Loose Canons

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Much ink has been spilled amid the recent sound and fury over “political correctness,” freedom of thought on campus, and what kinds of literature and history should be taught in American universities. With this collection of ten uniformly strong, thought-provoking essays, a distinguished critic of American literature and culture at large, and one of the nation’s foremost advocates of African-American studies, fires an articulate volley across the bow of those on both sides who would simplify the question of what constitutes the “canon,” and who would prescribe curricula in coercive and unhelpful ways.

Gates’ own striking and helpful image is of the canon as “in no very grand sense, the commonplace book of our shared culture, in which we have written down the texts and titles that we want to remember, that had some special meaning for us.” After all, he argues (and this reviewer agrees), love of literature and curiosity cannot be coerced. Gates would “decenter” the canon (and as editor of the forthcoming NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN LITERATURE, he is doing just that) to include previously neglected writing of women and persons of color.

This is a worthy if daunting aim (though Gates is not daunted; he approaches his task with great vim and zeal); after all, shouldn’t a culture’s collective commonplace book display that culture’s vitality and diversity? And as Gates notes, the notion of “the” Western canon is largely a revisionist myth; “whatever the outcome of the culture wars in the academy, the world we live in is multicultural already. Mixing and hybridity are the rule, not the exception.”

Sources for Further Study

Black Enterprise. XXIII, October, 1992, p. 14.

Change. XXIV, July, 1992, p. 54.

Commonweal. CXIX, December 18, 1992, p. 22.

The Economist. CCCXXIII, June 27, 1992, p. 105.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, March 1, 1992, p. 298.

Library Journal. CXVII, June 1, 1992, p. 124.

Los Angeles Times. March 25, 1992, p. E2.

National Review. XLIV, November 2, 1992, p. 53.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, August 9, 1992, p. 21.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, June 7, 1992, p. 6.