Why Ernest Hemingway writes literature and why Joan Didion writes women’s literature.
As an English major, the phrase “find your voice” comes up quite often in classes. College is essentially a utopia in which all voices are encouraged to be explored, refined and heard. Unfortunately, all of these very unique voices are ultimately pointed toward the very long list of white male writers who have dominated the literary canon for hundreds of years. All too often, we assume that the words worth hearing come for white male writers. In doing this, we exclude and undermine the works of other authors. Last fall, an author by the name of Maggie Shipstead came to my school and gave a reading of her novel, “Astonish Me.”
During the Q&A, many people asked about the validity of her research in a way that a different male writer’s research hadn’t been questioned when he came. If you take a gander on Amazon, you will notice that “Astonish Me” is categorized under “chick lit” even though it’s complex and provocative nature is far deeper than “chick lit.” The category “chick lit” is very problematic. It essentially categorizes thousands of books as being “not complex” or “not serious” enough for actual literature, simply because the said novel was written by a “chick.” (Which is a sexist and problematic term in its own right). Granted, there are many books such as “Fifty Shades of Grey” whose appalling content should never be called literary. Why does casual and “less academic” literature have to be categorized as something that is inherently female? There are plenty of writers, whose writing is far from casual, whose books are still found under the category of “chick lit.” Chick lit is capitalism’s way of reminding women that anything for women and by women is deemed as less. The term “chick lit” is a microcosm for how society hears and respects women. Sexism is not only in the wage gap, dress codes but in art itself. Art is one of the few platforms that invites structures of power to be critiqued and for those critiques to be heard.
However, this kind of social progress is impossible when the 500-year canon of white male literature is regarded as the epitome of good writing in the education system and in society. When we create a hierarchy in the art world we are further perpetuating a dangerous and silencing society. This hierarchy begins and ends in the education system. As an English major, white, male writers are deemed as the only ones worth imitating. I think that we should broaden the canon and listen to writers who don’t represent the pinnacle of power in society, but a plethora of voices that represent the variety of human experience. Forget the canon. We must write for ourselves and write to undo a capitalistic society poisoned by sexist entities. We need to recognize privilege both in literature and society, which exist as perpetual mirrors of each other. We have to celebrate all voices equally in the one platform that has always invited power to be critiqued.