The Fuvest list and the literary canon

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By LUCIANA MOLINA*

Fuvest's list doesn't even scratch the structure that oppresses me as a woman, but it makes my work as a literature teacher willing to share a specific perception of literary objects in the classroom difficult.

“I am faithful to biographical events. More than faithful, oh, so trapped!”
(Ana Cristina Cesar).

1.

A new reading list for Fuvest has been released, valid from 2026 to 2028, and which only features works by female authors. Afterwards, a publicity was published “Open letter from university professors and literary critics”, opposing the Fuvest list. Observing from the outside, this all seems very strange. USP has experts in the subject, and apparently they missed the opportunity to consult them about choosing books for the university's own entrance exam.

It's almost as if we were still in those times of epistemological denialism. Before, flat earthing and chloroquine to combat Covid-19… Now, our academy seems to believe that there is no specificity and specialization in literary studies. What a stage!

With the discussion, there is a growing problem of defining what constitutes “canon”, which, for some, seems to be synonymous with works written by cisgender, white men. But a canon is rather the set of consecrated works, and this set of works changes over time.

In this sense, the irony of Paulo Franchetti, for those who are actually paying attention to the debate, entertains and instructs: “I read there, for example, that “traditionally, the literary canon has valued already established authors”. It is difficult to imagine what the authors meant. Tradition, canon and consecration appear there in a ridiculous lapissada. We can make variations with these terms. Tradition values ​​renowned authors, tradition is the consecration of authors, renowned authors are tradition; the canon values ​​tradition, the canon is tradition, the canon is consecration.”

Many respectable colleagues in the field of literature spoke out in favor of the all-female book list. I respectfully present my disagreements. I think that these manifestations are, in general, superficial because they only take into account the political issue framed by feminism and gender issues (albeit from an intersectional perspective). In this way, they unilateralize and hypostatize the political issue in gender agendas, as if there were no other factors to be considered in a political-educational decision. In other words, they want to limit the meaning of politics to identity policies. Nor is it a question of discussing the literary quality of the selected works. It is actually a dispute over the meanings of literature and politics that underlie the list.

In light of the response from Érico Andrade and João Paulo Lima Silva e Filho, “Concealing rationalizations”, a “CQD” resonates, as the entire argument completely ignores the specificity of literary objects and the field of literary studies. In reality, in my opinion, it even disregards educational and pedagogical aspects of basic and higher education. They only vaguely state that the canon is political, without ever actually explaining how exactly more female authors on the entrance exam list can contribute to gender equality.

They are content with a perception that equates a female authorial profile with gender equality – which seems to be a questionable theoretical conception given the works of authors such as Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak… It must be emphasized that the list is questionable even from the point of view of criticism and feminist and gender theory.

Perhaps it is possible to say that in other areas the discussion about the canon is in its infancy. In literary studies, however, it is already a consolidated debate with a great tradition, with a long bibliographical trail. It is the point of subject syllabuses at universities throughout Brazil and competitions for university professors.

The discussion about the literary canon is equally vast worldwide. Authors of outstanding international renown such as Franco Moretti, David Damrosch, Pascale Casanova, Gayatri Spivak, among many others, have already addressed the subject. I mention some authors available in English, who are or were professors at American universities, but from now on it is possible to point out the ethnic-racial diversity, origin, gender and positions of these authors.

It would also be worth highlighting some specificities of the formation of the national canon that may not be completely analogous to what we today understand as the “Western canon” or even “world literature”.

2.

If we take inclusion in literary historiography as a parameter for defining the canon, some canonical authors in Brazil, such as Machado de Assis, Cruz e Souza, Lima Barreto and Mário de Andrade are of African descent and absolutely canonical since my school days. In their case, there is no problem of consecration, but perhaps there was a problem of recognition of the “authorial profile”, to use the expression of the originally published text.

The ethnic-racial origin and gender of authors were not treated as prominently in the past as they seem to be today. I also note what Ítalo Moriconi dubbed “The Biographical Century”, that is, an explosion in the relevance given to biography in literary studies in the 21st century. This trend, combined with the growing interest in identity politics, seems to take on a very curious tone of current overvaluation of the author's biography to the detriment of the analysis of the literary corpus in its specificities.

An example that draws attention is that of Conceição Evaristo, who has participated in the main programming of several Literature events in Brazil. In 2023, she participated in ABRALIC and FLIP. In other words, it was in the main program of one of the biggest academic literature events in Brazil and also in one of the most popular, commercial and publisher-related events, FLIP. Texts from it already appear regularly in many Portuguese language textbooks for high school. For some years now, many dissertations and theses have been produced on the work of Conceição Evaristo.

We therefore have several reasons to say that, if she is not a canonical author, she is very close to being considered so, since what defines canon is consecration and she is already enjoying the attention of institutions and consecrating mechanisms in literature.

In 2023, Ailton Krenak was elected member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. The institution justifies countless problematizations, but its consecrated place in the literary field is undeniable.

Even the discourse around the canon needs to change and start from this reality that is already quite changed in relation to what it was 10 years before. One might object that this process is still recent and incipient (and we agree on that). But it is not possible to define the canon as a stagnant institution nor to accept puerile perspectives on the issue.

In my literature courses, I have progressively increased the number of women discussed in class. But I consider that it would be absurd to exchange the entire syllabus of mandatory subjects for texts by women, as this would lead to the obvious loss of already consolidated discussions in the field. In this sense, it would make it unfeasible to talk about consistent, pluralistic, omnilateral, holistic education, as this would be, like Fuvest's list of books, a unilateralized education based on a specific (political) criterion.

There is, moreover, a problem that is already noted and discussed in international debates about the literary canon. Criticism of the canon often tends to construct a new canon. In other words, it would also be worth asking whether the current discussion has effectively led to more pluralistic knowledge of authors.

3.

I don't believe that recent years have brought more visibility, for example, to the excellent poet Gilka Machado, also of African descent, and whose poetry I consider to be of notable literary and aesthetic quality. Similarly, I find it impressive that Edimilson de Almeida Pereira's poetry has less visibility than more simplistic poems of lesser literary quality in the contemporary Brazilian scene.

For this reason too, I believe that it is not exactly an opening to plurality, but to a large extent just a replacement of some canonical authors by others. And, basically, it effectively signals an impoverishment of the reading lists of several students not only in basic education, but also in undergraduate courses in Literature and Literary Studies, who have arrived at educational institutions with the same and reduced literary references (and this is still to think optimistically, as there are many students in Literature courses who don't even like reading literature). We have sufficient reason to suspect that even Portuguese language teacher training is quite limited and impoverished.

I would have many cases from my own vintage to report. But I only tell one or two cases from my teaching practice to illustrate the point.

In charge of the Portuguese Literature II subject, which encompasses Baroque, Arcadianism and Romanticism, I was asked by a university student why I was teaching Antônio Vieira and not a critical perspective on Antônio Vieira. There are, behind this questioning, several problematic assumptions. I mention just two: (i) that criticism and/or literary history could replace direct contact with literary works; (ii) that teaching an author automatically means agreeing or supporting their perspective.

My own experiences were also corroborated by the report of a colleague, a literature teacher in primary education in the state of São Paulo, who came across parents who did not want Pero Vaz de Caminha's letter to be read in the school context due to its racist and colonial content.

So, I ask: how to proceed now? Rub shoulders with authors like Camões, Pero Vaz de Caminha and Antônio Vieira and simply ignore them in school and academic training?

Another worrying aspect that seems implicit to me in this issue is the idea of ​​literary reading as translucent and comfortable. As if in literary enjoyment, and now I use the term in the sense in which Roland Barthes uses it in The pleasure of the text, there was no need for any type of confrontation, melancholy of the self, etc. Roland Barthes also discusses the fact that we read works with ideologies different from ours, which seems to be inevitable when we read works from the past.

The current hegemonic idea of ​​critical reading seems to recommend only readings that corroborate our own personal convictions. More and more people read refusing to put their perspectives to the test, with the aim of expanding their repertoire and knowledge about past societies.

4.

So, what the authors Érico Andrade and João Paulo Lima Silva e Filho consider a common flag, that is, pluralism, is being neglected not only by current literary studies approaches but, I dare say, by the humanities in general. I agree with the authors when they state that pluralism is an obvious and common flag, but I do not agree with the methodologies, theories and even epistemologies through which they believe it is possible to achieve this pluralism.

And this has repercussions not only for the study of literature, but also for neighboring areas and other school subjects, such as arts, history, sociology, philosophy, etc. Students who reject old works because in theory they would be archaic and of ideologies different from ours also tend to have less reading ability. This entire situation points to an evident impoverishment of the cultural repertoire of primary and higher education students.

We can raise some further objections to literary criticism tied to the biographical profile. I've heard the opinion that Clarice Lispector had no place to speak when writing star hour. Historical materialism, existentialism, post-structuralism... all these theoretical currents signaled a more nuanced vision of the individual's identity than that found today in vogue due to the crude use of the concept of “place of speech”.

Take as an example a classic theoretical text of postcolonialism in literary and cultural studies, Can the subaltern speak?, by US-based Indian Gayatri Spivak. The work provides numerous pertinent questions about the supposed continuous identity between biographical profile and political positioning.

But there is something more primary that has been forgotten in the questioning surrounding the writer: accustomed to seeing photos of a vain and made-up Clarice Lispector, wife of a diplomat, the statement comes from the lack of knowledge of Clarice Lispector's biographical journey, who, as a refugee, lived , when new, in Maceió and Recife and didn't exactly have a life of abundance. Only later did she move to Rio de Janeiro. Thus, even from a biographical point of view, there are some similarities between Clarice's and Macabéa's paths.

But even if there wasn't, why couldn't she elaborate on the issue from a fictional point of view? There is a difficulty in understanding the historicity and contradiction that exists within a person's life and how this manifests itself through the work of fictional elaboration. The desire to fit Clarice Lispector into a definition of a white, bourgeois cisgender woman seems to result in a falsification of her biography.

In fact, as a reader and teacher of literature, I believe that the example of Clarice Lispector is quite emblematic. I have observed a growing animosity around one of the most canonical female authors in Brazilian literature. Almost always this animosity is motivated by some biographical aspect or some frankly crude interpretation of her literary works. The canon is even in dispute. But it is problematic when the only criterion for consolidating the canon is biography or personal identity.

If, in the past, there was interest in stories in which people transformed, redeemed themselves, ruined themselves, contradicted themselves, now our aesthetic sensitivity is largely focused on a vision of the human being as a stable and one-dimensional personality at the same time. over time. It seems quite clear to me that identity politics have played a role in this trend, and that is why I consider the issue to be thorny and worrying.

Thus, I was positively surprised by Regina Dalcastagnè's position on her Facebook page, on December 19th: “I was going to say that, thinking about the volume of young Brazilian citizens who will never read anything beyond what is mandatory in high school, I I would focus on presenting a greater diversity of social perspectives and styles. The problem is listening to the intemperate and reactionary reactions of some, who think that reading the same male authors as always is a moral and aesthetic obligation to which we all have to bow, without question, without tarnishing “high literature” with pretensions. of a political reflection, without daring to point the finger at the inequalities that are also forged in the literary world.”

5.

It is essential to discuss how the Fuvest list guides the formation of readers in a country like Brazil, marked by structural inequalities and significant losses in literacy and schooling.

Some people talk as if the entrance exam list should embody a compensatory dimension – disregarding the effect of a unilateral list like this on a generation of students and readers.

The argument raised by Paulo Franchetti about mandatory readings is equally valid, which end up being framed in a mechanical and excessively pragmatic way by slot machine courses and ready-made summaries on the internet (not to mention what's coming with GPT Chat and artificial intelligence !). But I suspect that, bad with the lists, worse without them.

One might object that it is just a list of books for the university entrance exam. However, taking into account USP's centrality and reputation on the national scene, it is clear that the entrance exam list corroborates the direction of content and readings covered at the school and in the Brazilian educational system as a whole. It even influences the production of textbooks and the acquisition of works by libraries and public schools (materials with which the teacher will be forced to work throughout the year).

For those in the school trenches, there has been a visible erosion of public education in recent years. It is difficult to pinpoint what was decisive: Bolsonarism, the Covid-19 pandemic and the increasingly intense addiction to digital devices, the New High School or, what is likely, all of this together. This is a scenario that, with or without Lula, remains discouraging (and that is a subject for another text).

In any case, the way this discussion about the Fuvest list has unfolded gives me the feeling that I see on replay Lula walking up the ramp on the day of his inauguration accompanied by various political symbols. Cute and all, but there's something deceptive about it.

Part of the left treats the issue as if the historical exclusion of women from intellectual life was fixed by a list of works recommended for the entrance exam with symbolic value. As if a supposed symbolic consecration of women materialized in the entrance exam list reduced the social, political and material disadvantage that we have throughout the rest of our lives. I emphatically question this triumphalist view of the list of books by women.

I believe that this positioning derives from a perhaps hegemonic vision in the university today, and that it constitutes the doxa from a certain left: a vaguely feminist, anti-racist, decolonial broth, etc. and that it cannot overcome symbolic values ​​because it is not willing to get to the root of the problems. In reality, as I have already indicated here, even a careful reading of feminist theories and aesthetics would have brought more nuances to this discussion.

Érico Andrade and João Paulo Lima Silva e Filho define objections to the list as “cover-ups”. They don't hide anything: they deepen and expand, while others are still looking at the tip of the iceberg. Some aspects of the political discussion are biased towards identity politics to the detriment of any other formative and political aspects, and therefore remain only on the surface of the discussion.

For all this, I understand that the entrance exam list, in its positive sense, is merely symbolic. On the other hand, the potential effects on student training and the Brazilian educational system are more negative than positive. The supposed gain (greater gender equality) seems to me to be outweighed by the intensification of precarious education.

In short, I think that the Fuvest list doesn't even scratch the structure that oppresses me as a woman. On the other hand, it makes my work difficult as a literature teacher willing to share in the classroom a specific perception of literary objects, but also different from a theoretical, historical, political and cultural point of view.

I have witnessed and felt firsthand that disrespect for female professors has grown in recent years, regardless of the programming of events, awards, research and book lists, which increasingly include women. It is extremely ironic (but symptomatic of a flaw in the theoretical-political discussion) that, despite noting that gender discussions are increasingly common as policies within the workplace (there are even meetings and courses around the subject) , this was, by far, the year in which I suffered the most gender-based violence at work.

With Fernando Pessoa, I'm tired of symbols. He wanted more effective socioeconomic policies.

*Luciana Molina She has a PhD in Theory and Literary History from Unicamp. Currently, she is a Portuguese Language and Literature teacher at the Espírito Santo State Department of Education.


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