The Most Frequently Taught Fictional Texts in (US) Universities

by Mark Wallace

The Open Syllable Project collects the booklists of over 1m syllabi (mostly US) and one can browse a list the books used on all of these syllabi (ordered by frequency). There are over 933,000 books listed altogether, starting with the most commonly assigned book of all: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, on almost 3,400 course lists. There are all sorts of investigations that can be done on this list, but for the moment I am just going to look at the works of fiction (mostly novels, but some that would be classed as novellas or short stories) that appear in the top 100 of the list. They are:

5. Frankenstein (Shelley)

15. Heart of Darkness (Conrad)

24. Things Fall Apart (Achebe)

36. The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)

43. Beloved (Morrison)

47. Huckleberry Finn (Twain)

50. The Yellow Wallpaper (Perkins)

55. The Awakening (Chopin)

57. Candide (Voltaire)

67. Invisible Man (Ellison)

70. Pride and Prejudice (Austen)

71. Their Eyes Were Watching God (Hurston)

76. Brave New World (Huxley)

87. Mrs Dalloway (Woolf)

91. The Metamorphosis (Kafka)

97. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain)

98. The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne)

There are 17 works of fiction listed above, but Huckleberry Finn actually appears twice (with slight variations on the title), at 47 and at 97, so there’s really 16. Though the Open Syllabus Project appears to be well researched and well presented, this is a somewhat glaring oversight. Adding the scores together for both entries, it is clear that Huckleberry Finn should appear much higher on the list (in 10th position, by my calculations).

Some facts:

  • Among the 16 texts, 7 are by women, 9 by men.
  • 8 are by Americans, 4 English, 1 Pole (Conrad, although he was living in England throughout his writing career), 1 Nigerian, 1 French, 1 German.
  • 8 from the 20th century, 7 from the 19th century, 1 from the 17th century (Voltaire).

The theme of race is what really jumps out in this selection: Huckleberry Finn, Invisible Man, Beloved, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Heart of Darkness, Things Fall Apart. The last-named two are also about colonialism, and they are also 2 of the  3 most-frequently assigned fictional texts, which illustrates the centrality of the subject in US academia.

There is certainly some sense of the much-discussed “opening up the canon” here, but there is obviously a marked Eurocentrism to the choices. The exception is Achebe’s novel, though I would point out that the irony here is that Things Fall Apart is an obvious rebuttal of the super-canonical Heart of Darkness (of which Achebe was famously critical), so it is the most European of all African novels. There’s nothing from South America or Asia.

The old Leavisite canon is still there: Austen and Conrad make it; George Eliot and Henry James don’t. Dickens, liminal and semi-canonical in Leavis’ opinion, bubbles just under the top 100 here too (Great Expectations at 112). The continuing relevance of Conrad is clear: his emphasis on race and colonial relations in Heart of Darkness keep interest in his work alive, rather than for the purely literary qualities that Leavis sought (indeed, he thought Heart of Darkness one of Conrad’s lesser efforts, as he discusses in The Great Tradition). As for Austen, the case is less clear-cut. Certainly, she explored female subjectivity and the social relations of upper-class women in depth, but unlike Conrad she knew nothing of class or racial struggle. I think Raymond Williams’ account of Austen’s viewpoint as a social novelist, from which some things, some activities, some people, simply could not be seen, still stands up:

The land is seen primarily as an index of revenue and position; its visible order and control are a valued product, while the process of working it is hardly seen at all.

[…]

She is concerned with the conduct of people who, in the complications of improvement, are repeatedly trying to make themselves into a class. But where only one class is seen, no classes are seen. Her people are selected though typical individuals, living well or badly within a close social dimension. Cobbett never, of course, saw them as closely or as finely; but what he saw was what they had in common: the underlying economic process. (The Country and the City)

The fact that such a partial view has such resonance among the educationally privileged of 21st-century America is revealing in itself, and worthy of further reflection. And there is much more to provoke reflection in the results of the Open Syllabus Project, well worth a look for anyone interested in the nature of contemporary third level education.

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