Studying the Literary Canon

welcome to a discussion of the literary canon this is one of our opening segments in this literature course and one of the things that we'll be doing the entire semester is determining are these works canonical why are they canonical why do we study them so we're going to define these terms and help you begin understanding why great literature is considered great literature and what you might include in it in the future so let's get started first we needed to find what the literary canon is and in the shorter 11th edition of maze the glossary defines it as the range of works that a consensus of scholars teachers and readers of a particular time and culture consider great or major so think about think about that you know who is actually determining this people who are educated in the area of literature so when we talk about literature though we are talking about people who have come together to discuss the elements that make that literature great but it's also very time dependent and culture dependent you know what is going on during that historical time period what is happening within the culture what is the culture value during that time so so there's there are several different dimensions that we study when we consider the literary canon and the opening of May's introduction same same textbook also discusses the literary canon as something defined as imaginative and creative recognized recognized artistic value and so there becomes a problem that we'll talk about in a little bit of how do you measure that you know what what did one person's creativity may be may flop for other people but what you're doing is with this consensus of scholars teachers reach you bring these people who are educated in that area who who study this regularly and see the trends but also see what has lived long in these areas you know something is new is fresh is different but has great imagery or has great development then that is likely to be something that would long-term be included in a literary canon the one other consideration with the literary canon which I kind of see these this question a little bit conflicting personally is is this reading for study and scholarship or is this reading for entertainment and pleasure and quite frankly some of the things that you're reading in your literature class you're studying it and you're doing this so that you can take a class to meet credits for a college degree you may not be reading that for true entertainment or pleasure however I am sure that a lot of what you read for the class or outside of class you would consider more entertainment or pleasure reading but it still might be considered canonical because of the way it's developed so um I hate for that to be an either/or question throughout the course or just period I hate it to be an either/or because quite frankly I read Jane Austen over the summer and that was my pleasure reading it did happen to benefit my classes but and and so that study in scholarship you know is is linked in there but I loved her work I mean if she wrote novels they are very entertaining to me but some of you would hate reading her that would become an absolute the least entertaining thing that you could possibly do for some of you so um some of that is subjective but there are things that we measure the Canon or canonical works by that help us determine really what is its value and beyond just this idea of hey man I liked it or I didn't like it so now is the title of the screen is joining the canonical Club is there really a canonical Club no is this impression this idea of what is a great work okay so I'm just being a little humorous here but um how does a person judge imaginative ness creativeness an artistic value that is a good question if honestly if you can answer that and actually be able to tell me how to measure that then you should have an A for the class immediately because one person's imaginative miss can flop and one person's creativeness can be genius to one person and just really poor to another and so maybe the artistic value is coming in there you know what maybe it's not just that I liked it I didn't like it maybe it has other characteristics that add to it like in a painting so many people just think that Jackson Pollock is just horrible I mean it's splatter painting at its worst it fit to the general onlooker but to someone who studied art they can see his intentional nough some of the splatters or they see something richer behind the way that he has placed that paint in certain areas on the canvas so it's not just a bunch of you know coeds or something going crazy with their splatter paint walls it's actually a beautiful rich composition with lots of layers and lots of tones on tone on tone and a lot of contrast so it means something different to people so there's this idea of artistic value that comes into it that just because you don't like it or or you know that doesn't really go into is this valuable to the Canon because quite frankly Jackson Pollock changed painting so if we look at that with with literature and you know there were lots of different literary movements during the 20th century that could be considered extremely imaginative extremely creative you know William Carlos Williams was using a lot of his a lot of his poetry in order to mimic this idea of painting a picture and how how a poem can actually give form and symbolic meaning and also represent something bigger just just in a few lines even some people would say that his poetry is all just on face value of it but once you actually understand and see what he's doing with the poem you might say oh there really is something more to this wheelbarrow that he's describing in this very brief poem so as we go through the course what I want you to look at is you notice we're in the fiction and drama units is there a rich or complex storyline and even some of the poems that we're going to study are going to have a storyline to them so what is the storyline is it fulfilled if it is cut off or if it doesn't extend to where we thought it was going to go why did the author choose to do that and how does that impact the way that we read the character development that is again all three genres you're going to be looking at characters in some of these works and you know you have to think about how is this person developed is it cheesy to make a very simplistic word out of it or is this person you know if they are the villain is there some complexity to the character or is the person this villain period are there any redeemable characteristics and if there are why or if there aren't why and just because you land on one answer or another doesn't mean that that is the full answer that means that that character is not canonical in itself so if the is the plot you know depending upon what Shonn read is a realistic or unrealistic plot might work or it might fall why is that realistic plot really good or why is it not you know an unrealistic plot is expected for fantasy but if you're doing something that is suppose is unkind of on this line of realism then if there's the characters are doing things that just don't seem right for as a right fit for that character and how the the work progresses then you know does it work or does it not you just really have to look at all the things that surround that plot in order to determine you know whether a realistic or unrealistic development actually does work in in that plot and then a vivid or well integrated imagery can can absolutely change a work in its entirety and some of the works you'll actually go through and you'll understand finally that okay there so there is this picture of the worm destructive worm and an apple in in a short story called this distort the destroys and these these boys come and pretty much dismantle this house from the inside out and here you've had all this warm imagery as you're going along wondering how this fits in but but the truth is that the entire story has been just slowly them being these little worms who eat this house and destroy it from the inside out just like a warm destroy sample and so is that a canonical work um based on the plot based on the characters I would say absolutely it's going to stand the test of time and continue to be anthologized do I see it in our anthology gosh darn it no but um that's that kind of imagery just has this impression that just sticks with you and when you cut keep coming back to think about it you know that's that's what you're stuck with and so we're going to discuss more many more characteristics throughout the term but but one of the biggest measurements of whether work is canonical or not is does the work stand the test of time Oh Shakespeare's plays we still study them several hundred years later that is his plays our canonical works even his minor plays are repeated in theaters everywhere and that's one one comment that Mays makes in in the introduction to her work on page two is that you know there's there's a reason why we study these people why they study or why we study Dickens and why we keep going back to the Bronte sisters and because of the richness and and what happens in the play it's not just the action of the play but it's the characters and how you become involved in the characters of that stand the test of going through many centuries you know one of the reasons why Beowulf has taught still so much in high schools especially is because it is it's not just a play that was written um it's a play that was handed down for centuries you know if we consider you know how many thousands of years that writing has been around versus how many thousands of years that you know the spoken word has been around you know that that epic poem has been sung by bards for thousands of years and then finally it was written down and then has been you know translated and changed a little bit over over the years but the characters in that they stand the test of time Homer's The Iliad that's another example in the Odyssey – those are both examples of bards handing down a story through the oral tradition for thousands of years and then finally it was written down and we have one of the greatest bards who told the story actually offering it so I mean and we still read it and it's still reenacted just a few years ago actually it might be more than a few years ago Brad Pitt you know acted in Troy and that is part of the Homeric epics we still use it so the things that can stand the test of time you know modern works we'll talk about this a little bit with the authors and the works that we're going to study in a little bit but you know these modern works if they're character development is great they might be canonical for this time and this culture will they stand the test of time a long term I don't know um you know only time will tell honestly and I probably won't be around to see some of those as some of those become true canonical work some of my favorites even like Sandra Cisneros I love her she's an awesome a poet artist novelist her novels read like poetry they are so vivid with imagery and so the chapters are so brief but they packed so much action and description into him I'm hoping she'll stand the test of time she stood a few decades so that's pretty good so now you've got on the screen in front of you you know these these canonical works these canonical authors you know when we stories like Beowulf and Homer and Shakespeare and Dickens and Charlotte Bronte and Bronte or Emily Bronte and their works Eudora Welty Flannery O'Connor all she has Anne Rice on this presentation you know that has been those works have been read richly for several decades will she stand the test of time and 100 years from now will interview with the vampire be studied as a really well known work already a lot of students do not know that reference not understand and rise do not understand her witches or her vampire stories so um I don't know I I really don't know time will tell again Toni Morrison has some of the richest works Judith Ortiz Cooke offer have you ever heard of her before and well most of my students have never heard of her because she's not been included in the textbooks that they studied in their high schools some of her work tends to be a little more mature so it is studied in college classrooms a little bit more but the truth is that most of her works are just fine for the classroom Dorothy Parker she was made popular with the Gilmore Girls because of the production company behind that and some of the quips that they had using some of her work and just the dialogue was based on um some of Dorothy Parker's works and some folks have just read her like crazy and some have never ever heard of her where alph Ellison is a famous wonderful african-american writer who people might have heard his name but have they ever read The Invisible Man have they ever read the king of the Mingo game those are amazing transformative works that deal with issues of racism they stood the test of time and culture in in the mid 1900s and they continue to transform the American culture for sure do they have this test of time again that's our question now to get to some of these later off there Sudan columns you might know where is the author of Hunger Games okay so she created a great stir in the entertainment world so here's our division is this scholarship or is this entertainment purposes that this author is going to be recognized long term or are they not already a few you look at JK Rowling with our Harry Potter stories um you know people are still reading them people are still enjoying the movies the movies are still being made off of it will it stand another 50 years will it be a book that people go back to in 50 years time if you think if you compare it to the richness stuff or the development of The Wizard of Oz you know in the 20th century and when it gained the real popularity really gained some steam of course when um the movie was made is this something that is going to happen for JK Rowling don't know do you even know the name Anthony Burgess who wrote the Clockwork Orange that has been a work that has stood the test of time but I'm finding that so many of my students that might be on their ap list but some of them start to get into it and then they just can't continue reading which i think is very sad but that that story is is really creative really imaginative really different and it has a lot of political commentaries in there um but Orwell's 1984 how many people have read that one because it's still included in classes would they pick it up for entertainment purposes and do you recognize those last couple of names f scott Fitzgerald Robert Frost Robert Frost is one of our most celebrated poets in the mid 1900s and 20th century tostada reflect reference in life because it's not really been that long ago large scale of things but yeah Robert Frost is still heavily studied in the high schools and in colleges everywhere as one of the greatest American poets to ever live have you ever read his poetry most people have you know compare compare that to County : have you ever heard of that name so you've got to think okay are there works can and it's not just these authors are canonical or that they're works that are you know with them or of course Beowulf we have no clue who originated that story it's it's an anonymous work you got to think of the author but you've also got to think of the work and how it fits in so into the culture long term so then there come questions of expanding the Canon and truly the list on the other page involved a lot of ideas of the western Canada what is the Western canon can I say white can I say anglo-saxon white males primarily it's based off of ideas of Greek and Roman philosophy and I don't mean to really simplify it too much by thinking anglo-saxon white and white males but for years that was the truth mostly men were in the Canon until there was a revival of women's literature works thanks to Virginia Woolf a lot of women who had written in the 1600 1700 and 1800's were completely overlooked and kind of lost in time because people were studying Tennyson people were studying Shakespeare people were studying Dickens people were studying these men who had been who were considered the grades for years you know kta it's all these people who you're thinking of or that you've probably seen in your textbooks they were all white males and primarily from England but this is also an extremely American and a British look I mean how many of us have read many French or German or Italian writers outside of how they've been you know translated a little bit into our poetry schemes and and such it's it's just not really they're that much it in our traditional classrooms I should say so that's what we have had you know Virginia Woolf is responsible for reviving a lot of women writers Jane Austen I would say that people could would consider her to have been canonical for the last couple decades or couple centuries she wrote in the early 1800s and she was studied for decades after that and continues to be studied in her her books have been made into many movies too however women studying her or men studying her classes studying her you know that it's been stronger for her than most of the other women another another couple of names that you might recognize would be Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning they are known primarily in popular culture for their love poetry they wrote in the mid 1800s but Elizabeth Barrett Browning is responsible for writing a lot of anti-slavery and a lot of social poetry that have have a storyline and a dramatic purpose to it she actually was inspiration for her husband eventually Robert Browning for him actually changing his poetic style he saw her character development in those poems and and the vividness that she created in her poetry and he was inspired to change the way that he wrote but how often are you taught that no we usually study porphyria's lover or my last Duchess by Robert Browning in class we studied a couple of poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning we move on so we have to get away from this idea of a cannon that just has these authors in it but we can't forget them either we they are canonical they are great for many reasons and we continue study them to study them for many reasons so having this western canon we can't get rid of it we can't get rid of that idea but what happened throughout American history in particular to other people um for example minorities whether minority by race minority by gender you know we've already talked about some of the female poets but Charlotte Gilliam and Perkins or Perkins Gilman who we are going to study the Yellow Wallpaper in this class she has been a remarkable person who changed the field of psychology and even questioned the medical profession during the late 1800s and early 1900s her that one work did it and I mean if it weren't for other people really studying her impact would she still be a work or would the Yellow Wallpaper still be a work that is studied heavily um but that also brings into question people of other races I'm Frederick Douglass's well known in classes because he had a historical influence in American society he was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln and he went and talked with Abraham Lincoln about slavery issues and as he went to Washington several times he wrote prolifically even at the cost potentially cost of his life um you know he was an african-american former slave who was fighting and who freed himself and then who was able to start writing for the abolitionist cause so these these ideas of well why would we read him but we might not read other African American artists during that time may not even know any of the names during that time because there was a long period of legal racism in the country and what is we're studying white black Asian Irish you name the group and keep this in mind I said white and then I said Irish separately for a long time the Irish and the Italians were considered a separate race from from whites from Caucasians but they are white they are Caucasian but they're just a different nationality in a different group that was considered lower than another political group in another world racial national national group for so long that a lot of their works were overlooked and seen as folklore or lesser in value so people still questioning well we're pretty integrated society now and you know the racial issues just aren't there as strongly as they used to be um if I go back to the previous slide how many of these people did you know or latina authors or without just looking at their name in gone hmm must be must be another nationality must be latina just by the the name alone or how many of these people are african-american would you know that just by looking at Ralph Ellison's name without understanding who who he was beyond that so we've got to think about those things and how long it has taken to actually integrate minorities into American society for people to actually read beyond just a scholarly basis I mean first a did you know well not first necessarily it had integrate the universities it had integrate popular culture those works had to become something that was passed around and looked at and studied for entertainment value or for real literary value how on earth does that happen in a country that is so polarized racially so it's taken through the civil rights movement probably another twenty or thirty years to really get some of these names integrated into the culture strongly and it's taken another ten years or so to make people open up a text book that has different races in it you know we start out with Sherman Alexie who's Native American would he have been studied 70 years ago no well first of all wasn't alive second I mean he's just one of those one of those groups that had been marginalized for so many years for you know for more than a century of of our nation's culture that why on earth would people include him and then then the next thing and by the way those folks who a question why would we include him are missing so much by not by not reading him his characters are so intriguing they're not just fun they're not just different they just captivate ya throughout the work you want to keep reading and so he has strong his strong visual presence in his words and you have strong characters who are sometimes just laugh out loud funny you just have to love him but world literature's what what place would world literature's have and why is that necessary well because we're talking about a global society now you know the internet over the last two decades has just changed the world everybody gets to talk everybody gets to understand you know their connectedness in the world if they choose to if they choose to get out of the Western Canon if they choose to get outside of you know the borders of the country and actually read works that are from China from Japan from you know that are not just assigned but just are are you know that you just pick up and you're read this though fortunately most answer to literature textbooks anymore include people who are from an Arabic background or Arabic speaking language background and have either been translated or are buying or try or multiple lingual multilingual who are able to communicate a wonderful story you know how will their works work into Western Canon and and I go back to this um separate or same cannon for women in other nationalities you know should there be a women's literature Canon should there be a separate women's Canon from from the western general Canon I say no absolutely need to be integrated but at the same time if you are just looking at women writers you know who who would be the ones who would study and why would or wouldn't those people make it into the Western Canon to be studied as well but world literature wise man we have a number I mean Tolstoy how can you not how can you get away from that name a great Russian writer and gee de Maupassant and I mean we just have so many examples of people coming from all around the world and contributing to literature contributing to the movies and American culture that it's not realistic anymore I'm in a great example and to take you away from literature one more time would be in the movies with Bollywood you know Slumdog Millionaire yeah some people say it's a little too westernized and but Bollywood had is is a world power in the movie business and those stories are absolutely going around the world and come from literature come from great literature come from great movies come from other places and they're changing the way the artists who are traditionally more Western are looking at their craft of writing and storytelling so this is why it's so important to say ah do we separate do we keep them over here do we categorize and generalize them over here and to the side or do we integrate everything I think I think the truth is that we need a real balanced approach to looking at you know do we expand or do we not expand the Canon and then we have this idea of what on earth is this technology going to do you know one of the first stories that you that you would read in the shorter 11th edition in maze text is the Shabbat which is written by a woman who is from Iran and this is a graphic this is more of a graphic story than anything else so where do graphic novels and where do comics fit into the literary canon or do they or do they neither separate canon or do they not so we're not just looking at you know race or nationality or those kinds of things as to what makes something canonical but you know different inventions change the way that we look at literature and just think about this what did the written word do to change story writing or storytelling we should say story writing change storytelling is then you had a little more static presence and and how did it change you know the way that people tell told stories it did dramatically and then you have a writing or there but how did the printing press in the mid 1400s how did that change literature how did that change storytelling and writing and a lot no longer did you have people who in handwrite or monks who in hand write books and texts and then get it distributed you had it a lower cost associated with being able to purchase a books and no longer were the rich literate and and the commoners illiterate you had a large scale development of literacy happen just with the invent invention of the printing press so there are so many things that influence and are going to continue to influence us with this computer with a thing called the computer and how we interact with with videos and texts and software and everything else are gonna that's going to change literature gonna change the way that we story tell along the years so to sum up what we're going to do throughout the class is ask these questions what is the canonical value of this work so you will study it not just on a characteristic of character and plot and imagery and all of these other things but you're also going to look at this time how does it stand the test of time and how you know what are the components of this that make this book rich or real or valuable what would I consider the value of this work to be and you're going to ask yourself would I consider this work canonical or would it be a read for pleasure or again remember let's think about do those things have to be separate or could you justify your answer with both of them of course and then the why when you're asked answering any questions in here always consider whether it's for you no discussion in class whether it's for a paper for a journal assignment whatever I'm asked the question why and offer examples with that because that is going to explain the reasons behind justifying the stance that you're taking so I hope that this has been an interesting look at and in helping you understanding what the literary canon is too often I think we get lost in the terminology and don't really think about what the implication is about understanding what the Canon is or some of these other terms that we're studying throughout the semester but this is an important one this is one that would appear on exams that would would absolutely be great for including and discussion questions or or in just in in the essays that you'll write you know if you can if you can address those kinds of ideas about the luer Canon and think about how people evaluate works then you're going to do fine in this literature class thank you and blessings

2 thoughts on “Studying the Literary Canon

  1. Slumdog Millionaire isn't Bollywood in that it's made for an English speaking audience in America. Bollywood encompasses films made for Hindi (and many other language) speakers, largely by Hindi speakers. If you watch popular Bollywood and contrast it with Slumdog Millionaire, you'll see a marked difference. Bollywood focuses on escapism, musicals and over the top gestures (much like telenovelas) where as films for a Western audience set in India tend to be more bleak.

  2. Thanks for this video. I'm studying this topic in class and this video helped me a lot.

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