Canon fire

April 23, 1999

Antony Easthope ("Englit must transform itself", THES, April 16) sounds both bizarrely anachronistic and inconsistent. How many higher education departments, worldwide, now use the "Englit" label - or confine their studies to "orthodox, canonical ... great English authors"? Certainly, in 35 years as lecturer, on three continents, my courses have never been restricted to some "canon".

Like Terry Eagleton in Literary Theory, Easthope apparently requires some "special feature" in literature that is "always the same". It is precisely the lack of such narrow definition that has made literary studies so fertile of new directions over recent years - for example, gender studies, new historicism, poststructualism, queer theory, literary environmentalism and (of course) cultural studies themselves.

The case for literary studies is clear. It concentrates on specific texts that test the possibilities of every kind of writing. There is also an intimate relation between study of such texts and students' own written expression. That is why literary coursework can be so rewarding.

By now, literary studies have borne out their promise as a general replacement for classics and a literate path into the future. It is a form of imperialism to call for literary studies to "turn itself into" some other academic subject.

Dennis Brown

Professor of modern literature University of Hertfordshire

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