The Shrinking Canon

I attended the University of Toronto as both an undergraduate and graduate student from 1987 to 1996. In hindsight, we might say that these years marked the highpoint of the campus culture wars, before “politically incorrect” became the name of a bland late-night talk show. I can’t say that it was bliss in that dawn to be alive, but as an English student I did feel very much in the middle of things.

One of the offshoots of the political correctness debate in English departments everywhere was the campaign to update the “canon.” What this meant was opening the list of what had become more or less established texts to new voices. Certain writers, it was argued, had been unfairly excluded from the canon in the past. “Canon maintenance” was an expression on every young academic’s lips. It all seemed very important.

My sense at the time was that a lot of the talk about the canon had, at its core, a misdirected anxiety. The problem was not that a bunch of dead white males had come to dominate course reading lists, but that those reading lists were shrinking. Even more surprising, given this state of affairs, was the assertion, made more than once, that updating the canon was not going to result in any less attention being given to traditional works. The canon was going to expand, but otherwise it would not change.

I didn’t believe this ten years ago, and, if the course reading lists at the University of Toronto for 2000-2001 mean anything, I have even less reason to believe it today. In the wake of all the talk about canon maintenance I thought it would be interesting to compare a course I took in 1989-1990 with the same course being offered today and see what has really happened.

Ten years ago, the reading list for my section of the Eighteenth-century fiction course (or, to give it its proper title, “Fiction Pre-1832”) was as follows:

Bunyan: Pilgrim’s Progress
Defoe: Moll Flanders
Richardson: Pamela, Clarissa
Fielding: Shamela, Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones
Sterne: A Sentimental Journey, Tristram Shandy
Johnson: Rasselas
Smollett: Humphrey Clinker
Austen: Pride and Prejudice, Emma
Scott: The Heart of Midlothian

Canonical stuff, I think we can all agree. And in at least one respect nothing has changed: The number of works on the course has stayed roughly the same. In the four sections of this course being taught today the reading lists include from eleven to thirteen titles.

Now let’s look at what is different.

To begin with, it is clear that women authors are more fully represented today. In three of the four sections of this year’s course Pilgrim’s Progress has been replaced by Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko – a book that I can assure you few undergraduates had even heard of ten years ago. I think this is a change for the worse not because there is anything wrong with Oroonoko, but because Pilgrim’s Progress is such an important book – and not only for the study of Eighteenth-century fiction. Oroonoko, however, does have one thing going for it – and I don’t mean the fact that it was written by a woman. To this I will return.

The second big change is less directly political. For whatever reason, Gothic fiction is in. Ten years ago I didn’t read any books for this course that would have been considered Gothic. Today each section has at least two and in some cases four Gothic novels.

That the Gothic is making a comeback is something I find hard to get excited about. To be fair, I think it probably deserves some representation. When I look back at my reading list from ten years ago I realize that something is missing. This being said, I wonder if the pendulum has swung too far the other way. How much of any genre fiction do you need to read before you have exhausted the subject? And how many of these books are really any good? The Castle of Otranto – which is studied in all four sections! – has some historical importance, but is hardly a great novel (and is certainly less historically important than Bunyan, who is now considered expendable). Radcliffe is a bore. The Monk is juvenile sensationalism, though it may, for that reason, be popular with students.

But the inclusion of more women writers or a greater emphasis on a particular genre is not what struck me the most. These changes are cosmetic anyway. What I do find of concern is the fact that many books – like The Castle of Otranto and Oroonoko – seem to have made the list only because they are short. At the same time, the heavier classics are being thrown overboard like so many pounds of excess weight from a sinking balloon.

This is not an observation on the nature of the canon at all. The usual suspects – Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Austen – are still being studied. The problem is that they are now being read in terribly abbreviated samples.

Take Richardson. Of the four sections of Eighteenth-century fiction at Toronto this past year only one taught Clarissa. The rest got by with Pamela. This, at least in my opinion, is a disaster. Clarissa is a great work while Pamela is, to be frank, trash. While Clarissa is admittedly a little long, there is no reason for removing it from such a course. That most students aren’t going to finish it can be taken for granted (as it was in 1989), but if a choice has to be made, who wouldn’t want to read 1,500 pages of Clarissa rather than 700 pages of Pamela? The only effect of eliminating Clarissa is to encourage students to read less.

The same passion for downsizing occurs with Lawrence Sterne. Again, only one of the four sections of today’s course teaches Tristram Shandy. In each of the other three sections they make do with A Sentimental Journey. As with Richardson, a long masterpiece has been jettisoned while one of the author’s minor, and much shorter works has been kept. For what reason? While A Sentimental Journey does provide a quick and easy introduction to the cult of sensibility, there is a lot more to Sterne than just that.

Dare we mention the name of Jane Austen? If there is a pattern to the changes I have been describing, and I think there is, we might expect Austen’s major works to have disappeared, replaced by inferior, shorter works. In fact, that is exactly what has happened. One Austen novel is now the rule, and in two of the four sections of the present course she is represented only by her weakest (and shortest) title: Northanger Abbey. (In one of the other two sections the Austen title is the almost equally brief Persuasion. Only one section now teaches Emma.)

At least here there is some rationale other than expediency. As I have already pointed out, the Gothic is obviously a hot topic in Eighteenth-century studies, and Northanger Abbey clearly has something to say about the Gothic. But to reduce a great writer to such a limited function – like making Sterne a spokesperson for the cult of sensibility – is ridiculous. Northanger Abbey is a fine book, but it doesn’t show Austen at anything near her best. If this is all the Austen that third-year students are going to get in a course dealing with the fiction of the period, where are they going to learn that she was more than just a brilliant parodist of popular modes?

Nowhere, however, have the cuts in this course come at a greater cost than with Fielding. In the 2000-2001 academic year not one of the sections of Eighteenth-century fiction taught Tom Jones. The only Fielding left for students of the rise of the novel is Joseph Andrews, another inferior minor work whose only pedagogical virtue is that it is short.

Ten years ago Joseph Andrews was read along with Tom Jones, but the current pruning leaves students without any idea of Fielding’s development – or that of any other author. While this may have been necessary in order to include new voices – which is one interpretation of expanding the canon – I have to again ask why it is that only inferior, shorter works have been retained. The resulting reading lists must leave students feeling puzzled. Certainly anyone acquainted only with Pamela may be justified in wondering why Richardson is considered an important writer. It is likely they will never know.

This essay is not a plea to return to the standards (such as they were) of ten years ago, though I will say that a third-year course in Eighteenth-century fiction that doesn’t include Clarissa, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy or Emma is a strange beast. What I want to do is cast a different light on a typically one-sided debate. Should we blame students for this “dumbing-down”? They do not set the curriculum. Should course reading lists cater to shorter attention spans and the crowded schedules of part-time students? How far will such accommodation go?

There is, I suspect, nothing unique about what is happening at the University of Toronto. But while I don’t mean to sound alarmist, what these reading lists tell us about the future of English studies is cause for some concern. My estimate is that in the past decade alone this one course has lost as much as a third of its reading requirement. This was done with no loss of titles (and I take it somebody is counting), but through the replacement of longer works with what I can only assume are meant to be brief introductions to other topics. There was no political reason for the removal of the obvious texts, nor can the changes be blamed on the rise of critical theory. Politics and theory have, as far as I can tell, played no role. The only reason Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy aren’t being studied is because they are too long. The canon isn’t changing in any essential way; it is only getting smaller.

Whether any of this matters in the slightest is another story. I suspect not. English studies are currently undergoing a transformation. Long books can’t compete with television in an image-based culture. The result is that the one place where the canon can be seen as truly expanding is in the arena of cultural studies. Indeed I am impressed to see that there are now English courses at many universities being taught exclusively in “film.”

I don’t object to this, but I do sometimes wonder what the faculty teaching such courses know about the subject. Many of the professors I know who do this sort of thing are simply people who like watching movies.

This leads to the much more interesting question of just what academic qualifications are required to teach cultural studies at university. In my own experience I have found that freelance journalism and Internet sites typically provide far more informed and insightful commentary on cultural issues than anything coming out of the academy. After all, why should ten years at university make anyone an authority on boy bands and slasher films? Does a decade spent deconstructing gender in Gothic fiction really prepare a critic for discerning the deeper significance of family dynamics in The Simpsons?

Professor, please.

Essay first published online March 3, 2001.


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