Hey, English Majors: Are Dead White Authors Still Relevant?

Those of you who studied literature in school are familiar with the term, “Western canon,” a politically correct phrase meaning the dead white men (and select dead white women) who are deemed worthy enough of academic study. The laundry list of these authors include Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Poe, Twain, Melville, Faulkner, the Bard himself of course, and occasionally Austen and a Bronte sister every now and then.

After hundreds, even thousands of years studying the Western canon, in 2015 more and more scholars are asking: should we still be caring about dead white authors? This question was recently brought up by online publications The Atlantic and Gizmodo.

Irvin Weathersby Jr., an African-American educator, writes in The Atlantic that he had difficulty explaining to his students of color why dead white authors mattered. He goes on to say this:

In fact, the power of literature lies in its interconnectedness, the ways in which authors and ideas overlap and communicate. If this dialogue is muted through an unwillingness to embrace difference, the value of reading is nullified.

His point is not to isolate any particular group, either by reading only dead white authors or by reading only authors of color. He asks that we teach black history year-round, not just during February. Racial segregation is clearly wrong, and that applies to our English classrooms as well.

In Gizmodo, Saladin Ahmed, an Arab-American sci-fi and fantasy writer, discusses the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Twitter movement, in which readers are challenged to stop reading straight, cisgendered, male authors for an entire year. Neil Gaiman, John Scalzi, and Daniel Handler were among the banned to show their support.

Someone once told me they wanted to read my books but were reading only women for a year. I said, cool, my books will be there in a year. – John Scalzi

Ahmed points out that the publishing industry upholds the white patriarchy just like every other, noting that 98% of the NYT bestseller list is composed of white authors. Unless you actively seek out marginalized writers, most books you’re exposed to will be written by white men. He ends with this:

Now certainly, one could spend one’s life reading only books by straight white men, and never run out of wonderful material. But this is akin to spending a lifetime’s worth of vacations visiting only Disneyland.

He means that no one is obligated to read anything, but limiting yourself to the default option is–let’s face it–boring. He agrees with Weathersby Jr. by believing that interconnectedness provides readers a more fulfilling experience.

So what do I think? I agree with these writers that the publishing industry should be more egalitarian. Although the college I attended, UC Santa Cruz, does a better job by including diverse authors (even calling the major “Literature” instead of “English” to avoid the bias toward English-speaking countries), I realize that my education was still heavily skewed toward dead white guys.

Do I love reading the Western canon? Absolutely. But I also believe that Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison have as much literary merit as Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad. And you can’t deny that the latter gets more exposure in academia than the former.

What this debate makes us conscious of is our own reading habits and what we can do to improve them. Although I have no problem including female authors given my preference for young-adult fiction and romance, I recognize that most of the people I read are white heterosexuals. I know that I’m missing out on unique perspectives, and I hope to remedy that in my reading.

This means I’ll need your help! I’d love to hear your recommendations of diverse authors. I can’t read them if I’m not aware of them, so let’s spread the awareness! By making our reading more well-rounded, we thereby become better human beings.