Embracing the Countercanonical

**This has been a long time coming. I haven’t been posting much with so many other of life’s trails and tribulations to balance, but hopefully you can find this very late piece enjoyable.**

My doctoral classes this semester have provided some insightful reading and debate on the teaching of literature at all levels of education. In particular my class that focuses on research in the field of literature has produced some lively commentary and debates for me and my cohort. One of the more intriguing arguments I’ve found is about the canon. The arguments range from a feminist approach to political agendas to staunch positions of adhering to the classics versus abandoning them all together. Given, the theories often posit the extreme and ask readers to join their end of the spectrum or dare to live precariously on the other end. The truth in these theories–like most stubborn points of view–is somewhere in the middle. But there is little fun in reasoning with the middle.

A regular assertion in the readings centers around the need for the canon to amend itself in order to welcome new works from a more diverse authorship as well as questioning what criteria even makes up the requirements for admission into the vaulted canon of literature in schools. Through these various assertions and questions, a word that I was not previously familiar with continued to repeat itself in these scholars’ diction–“counterconan,” or as an adjective “countercononical.”

The countercanon is made up of the misfits, right? The works of beleaguered ‘others’ whom have not found a way to politically or socially find a home in the canon. I don’t know if I feel comfortable defining them that way, but I found myself having a strong attraction to this new vernacular that elicited me to think alternatively about literature and our schooled canon. At first I found value in the thought of pumping my fist in unison with these scholars and agreeing that canon must amend itself; it must deconstruct itself; it must bend to the will of the alternative voices. But then I thought, “nah.”

Truth is I think there is tremendous value in works not being in the canon. Leave the canon to the old-dead-white guys (and gals as well as a handful of African Americans and Asian Americans), and allow everything else to exist in its own, alternative realm of awesome. (I know, awesome isn’t a very scholarly description, but I’m not writing a doctoral paper here.)

Countercanonical texts is our escape from the canon; it gives us a rebellion, an alternative to the a world of canonized works that have arisen and wedged themselves into our classrooms through mysterious (and possibly questionable) criteria. I like that. Young adult literature (YAL) comes to mind immediately; whereas we have struggled to see students embrace stories of the classic canon, they will flock like a gaggle of geese to pick up the next book in a beloved series. Students devour these works. Maybe most importantly, YAL is dominated by female authors, which is quite opposite the canon we all know. Sure, it may be that way because male authors find the task of writing YAL beneath them, but who cares?! YAL is countercanonical in the best sense possible; it isn’t all white; it isn’t all male; it isn’t all dead; and it can’t yet be canonized! It is an alternative. Again, I like that.

Maybe we should stop debating the practice of canonizing literature and who’s in versus who’s out. Maybe we should be really elated that there are alternatives and points of view and stories that don’t fit the proverbial mold. Maybe–just maybe.

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