ESSAY: Enough Jane Eyre -- It's Time to Move on to a Truly Global Literary Canon

By Peggy Levitt

Many of us read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in high school, and I’m willing to wager that many of our kids did, too. But, as I always ask the students in my cultural sociology classes at Wellesley College, if the United States had been colonized by China instead of England, do you think we would still be reading Pride and Prejudice? In addition to talent, the fact that English, German, and French authors and publishers enjoyed more power and prestige than Asian, Latin American, and African writers, skewed the global literary canon.  What became the world’s classics reflects the unequal relations that still characterize the world today.

It’s hard to imagine just how stacked the cards have been against authors who do not write in English.  According to the University of Rochester’s Three Percent website, in 2013, traditional publishing houses put out about 60,000 print titles in fiction, poetry, or drama; only 524 of those were translated works of fiction or poetry.  Three Percent began closely following translation publications in 2008. For each year since, its database, which includes authors’ country of origin, reveals that European authors, particularly those from France, Germany, Italy and Spain, tend to win. That means that America’s literary tastes remain parochial and that the tastes of the English-speaking world disproportionately influence what ends up on your night tableor onyour kindle.

Likewise, few books written in non-Western languages have ever been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Since 1901-2014, 27 Nobel Laureates were English writers, 14 were French, 13 were German, and 11 were Spanish, compared to two in Chinese, one in Bengali, and one in Arabic. It is not that Arabic, Chinese, and Bengali speaking novelists are not as talented as their English- and French-speaking contemporaries. It is that the economics and politics of the global publishing industry have been stacked against them.

For the non-academics among us, what gets read and taught in today’s high school and college classrooms, or what makes it to your night stand, might seem inconsequential. But these so-called “canon wars” are alive and well.  Jane Eyre supporters argue that “great works'' are above politics and that they embody timeless values relevant to all of us. Those who want to replace Jane Eyre with books by a more diverse group of writers from this country and across the globe argue that the “great works” do not reflect today’s multicultural America or the world around it. What students read should be more in sync with the gender and ethnic composition of their schools. Those in between say we must still teach canonical books but in ways that bring out their biased assumptions.

Literature alone will not solve the world’s problems. But as President Barack Obama told the novelist Marilynne Robinson in a conversation about the importance of books published in the November 2015 volume of The New York Review of Books, he learned to understand other people through novels.  Reading develops empathy by helping us put ourselves in another person’s shoes. I’m certain that writers working in a range of languages, from diverse backgrounds, who came after Charlotte Bronte, Dante, and Shakespeare also have something to say about humanity’s most treasured values.

Earlier this year, the world made a little progress toward addressing cultural inequality when Han Kang received The Man Booker Prize International for The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith). The Prize, awarded biennially “to encourage more publishing and reading of quality fiction in translation,” will now be awarded annually. Writers who do not write in English, today’s lingua franca, will have a little better shot at making it on to the global literary stage—a necessary step toward making the literary canon more inclusive.

Just as the world’s geopolitical hierarchy is shifting so should the cultural world order. To engage successfully in a global world, and to create a more cohesive multicultural America, what we read, what we teach, and what ends up in our bookshelves should incorporate a broader range of selections. There are many talented writers out there who do not reach our shelves or the pages of our book reviews because the economics and politics of the culture industry block their way. Until we right cultural wrongs, we won’t do better at social inequality either. Move over, Jane Eyre.

Peggy Levitt is professor and chair of sociology at Wellesley College and the author of Artifacts and Allegiances: How Museums Put the Nation and the World on Display (University of California Press, 2015).