Facing Our Literary History: Is “cancel culture” threatening the classics?

by Beth Hutton

The question of whether we can separate an artist from their work persists not only within the contemporary publishing industry, but also current discussions surrounding British literary classics. “Cancel culture” is a hot topic in this growing debate, and it seems no one is free from its watchful eye. Roald Dahl, Shakespeare, and Dickins are just a few of the many canonical figures facing increasing criticism.

So how does cancel culture apply to authors from a different historical period, particularly those whose books endorse and propagate the social inequalities of their culture and time? Can we still consider these authors to be beloved figures of English literature if their views are problematic by today’s standards?

In a society where cancel culture allegedly suppresses freedom of speech, let’s open up this conversation.

“Cancelling” ≠ Censorship

To get to the core of these questions, it’s important to demystify some of the accusations faced by cancel culture. Firstly, there’s an assumption that if a text is no longer glorified, it is being cancelled. Oversimplifying the cancel culture discourse manipulates the voices challenging the literary canon into a mob of radical reformers.

Before I go any further, let me recap my perspective from part one, Cancelling “Cancel Culture”, by reiterating that I, too, disagree with the trend’s current direction. That’s not to say that I support the conservative right’s depiction of the movement; my issue is that cancel culture has evolved to no longer benefit the people it was intended to empower. My reproval of its weaponisation within the literary classics debate therefore derives from its original principles, and how its influence has been heightened to shift matters of accountability.

The Shakespeare debate is a perfect example of this. During discussions concerning the canonical status of his works and calls for the inclusion of more diverse literature in the school syllabi, conservative media generated a frenzy suggesting that Shakespeare would be “ditched” from the classroom. Many traditional literary scholars took the bait, with influential academics like Peter-André Alt claiming that cancel culture “wants to delete the testimonies of the past from the collective memory if they hurt our current sensibilities”.

Agreed — we shouldn’t erase or “delete” this literary history. But implying that cancel culture wields this degree of power is inaccurate and it creates a form of cultural defensiveness that sidelines marginalised voices. The apparent binary circulated by the right-wing media and nostalgic literary critics, that texts must be either glorified or deleted, is thankfully not one we must decide between.

Importantly, this binary narrative gives rise to the fanciful archetype of widespread banning and frantic burning of books — something that has been construed as the embodiment of cancel culture ideals. This is a gross exaggeration; in fact, the principles of the cancel culture debate are far more nuanced than this conservative discourse gives them credit.

Critiques of problematic content in beloved British classics, and calls to diversify the literary canon and school syllabus, are too readily conflated with a cancel culture attack. Many inclusive movements, such as #distrupttexts and Alternative Curriculum, aren’t even asking for problematic texts to be removed from the canon or the school syllabus. They are just demanding that they be taught differently.

By dismissing productive criticism, the accountability of canonical authors and the persistent inequalities of publishing history are disregarded. What does it say about our society if we consistently interpret calls for greater diversity in the classroom as erasure of “our own” voices?

Why subject matter matters

Although authors from the past cannot be held accountable for not adhering to our constantly evolving modern values, we do have a responsibility regarding how we teach and remember these narratives.

As expected, changes to the canon’s status quo come with backlash. Many people view adaptations of canonical literature in schools, from altered language to contemporised protagonists, as representative of how modern culture has lost interest in our society’s heritage. From teachers and literary scholars to sentimental parents reading their favourite childhood stories to their children, many retain this nostalgia for Britain’s literary history.

However, this mindset is not only pretentious, but paradoxical. How can we continue to gain a greater understanding of the literary history we so adamantly defend if we continue to read and teach canonical texts the same way we always have? Reinventing classics by adapting language and contemporising characters shows a creative interest in the past, and it’s a fundamental way for older literature to maintain value in the contemporary curriculum.

Recognising the classics’ problematic elements and refashioning them does not equate to a loss of interest in history. Quite the opposite — the Royal Shakespeare Company, for instance, has highlighted a range of contemporary issues by adapting the canon, including their alteration of gender and race roles in The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet.

By refusing to engage in the productive potential of textual adaptation, critics hold on to a nostalgic vision of our literary past, which consequently ties them to a history of inequality and marginalisation.

Redressing the balance

It is also crucial to note that valuing one’s sentimentality towards the past above the alienation this can cause others points to a position of privilege. I’m aware that many adversaries of cancel culture will roll their eyes at this and deem it another example of leftist “ultra-sensitive moralism”.

But the facts surrounding the modern curriculum speak volumes; the BookTrust reported that, between 2007 and 2017, only 2% of children’s authors were British people of colour. In terms of subject matter, children’s books were eight times more likely to feature an animal protagonist than a non-white child.

Accusations of modern-day racial privilege within the world of literature aren’t unwarranted. It’s up to us to redress the balance. We can begin to take steps in the right direction by rebuilding the literary canon, advocating for “culturally responsive teaching”, and applying an anti-bias and anti-racist critical lens to literature.

By dropping the attitude of defensiveness and antagonism that surrounds the cancel culture discourse, we can continue to value classics without alienating voices that are already marginalised, both within society at large and the publishing industry.

So… what does this mean for us?

It means we can appreciate, teach, and learn from the works of famous authors, but we must simultaneously acknowledge the problematic aspects of their writing or personal views. If we want to continue to value the prose of Atwood, C. S. Lewis, and Mark Twain, we must also recognise that writers and their texts represent or reflect, often uncomfortably, the world they lived in.

However, placing greater accountability on literature and its creators is only an empty, virtue-signalling gesture if we don’t also read and teach a greater range of inclusive narratives alongside these texts.

So, for those of you who hear the phrase “cancel culture” and defensively clutch your copy of Homer’s Odyssey to your chest: do not fear, most cancel culture defenders don’t want it to be obliterated from our literary consciousness. It is more about ensuring that we are not reading literature blindly, and that we learn from a diverse range of voices and narratives, so that our understanding and teaching of texts develops with the evolving values of our age.

And regardless, canonical texts (similarly to many supposedly “cancelled” celebrities) have a pre-existing platform and fanbase, which effectively makes them uncancellable. So yes, we’re living in an era of increased scrutiny towards who and what we read — but don’t worry, your favourite literary classics aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

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