"the great works of the literary canon"in the English GCSE. The what now? Other than 'the' and 'of', pretty much every other word in that phrase is objectionable.
What determines whether something is 'great'? Is it fame? That depends on marketing and distribution. Is it age? There's plenty of very old dross about. It's less than 100 years since English Literature itself was considered worth studying: before that only Latin and Greek texts were considered sufficiently 'great'. Are there no 'great' works in other languages? Or is English the only vehicle for literary greatness. Are 'great' works only novels, plays and poems?
What of non-fiction, or comics, or radio dramas or TV? Song lyrics? What, in fact, qualifies as a 'work', and why do we employ such a grinding term.
What's a literary canon? Big-sellers? Who determines what it is? We used to know the answer to this one. Matthew Arnold in 1869 airily defined culture as 'the best that is thought and known in the world'. Thomas Babington MacAulay announced that 'a single shelf of a good European library [is] worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia'. This from a man who lived in India as a colonial administrator but never learned any of the native languages. F. R. Leavis actually produced a list of canonical texts in The Great Tradition. It starts like this:
"The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad."The list expands, but not by very much. Few non-aristocrats, foreigners, working-class types, northerners, homosexuals or ethnic minority writers. And certainly no non-realists. I happen to like all these writers, but there's a whole world out there. Canon-building is by definition exclusionary and dubious. I teach English literature. I have to choose what my students read - I am a canon-builder. But what are my criteria? I try to represent as many walks of life as possible (something Gove would object to) but I (usually) want to engage the students by giving them texts I think are 'good' and 'relevant': both very subjective terms. It's a fraught experience. There's a limited amount of time. Who do we heave overboard when something new comes along? Should we leave a text for a decade or two after publication to see whether it's still 'important'? What if some of the readers find it offensive?
What I suspect Gove means by a canon is texts which appear not to have any subversive political or social content. No lesbians or uppity minorities. No lefty authors or chippy proletarians. He'd be a fool though: Austen, Eliot, James and Conrad are profoundly critical of their own societies, more or less openly. Away from Gove's office, we hold that meaning is created in the space between text and reader: Gove might restrict the texts students read, but he can't limit the ways in which they read them.
What's on the list now? Shakespeare will stay, despite virtually every play examining the abuse of power (shh, don't tell Michael). Of Mice and Men will have to go: Lenny will never pass the CRB check and its author was a notorious lefty. Mister Pip and Purple Hibiscus are about Johnny Foreigner and To Kill A Mockingbird is soft on crime and promotes multiculturalism. The Modern Prose section will have to go: too many of its authors are a) alive b) keep moaning about libraries and c) don't promote boarding schools and corporal punishment. Some of them may even be Guardian readers. Dylan Thomas is too Welsh and would have objected to minimum unit of alcohol pricing. Duffy is way too lesbian, JB Priestley is the kind of do-gooding liberal hand-wringer we can do without, Lord of the Flies appeals to the Hoody Fraternity whom we are no longer hugging. Arthur Miller's The Crucible is clearly unsuitable for an interventionist government which does believe in persecuting minorities, the mentally ill and women in the cause of 'mainstream society'. Out with them all!
In with? Obviously Andy McNab. Don't you know there's a war on? For the girls, obviously some Louise Mensch, some PD James and some Jilly Cooper. Biggles of course, and liberal (ho ho) amounts of Enid Blyton's boarding school novels (note: no Rowling. Subversive lefty rubbish with girls in er yah boo sucks to you). Commando comic for the dyslexic boys. Some Jeffrey Archer ('a real page-turner, you know: none of that arty-farty stuff'). And eventually, Michael Gove's memoirs, perhaps packaged as a Little Red Book to be distributed to every 5 year old on their Micro-chip-Fitting Day.
I'd love to know how this canon will be chosen. Will he just consult his old school exercise books (you just know he's got them preserved with every gold star lovingly uncreased on the page)? Or will he outsource the work to his Special Advisors on Books What Are Good For Learning You Morals And Stuff? Perhaps they could helpfully provide a list of Non-Canonical Texts. We could call it the Index Prohibitorum. Or just substitute the pensioners' Winter Fuel Allowance with a delivery of verboten books for efficient disposal. The libraries are being closed down anyway…
Finally, canons don't preserve 'the best that is thought and known'. They pickle them. They wrap them up in cotton wool. They stick books on pedestals and pretend that the books – and the societies that conserve them – are static and eternal. This is an unhealthy form of cultural onanism. Tell a kid that a book is Important and s/he will be bored by it. Put a book in its cultural context and it will appeal. Imagine giving a 15 year old a Henry James novel… ridiculous. They'll never go back to that great author again. The easiest way to kill off a book is to tell people it's Improving. And what of the texts not on the canon? Is a great work by a modern author going to be considered rubbish because Michael Gove's Panel (and you can bet it will consist of Spads, Tory Donors and Celebrity TV Talking Head From Central Casting) hasn't read it or doesn't understand it?