One of the most depressing and frustrating things about studying literature is knowing that you are only ever hearing the loudest voices. Studying literature is like standing in a room where white men are given a megaphone and allowed to stand on tables, and everyone else has to scream even louder to be heard over the din. Women, PoC, queer and genderqueer writers (and any combinations thereof) have been imprisoned, institutionalized or even killed for their work; they were discouraged from writing at all, denied publication, denied circulation, their work either suppressed during their lifetime or buried by later, more conservative regimes.
Because of this our entire perception of certain literary periods of history is centered around what we have learned from the canon* — the approved cisgender heterosexual white male canon, the canon of the dominant ideology— that has been the basis of English study since its inception. I constantly hear people saying that certain books were “incredibly progressive for their time”— no, not necessarily. We think of them as progressive because the voices of women/PoC/queer/genderqueer writers have been systematically silenced, allowing only the varying degrees of secondhand sympathy from canonically approved writers with no firsthand experience. We are still working on rediscovering buried and disregarded texts, and though recently the study of literature has opened up to deliberately include these voices primary focus is still on the outdated canon.
Take Shakespeare as just one example. I love Shakespeare. But it’s often said that Shakespeare is “universal”, that he’s “not for an age, but for all time”. “Why has he endured?” people ask, “why are we still listening to him?”
We are still listening to him because he had the great fortune of being a wealthy white male who was commercially successful, who lived in one of the most powerful countries in the world during the height of her strength, and who was able because of this position of power to circulate his work around the globe. We are still listening to him because the men who came after him approved of him, and kept him in publication. We are still listening to him because he was venerated as an icon of British civilization and culture, and used as a tool for colonization.
And while we are praising Shakespeare for his revolutionary attitudes towards women and his sympathy for PoC; applauding Rosalind, Viola, Othello, Shylock, and imposing upon Shakespeare modern liberal attitudes that he probably didn’t possess, we’re continuing to ignore the suppressed voices of his contemporaries.
* (the unofficial list of respected books deemed worthy of study)
This is so very true. Its almost sad really.