An Argument for Broadening our Conceptions of Literature

This article will aim to tackle an issue which is as damaging as it is pervasive: literary snobbery. As someone that has studied English at Cornell for almost four years now, I’m privy to some attitudes from others that share my passion for the written word. As scholars of literature, we’ve closed ourselves off from those who do not share our high-brow conceptions of the Literary.

One realm in which this elitist attitude can be seen most clearly is in considering the value of other mediums. More often than not, television, comics, film, video games, and other vehicles for storytelling are disparaged as being of a lower sort of art than literature.

It’s not immediately clear why we do this. The novel itself, now quite highly regarded as a mode of writing, used to be considered a lesser art than poetry. Yet now we raise novels up as a paragon of literary prowess. At the same time, we are frequently all too willing to throw our creative relatives under the bus.

The issue here is not a matter of classification. Video games, for example, are not literature, and it would be a hard-fought argument to make such a claim. Video games are, however, just as valuable as literature and should be treated with similar regard. All we’re talking about is art; different kinds of art.

Even as someone who studies and adores literature, it doesn’t make any plausible sense that we have allowed the field to exist with such an arrogant stance for so long. We need to start breaking down the walls surrounding the study of English and Literature. It’s about the general attitude, which so easily permeates our discussions of literature and other mediums.

Certainly this absurd elitism is most detrimental to the field of literature itself. We can look, for example, at what we fight to define as literature and what we’d rather not. Literature, in many discussions, has begun to be synonymous with “good” or “quality.” That might be why we often see mediums vie to be included under the exclusive umbrella of the term. At the end of the day, it shouldn’t be terribly important what does and doesn’t count as Literature. It is only a word–a classification which should not be connected to any value judgement.

However, Literature has claimed an almost divine right to societal power, hoarding all cultural currency for itself. It exists in a self-perpetuating system in which one obtains cultural capital, and then continues to maintain the limited systems that grant this capital.

It’s notable that we only tend to gain significant cultural currency through reading what has been established as part of the literary canon; i.e. all those books written by old white dudes hundreds of years ago. And of course the canon only contains that which has been deemed valuable enough to take on the classification of literature.

The first step, then, towards a more equal, inclusive, and engaging study of the written word is to take Literature down from its gilded pedestal. If we eliminate the power systems behind the classification, we can move on to spreading that power out amongst a more diverse set of voices and mediums.

That still leaves the question of the canon, though. A lot of time and energy has been expended over the decades in discussing the literary canon. What is its function? Who is it for? What kinds of literature belong in it? With all of the attention the topic has garnered, not much significant progress has been made.

Yet, one would have a hard time of making any progress at all in changing the study of literature without addressing the canon. It’s what gets taught in high schools and colleges around the country and even other parts of the world.

Like the term literature itself, the canon has taken on intense value associations which only serve to separate it from other manifestations of worthwhile products. It is institutions and instructors that provide these judgements, or they at least are responsible for their continued perpetuation.

Just like with the term literature, it is essential for us to break down the expectations we have when we think of the canon. This transformation has to start at the schools and with the professors responsible for teaching literature. Professors should be given more general freedom to choose what they teach.

Insofar as the institutions as a whole are concerned, they should promote, rather than restrict, an open-minded curriculum. Institutions should also make more space for traditionally non-canonical literature in order to make up for glaring holes in the already existent structure. If we are going to have a “canon,” let it be a broad one.


Jess Reed, Co-Editor-in-Chief