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Columns

Gaslighting and Gatekeeping: the Literary Canon

Bad Art

By Lina H. R. Cho, Contributing Opinion Writer
Lina H. R. Cho ’23 is a Comparative Literature concentrator in Dunster House. Her column “Bad Art” appears on alternate Mondays.


In my senior year of high school, I took a class that involved writing a long-term creative project. I knew immediately what I wanted to do: an anti-Shakespeare story.

At that point, I was in my sixth year of studying Shakespeare. We started with Much Ado About Nothing in Year 7 and finished with The Tempest in Year 12. And by the end, I was thoroughly sick of it all: of writing “Elizabethan” and “Jacobean” in my essays; of constantly glancing between the original text and the translation in my “No Fear Shakespeare” copy; of pretending I liked, or even cared about, half the plays I was analyzing.

So I wrote my anti-Shakespeare story. If you’re thinking that it sounds immature and angsty, you’d be right. I ended up getting one of the lowest grades in the state, and it very nearly tanked my Australian version of the GPA. (Thank god I had a backup class).

As much as it was a failure, I still think about that project from time to time, because the essence of what I was reaching for remains valid. I wasn’t being anti-Shakespeare, per se, but anti-literary canon. I was expressing a common frustration about the assumed status of the Western literary canon as the zenith of all literature.

Plenty of people before me have beat the drum for expanding the canon. They have pointed out its serious diversity problem, and the fact that it has historically been determined by a premier group of critics and academics. I won’t replicate those arguments here. But while the “to expand or not to expand” debates rage on, I pose another, perhaps simpler question: Why should we have a canon at all?

You might be thinking: Sure, the current canon has a diversity problem, but anyone who wants to be worldly and educated should be reading the best texts out there, right?

Here’s my problem. Where is the actual proof that the Western canon is, genuinely, made up of the best works out there? A common argument is that Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton have survived the “test of time” — they must be good, because hundreds of years after their lives, we’re still reading them. And sure, enduring appeal is certainly one aspect that could explain their longevity. But so is inertia. And gatekeeping, and gaslighting, at an elite academic level.

This article wouldn’t be the place to give historical accounts of how different writers have been canonized over time, but I’ll give a hypothetical rundown. A writer (usually white, usually male) finds commercial success in, say, the early twentieth century. Their works have such popular appeal in the public’s recent memory that, even after their death, critics (again, mostly white and male) are still interested in their corpus, and it also gets introduced to some key academic institutions full of impressionable (and white, and male) students.

Largely, these students absorb, as truth, that this particular writer is worthy or special above others in some way. And when some of them grow to become critics, academics, and educators themselves, they replicate what they know.

And so on and so forth, for literal decades. Never mind that some of these highly-regarded writers are now irrelevant, or overshadowed by more contemporary authors. Or that, by the mere fact that they continually offer whole classes on individual canonical writers, educational institutions have provided clear evidence that the canon is largely inaccessible to readers without a fancy degree.

Even nowadays, the mindset of incoming students is crumpled by the broader, “elite” educational system. New students convince themselves that Tolstoy, Dickens, or Joyce must have been the greatest writers to have ever lived, because why else would entire classes be dedicated to them? They learn to suppress their own instincts and potential discomfort with the canon, because if they don’t, they’re often faced with the implication that they’re just not as dazzlingly intelligent as everyone else. And with their already-inflated imposter syndrome, this problem will be the most severe for minority groups — the very people most likely to bring in fresh perspectives.

Canonization thus breeds a culture where it becomes increasingly harder for young and diverse people to give their true reflections on the art and literature around them. It’s almost a game of academic chicken, where the cost of yielding is potentially looking stupider than your peers.

But even if we discount everything above and blindly accept that every work in the canon deserves its place, it still wouldn’t resolve the fundamental problem: art is infinite. And good art — even the “best” art — is something that will always surpass, defy, and be irrelevant to the very idea of a “canon.”

Art gets made every. Single. Day. And although some critics and academics may be horrified to hear this, good art — whatever that may be — can, in reality, be found anywhere and from anyone. (You can read my latest piece to see what I mean about that). All of this means that erecting a canon of the so-called “greatest” art flies in the face of everything art should really be.

In other words, we can “expand” the canon all we want. But we won’t be taking the right path until it expands so much that it ceases to be a “canon” at all.

Lina H. R. Cho ’23 is a Comparative Literature concentrator in Dunster House. Her column “Bad Art” appears on alternate Mondays.

Lina H. R. Cho ’23
Lina H. R. Cho ’23

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