Saturday, March 31, 2012

Teaching the 90%

Recently, I've been thinking about two pieces I've read. One is by Steven Lloyd Wilson, "Pick Your Poison: Sturgeon's Law and Why We Love Bad Fiction." He writes:

"Like the 10% of quality? Congratulations, everyone likes the brilliant stuff. That’s the stuff that crosses all boundaries and appeals to absolutely everyone. Appreciating the ten percent is like appreciating a perfectly cooked steak. You’re not a gourmand if you do, it’s just that you’re hopeless if you don’t."

They key is really the 90% that not everyone agrees about. Universities tend to predominantly teach the 10%. Yes, because academics can all agree that these books should be taught. Thus we help perpetuate the 10%.

Even more problematic, the 10% tends to be dominated by male authors, because Wilson's argument intersects with Doug Barry's in the colourfully titled, "The Literary Canon is Still One Big Sausage Fest." While Barry argues, "Fewer women — and less new blood, as professors hold onto their posts longer and longer — in the literary academy means fewer advocates for including more women in the literary canon," it's also true that many women also work with the 90%. We often actually don't agitate for canonisation of our preferred authors and it'd be difficult (read 'nigh on impossible') to get agreement anyway (the 10% problem). The 10%, conversely, continues to be acknowledged as 'brilliant,' but includes few female authors... which, I would argue, would mean that it really can't represent the epitome of brilliance.

In part, this 'bind' is behind my growing desire to promote the great female fairy tale authors. Within fairy tale studies, the 10%/male dominated canon is readily apparent. Perrault, the Grimms, Anderson, Disney. All men. Yet a woman, d'Aulnoy, coined the term 'fairy tale' and even male authors assert female origins of the tales. It just doesn't make sense that the canon of fairy tale is nonetheless dominated by men.

What is the answer? Do we argue for inclusion of more women in the canon, thus challenging the 10%, or do we argue for more recognition and celebration of the 90%, which would naturally bring with it more female authors?

*Of course, the canon and the 10% aren't identical, but they're pretty close.

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