By Jonathan Trinque
Throughout my academic career, I have had a fair amount of exposure to the literary canon. But in all that time the only overt genre novel I think I’ve ever read in a classroom was Lois Lowry’s The Giver in eighth grade. That is before last semester, where I had the pleasure of taking a mold-breaking American Literature Advanced Study course that was easily one of the most enjoyable and rewarding classes of my college career.
During the course we read best-sellers like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Dave Eggers’s The Circle, but also more obscure novels like On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee and The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Hellen Phillips. None of the texts on the syllabus were canonical, as far as I know, and some of them were even largely obscure. All were unorthodox choices, being largely genre literature; When I say “genre” I am referring to things like sci-fi, fantasy, or other overlooked categories of literature.
Most of our class texts were speculative or dystopian fiction, but these texts weren’t chosen for trivial reasons like appealing to a certain audience; each text was specifically selected for its own merits and usefulness for the overarching topic of the class. This combination of refreshing course material and an absolutely magnificent professor worked together to create an impactful course.
It is entirely possible to find modern novels that still serve the role of a text that has been taught for decades. I agree that everyone should read works by major authors like Shakespeare and Milton, and any bit of classic literature they can get their hands on. However, I think this type of literature should not be the only kind that is taught. Courses can benefit from the inclusion of texts outside the standard pool of literature. The classics are important, there is no question, but they are not the end all be all; We can make room for new material without sacrificing the old.
I’ve seen this done before, for instance, I currently have a professor that uses Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series as a means to discuss the legacy of Milton’s Paradise Lost. When used correctly, these texts can be ingenious additions to the basic curriculum and play off each other in an innovative way. Maybe use The Circle as a companion piece to The Great Gatsby since both comment on capitalism, social pressure, and societal expectation. Put them in conversation with each other and see what comes out of it; There is so much potential out there waiting to be utilized.
I’m no professor of course, but I am a student who has found that these small innovations reap such hefty rewards in the classroom. Modern and popular books can still be as well written and impactful as any text that has gained praise from the literary community. Books like these come with a certain level of built-in legibility for students. At the very least, using a modern book or genre novel in a classroom can provide students with an access point into the greater discussion you intend to facilitate using the other canonical texts.
The materials in consideration for courses, unless the courses are exclusively about Shakespeare or Chaucer, should always include diverse voices when possible with the only requirement being they can contribute to the class’s learning. I have found that these works from the literary canon tend to present a narrow perspective; one that we should learn about and consider, but one that disproportionately dominates the literary landscape. Most of these books are older white men. I would like to see change where students do not have to take an ethnic or queer literature course to gain exposure to writing outside a restrictive scope. Through this, the literary canon can and should grow beyond its current bounds, embracing a full spectrum of literature.
Jonathan Trinque is the Long River Review alumni engagement coordinator and a fiction panel reader. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.