by Isabel Rodger
I’d be the first to admit that I’m reformed when it comes to the way in which I digest books. I used to think that studying or even reading literature meant never straying beyond the rigid parameters of Austen, Wilde, Donne or Browning. Although no-one had ever expressly told me that this was the case, to me, the discipline was reserved exclusively for the study of pioneering authors, literary movements and fields of criticism that shaped the very foundations of reading culture. How many of us could agree that we were taught at least one of the following at GCSE: Of Mice and Men, Romeo & Juliet or To Kill a Mockingbird? Perhaps the most telling facet of how we choose to think about what constitutes literature worthy of study, is the fact that my own father—who was born in the 1950s—studied almost exactly the same texts that myself, my brother and sister did at school.

Due to my own (frankly naïve) preconceptions about the literary canon, I arrived as a fresher at university having firmly equated academia with the exclusive study of classical authors and works. This way of thinking had manifested itself over the previous few years in asking my parents for the works of Fitzgerald, Joyce or the Brontë sisters for numerous birthdays. I distinctly remember one particular incident in which I felt marginally guilty for not having finished Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (spoiler: I nearly suffered a boredom-induced aneurysm). I’d obviously failed as a student; my tastes clearly weren’t attuned to ‘proper’ literary styles yet. 

It is no secret that English—as an educational discipline—has historically facilitated the study of texts belonging to the literary canon (or capital ‘L’ Literature), their rightful place on global syllabi justified by their superior artistic form or style. But what exactly does this constitute, if issues of accessibility aren’t addressed? Try cracking out a copy of anything T.S. Eliot, for example. You’re going to have a right job of understanding any of the classical and mythological allusions in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ unless you’re a seasoned scholar in medieval Italian, classical civilisation or have an excellent set of footnotes to hand. Of course, there is something to be said for the texts that have maintained longevity throughout several centuries, and sometimes even millennia. In this piece, I do not mean to argue against the existence of the canon, nor do I intend to suggest that classic works are irrelevant or unworthy of the credit they have received. Hell, I’m a sucker for ancient tragedy and 20th century poetry myself. 

My issue with the canon isn’t concerned with arguments over whether certain works have a rightful place there. My personal grievance is over the accessibility of the canon to the wider reading community, its hierarchical system that designates certain books ‘high’ art and how some novels are inherently more daunting to some readers because of this. I mean to use this piece as a space to celebrate all literature, with the aim of dispelling myths surrounding the genres that are more easily overlooked with regards to their academic ‘merit’. 

I am fortunate enough to be enrolled on a course which mostly celebrates the diversity of literature, as demonstrated by a slowly-increasing variety of module choices. This includes a second year prose module which questions the very roots of prejudice towards certain genres and the limits of the literary canon. Through actively working to widen my own academic comfort zone, I’ve managed to re-orient my enjoyment towards literature as not being confined to works exclusive to the canon. Three years ago, I never would’ve considered that graphic novels would be something that I would want to read, let alone write essays on. However, texts such as Maus, Fun Home and Watchmen have allowed me to see the merit in opening yourself to more non-traditional forms of literature, and how they can be just as sophisticated and intricate in the execution of their art form. In my experience, it often appears to be the labels and categories we obsessively impose on art that scare people away through gross generalisations. Marjane Satrapi (the creator of Persepolis) was once quoted as saying she didn’t like the term ‘graphic novel’ because ‘It's a word that publishers created for the bourgeois to read comics without feeling bad.’

Whether textual analysis is being done by practised academics or a teen in high school, it is important that a wealth of opinions are both heard and valued. We cannot silence the voices which crave for a different perspective on our world’s stories; this is how new fields of criticism are created. The canon is in your hands as a consumer of books. After all, reading is a leisure activity as well as an academic discipline. I truly believe that the beauty of literature lies not in the most structurally accurate replication of a Petrarchan sonnet - to me, its most enchanting aspect is the ability to simultaneously capture and emanate those universal emotions that make us feel so deeply when reading.

My jaw no longer clenches reflexively when I receive my reading lists. I choose instead to allow myself to be excited by material that once used to perplex or confuse me. I choose classes outside of my once-rigid comfort zones. I write essays about books that some wouldn’t hesitate to pass off as ‘garbage’. It’s OK to argue that a book is badly written, just as it’s OK to dislike a book because of a character or a plot line and it’s definitely OK to dislike it for matter of feeling and taste, no questions asked. However, making vast assumptions about the quality of art simply because of its author, the audience it reaches and its level of popularity is becoming an outdated mindset, and I’m relieved. I believe that the dissipation of a hierarchy across all types of art reflects a shift in the desires of society to observe a more accepting, diverse view of the world. Most importantly, I’ve learnt to read for the sake of reading, and without fear of judgement. I welcome you to join me in that sentiment.