The Changing Literary Canon

As an English teacher, I often get bored teaching the same books year after year. Sure, students need to know the “classics” from various genres, but will their lives really suffer if they don’t get the chance to read The Scarlet Letter? (For the record, I do enjoy teaching Nathaniel Hawthorne’s masterpiece.) Some teachers would answer “Yes!” to the preceding question; in their minds, students need exposure to great works of literature in order to appreciate many of the books they read for pleasure.

The aforementioned falls under the much-discussed idea of a “literary canon” of novels, plays, and other works. In short, the canon consists of the “best of the best” in literature. But who determines the canon? That’s a difficult question to answer because so many scholars have opinions on what constitutes literary merit. For example, most would agree that Hawthorne’s work belongs in the canon, but why? Memorable characters? A rich storyline? A lasting influence on society? (Think about the scarlet “A” as a pop culture icon.) No one really knows, and those that say they do likely are putting forth their own opinions and not those of their contemporaries. The thought still exists among many English teachers and literary scholars that the literary canon cannot possibly include mass-market fiction, books that any average person could purchase in the Barnes & Noble bestseller section. However, while I respect literary traditionalists, I must disagree with their narrow-minded viewpoints toward the canon. The time has come to re-evaluate how we define a work as canonical. As Bob Dylan sings, “The times they are a-changin’.”

Case in point: this year in my AP Literature class, I taught a book that came out less than three years ago and that was written by one of my favorite modern authors. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini tells interlocking stories focusing on the lives of two young girls growing up in modern-day Afghanistan. The novel, a follow-up to his world renowned work The Kite Runner, instantly became one of the most successful books I have ever taught in ten years of teaching. The students, some of whom previously had read it, became attached to the characters, ideas, and themes like no other book we studied last year. The novel might not be difficult to read, but Hosseini takes his readers on a rollercoaster of emotions that leaves them much more knowledgable of life in Afghanistan. Not many resources (in terms of lesson plans or scholarly criticism) exist in connection with the book, but that just empowered me to come up with meaningful methods for approaching the book. My students enjoyed the book so much that many of them used it as their “work of choice” in the AP exam free response question.

Despite the positive reception, however, some (including in my own school) have refused to recognize the quality of Hosseini’s work. They see his novels as nothing more than fluff with no substance. Unfortunately, the detractors fail to grasp the true impact that such writing has on those that read it. Let’s go back to Hawthorne and the questions I asked about The Scarlet Letter, applying them to A Thousand Splendid Suns. Does Hosseini’s novel contain memorable characters? A rich storyline? Yes, and yes. Does it resonate with the public? Absolutely. Oh, and was The Scarlet Letter once a mass-market book designed to appeal to the public? Yup. Why, then, should Hosseini be left off the canon? Because he still is alive? Because his novels are much more modern? If you answered “yes” to either question, you need to open your mind and realize that the age of literature has nothing to do with whether or not it is canonical. Plenty of old works exist that are utter rubbish! My point is this: literature doesn’t have to move you to tears or make you ponder life’s existence in order for it to count as canonical.

To their credit, the College Board has begun to modernize its list of works considered of literary merit, indicating a shift in thinking when it comes to the canon. That shift needs to continue and to make its way into the minds of those with literary tunnel-vision. I once heard a radio station ad that went: “It doesn’t have to be old to be classic.” I hold that the same applies to literature.