Dispatches | October 10, 2014
A Conversation with Girl Canon
By Alison Balaskovits
Stumbling across Girl Canon has been a revelation. One of the potentials that is often lost on the medium is the internet is the possibility for those who are silenced to have a space to voice that which is often locked inside. When we hear about the canon we think the white, male, cis writers who have dominated the scene and, by virtue of their visibility, the history of the art and its future. Yet, here are the secret canons from female-identified, non-binary and genderqueer people: what they read, what they have internalized, and what has inspired them. Instead of handing one another books or poems in our secret spaces, Girl Canon seeks to document and create a conversation about what we read out in the open.
I sat down with Katie Schmid, the founder of Girl Canon, to discuss the inspiration and mission of Girl Canon. If you have your own canon to submit to the project, e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
AAB: What was the inspiration for Girl Canon?
KS: Girl Canon is a direct consequence of my reading n+1’s No Regrets–a book of women writers and thinkers discussing their reading life. Carla Blumenkranz, in conversation with moderator Dayna Tortorici and writers Emily Gould and Emily Witt, introduces the idea of the “secret canon”–basically, the idea is that within the culture of a particular group of people there’s a secret list of books that everyone is referring to. Blumenkranz calls it a “reference point” that gives the outsider access, in some ways, to the “microculture” of that particular group, but it’s also a way that a group or culture might signal to each other and outsiders their own literary merit, their smarts. Blumenkranz seems to be referring to the nervous way canons can sometimes be used as markers for intelligence. As a reader, girl, and academic, this really struck me as true. I have seen many friends struggle with the weight of the canon. I have a friend who sends me his reading “plan” every few months, you know, like–“I’m going to read all of Rousseau!” or “The entire Bible!” and that works for him, but for me, it’s always felt suffocating. Portlandia has a sketch about it, too.
I think, also, that because the canon I was introduced to in school was largely white, male, and heteronormative that I and many of the people I know who are not those things, or are interested in reading about other kinds of experiences, have had to struggle with being required to read works of literature that are in some ways are overtly hostile to, or erasing of their experiences. For better or worse, what you read informs your impressions of what types of writing and experiences are considered “good literature.”
What No Regrets does, and what Girl Canon hopes to do, is to highlight the secret canons of women. When I read No Regrets I felt an immense relief just reading about women talking openly about how they dealt with the problem of how to read outside of school; how to read around or through the Western Canon in a way that created space for themselves. I am interested in curating those female ways of reading, of expanding upon and questioning what women consider to be “good literature.”
Sady Doyle says it better in her article on No Regrets, “The Perils of Reading While Female”: “The power of a personal canon, secret or not, lies in the authority one needs to create it. Women need to trust that they know what’s good, what’s bad, and what serves them intellectually in order to reject or reclaim the books in their lives.” This was exactly what I lacked when I destroyed Herzog. I wasn’t stupid, and I wasn’t a bad reader. But decades of socialization had taught me otherwise. There were the disastrous conversations with men about Eminem, the Beats, Judd Apatow; there were the condescending male classmates in college, such as the guy who made a point of sitting behind me and pulling faces whenever I talked because I’d once complained too forcefully about “whiny white guys”; there was the lit professor who made me rewrite a paper three times because it focused too exclusively on sexism and who told me that the purpose of his class was “appreciation” of the assigned readings, not critique. All of this had given me the implicit belief that I was simply not qualified to decide which books were good for me, that I would be seen as anti-intellectual if I decided that a sexist book was not worth my time.
What No Regrets argues for most powerfully is the right of women to reject that line of thinking and to believe that they are qualified to decide what literature should be. It argues for the public claiming of formerly secret canons: the right to create your own vision of what is best in the culture and to have that vision influence what books other people read and value.”
The public claiming of formerly secret canons is our motto at GIRL CANON.
AAB: A few of the texts that women are choosing for their canon is not so radically different from the current ideal of “good literature” – I doubt anyone would question Salinger or Rushdie or Nabokov – but the reasons that women are choosing these books, and many others from authors that don’t traditionally make it into Norton Anthologies, is varied. Some of the contributors write a lot, and some very little, and others pick quotes from the books to stand as the argument for why they are their own personal canons. Have there been any choices that surprised you?
KS: That’s a lovely question. I think the musing in the first part of your question partially gets to the heart of what a few contributors, Kristen Gunther & Tasha LeClair, have discussed amongst themselves: what is a personal canon meant to be? Is it supposed to be the good medicine you take to better yourself, or is it meant to be the books you come back to again and again because you can’t help yourself? I don’t have the answers, but my conception of what the project is and can be changes, as the contributors to GIRL CANON all have different definitions of what their personal canons “mean.”
The commonalities between the canons continue to surprise me, and there are definitely patron saints (Western canonical and non-Western canonical) who crop up again and again: The Bronte sisters, Lorrie Moore, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nancy Drew (and girl detectives in general…Harriet the Spy recurs), Judith Butler, Kate Chopin, Mary Karr, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Flowers in the Attic shows up a lot (!!!), Harry Potter & Sylvia Plath. I never thought I’d join Harry Potter and Sylvia Plath together in a sentence. It’s an unholy union and it delights me–and I think the friction created at the meeting of “good” literature and the books loved-so-feverishly-that-they-make-up-a-part-of-your-DNA is what makes the project compelling.
The way the canons speak to each other or know each other is really pleasurable, for me, as blog curator, and I hope for readers of GIRL CANON.
AAB: Getting back to what Sady Doyle talked about in “The Perils of Reading While Female”, do you think that women are made to doubt their own intuitions regarding what is good or bad while reading these works is because of our somewhat poor representation, or is it part of the socialization process for young girls, that they should not have an opinion about the things that men create and are lauded by other men?
KS: The idea of the canon is a scholarly construction, and I do think that many who traditionally have been considered outsiders to the academy face decades of discourse and scholarship surroundings these works and may feel less able to enter the conversation to push back against scholarly consensus. Of course, scholars have created new theoretical language and new ways of reading in order to expand the canon and complicate our notions of what “good” literature looks like, and who it’s written by. These modes of reading (I’m thinking of postcolonial studies, feminist theory, queer theory) also go back into The Greats and reread them, which creates space that can queer and complicate accepted notions of what these works of literature mean. It’s lovely to read this way: to search for complication. I read Jane Eyre when I was in 8th grade and loved it, and my love was further intensified by my reading of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, in a Postcolonial Literature class I took in college, which brilliantly imagines the madwoman in the attic, names her, gives her a life. I first read Henry James in a Queer Theory class. These modes of reading create a conversation surrounding literature that challenges stereotype and our own ways of being in the world: Is Rochester a romantic hero, trapped into an unsuccessful marriage or is he an unreliable self-mythologizer? What does it mean to call a woman mad? How have we traditionally used the word madness to dismiss women for their difference, their sexuality, their race?
Inside and outside of the academy, there’s still a sharp, snobby divide between serious literature and YA, between serious literature and chick lit, and I know that the reason some of my friends still haven’t submitted to GIRL CANON is because they have anxiety about whether the lit on their list is good enough. I am a hedonist at heart and read widely and voraciously for pleasure, so though I feel the divide, and am not incapable of feeling shamed for reading The Hunger Games, I tend to ignore it and read what I want. The whole argument about whether The Goldfinch ‘counts’ as serious literature because it contains what can be commonly thought of as YA tropes seems ridiculous to me. GIRL CANON’S position on literary snobbery: If the book feeds you and enriches your life, it was worth it. Period. No need for continued hand-wringing over whether or not you should have read it. There’s room for Madame Bovary and Harry Potter on your list. The list can be long and weird.
AAB: Where do you think this anxiety about our reading choices comes from?
KS: We get a lot of messages about what we should and should not read. Culture is a machine that constantly looks at itself and tells itself what it should be doing–we have critics doing the important work of thinking about art, and we have pop culture critics observing trends, and we have teachers and family members influencing our reading habits as well. Recently, there’s been some worry about whether or not adults should be reading YA novels, and what it signifies that they do. Culture creates anxiety about any kind of consumption just by observing that consumption.
Here’s how I read before I knew I was supposed to read “well”: I remember going on a Wally Lamb kick when I was a teenager and my dad and stepmom were into him. I probably wouldn’t mention to anyone that I go to school with now that I was really into “She’s Come Undone” when I was 16 or that I read Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours,” multiple times before I loved “Mrs. Dalloway.” But I love that kind of hand-to-hand exchange of books. I remember marathoning to finish books I really loved–Sharon Creech novels and “Jane Eyre” and things like that–and handing them off to my mom to read next. That exchange of texts out of love and excitement really speaks to how voracious readers learn to read in a way that feeds them.
Katie Schmid has been published in “Best New Poets 2009,” Quarterly West, & The Rumpus among others. She is a PhD student at The University of Nebraska Lincoln. Her work can be found at katieschmid.net and she tweets at twitter.com/kt_schmid.
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