So last week, I wrote a post on what writers should be reading, which in short, says writers should be reading a little bit of everything. This week, I want to talk a bit about the Western canon, or the canon of English literature or whatever you want to call it.
What is the canon? It’s the classics. It’s the “essential texts” that are noted for their influence and significance. They’re often the books studied in school. In recent years, it’s been pretty well noticed that the canonical authors are predominantly white men and there have been efforts to expand it to be more inclusive. I’m not going to tell you that writers have to read the canon. There are some texts I love and some I don’t – just as there are some contemporary books I love and some I don’t.
I prefer to look at the canon as more of a reference to help find books that are going to be useful to you and your craft. When I think of a useful book, I think of the quote from Toni Morrison, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” A useful book is going to be thought-provoking or something that you love, it will be something that inspires writing.
For that reason alone, I love it when writers go out and build their own literary canon. It then becomes a conscious effort to compile your influences, both historic and modern, and recognize the tradition you’re writing in. It becomes in a way kind of an exercise. You can ask yourself, what kinds of things do you love about these books? What things exist in this tradition that you don’t want carried on into the stories you write?
I think I first noticed this in Stephen King’s books – King is always mentioning the writers who’ve influenced him, like Edgar Allen Poe and Richard Matheson. I think across all the Stephen King books I’ve read, I’ve come across the name of just about every horror writer I love – which is a lot of fun and really exciting.