same magazine on whose pages almost exactly a year later he would have misogynistic conniption fit over Edith Wharton's hotness. Whether Franzen would care to concede this or not, however, women make up the bulk of his audience. As a matter of fact, they have, since the beginning of the novel until now, made up the bulk of the audience for any fiction writer. According to NPR, as of 2007, men only constituted 20 percent of the fiction market in North America. Lakshmi Chaudhry concluded from that data that the so-called genre of "chick-lit" would really encompass every work of fiction. "Unlike the gods of the literary establishment," she wrote, "who remain predominately male-both as writers and critics-their humble readers are overwhelmingly female," a fact that Vida, an American organisation supporting women in the literary arts reiterated in February with the release of its dismal pie charts showing that quality press reviews of new books are overwhelmingly of new books by men. Not only that, the rosters of both big and small publishing houses generally included far more male than female authors. Just by the numbers, women are minority shareholders in an enterprise whose success they fuel. However, while women are willing to read male authors, men don't as readily pick up books penned by women.

The Vida charts dovetail nicely with Myers' list because they reveal a more egregious bias for male authors in the reputed publications, like the London Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement. According to those high-falutin critics, men are writing the heady stuff, the literary stuff, since that's all they deign to review and most of what they deign to review is written by men. Women are writing — and, in most cases, out-selling — their male counterparts, but seem to be losing in the race to slip into the literary canon. Why? Is it because ladies just aren't as good? Have female writers been marginalized or stigmatized for too long that now they're simply having trouble catching up? Or are men still predominantly in charge of what goes into the canon and what comes out? The fact that, according to a 2006 survey, from the 90s to the 00s progress had stalled for women seeking full-time professorships in English departments around the country points to the last of these causes. And this stymied flow of women into literary posts throughout America's colleges has less to do with lingering members of a department's old, patriarchal guard — women produce less scholarship than men, on average spending 2 hours a week less on research and writing than their male counterparts. Associate female professors generally spend more time preparing for and teaching their courses, which duties, according to respondents of the survey, can monopolize a professor's time, though securing tenure has more to do with a professor's publishing than teaching record.


Fewer women — and less new blood, as professors hold onto their posts longer and longer — in the literary academy means fewer advocates for including more women in the literary canon, a necessary overhaul if you think in terms of feminist literary criticism that the only reason the canon is so stolidly white and penisy is so that men can preserve cultural supremacy over women. Paul Lautner, writing on how big a hand race and gender studies have in shaping the American canon, examined the way the literary canon can exclude women and thereby marginalize the cultural significance of women's concerns:

Obviously, no conclave of cultural cardinals establishes a literary canon, but for all that it exercises substantial influence. For it encodes a set of social norms and values; and these, by virtue of its cultural standing, it helps endow with force and continuity. Thus, although we cannot ascribe to a literary canon the decline in attention to the concerns of women in the 1920s, the progressive exclusion of literary works by women from the canon suggested that such concerns were of lesser value than those inscribed in canonical books and authors. The literary canon is, in short, a means by which culture validates social power.


The canon according to Myers' appraisal of the MLA's information attempts to validate male hegemony. That's all it exists for. Henry James may be a great fucking writer, but his name doesn't crown the list so that, when someone asks you who the best American writer is, you can say, "Oh, totally Henry James — I read it on the internet." Henry James and all his bros are up top because academics write A TON about them, probably too much, and academics write a ton about them in an effort to, perhaps unconsciously, reinforce a literary patriarchy.

When the stuffy party of grumbling old writers becomes too dull, you decide to go to this huge bash with champagne and miniature ponies and mimes and circus seals you've been hearing about called, "Best-selling fiction writers ever party." You heard that there might be a huge piñata in the shape of Moby Dick and that it was full of little peg-leg lollipops. When you get there, everyone is totally wasted and happy. Maybe too happy, but who can argue with genuine smiles? You notice a large crowd gathered at the center of the room where an apparently able-bodied man is arm-wrestling bony old woman to a draw. You ask the woman next to you who happens to be Danielle Steel wearing a dress made of hundred dollar bills, "What's this all about?" She laughs and says, "Agatha Christie and Shakespeare are having an arm wrestling contest to decide whose sales are better." That's because, Ms. Steel explains, fanning herself with more hundred dollar bills, each of them has about 2 billion in total sales, even stevens.


MLA Rankings of American Writers [Commentary]



Not gonna lie; I tend to really dislike "literary" fiction and fill my mind with "trash" like romance, chick lit, YA, and sci-fi/fantasy. A lot of the female writers in these much-maligned fields can kick the asses of these esteemed literary canon male writers, IMO, when it comes to telling a good story. (Lisa Kleypas >>>>> Cormac McCarthy!) It's sad that more good female writers aren't considered for literary canon status (where's Maya Angelou? Maxine Hong Kingston?), but I tend to think of "literary canon/greatest writers" lists as about as reliable an indicator of good books as Academy Awards are of good movies; occasionally they will get lucky and get a genuinely good one, but a ton of pretentious shit gets awarded for being pretentious shit and it's all one giant "aren't we fabulous?" circle-jerk. They can keep their "literary canon"; I'll be in the corner with my "trashy" books enjoying genuinely good stories and characters while they all drone on about SYMBOLISM and such.