In February 2020, Black Frankenstein was born. He graced the cover of a new diversity collaboration by Barnes and Nobles and Penguin Random House entitled Diverse Editions, rendering main characters on the cover to be ethnically diverse. The project was spearheaded to highlight how characters within classics were “assumed” to be white – attempting to show the racial bias in classic novel reading – and the series soon got cancelled. If the aim was rooted in trying to achieve diversity, was this outrage even justified?

The short answer is completely.

This campaign is just one in a long list of case studies to show that canon literature – and as a knock-on result the publishing industry – is attempting to treat the symptom, not the root problem. The symptom? People’s rage. The actual root problem? Systematic inequality. Readers are taught from a worryingly young age that the default is white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, straight…the list goes on. This is not, and cannot, be untaught by a provocative marketing campaign; readers do not assume that characters in novels are white out of nowhere. By teaching classics that perpetuate these viewpoints – or, worse, having a classics syllabus with only a slice of reading considered “diverse” just for performative points – we are making the genre of classics obsolete.

Classics have a long history of exclusion; from their lexical stem being associated with roman tax bands, to the discipline of “Classics” as we know it today being associated with only those of substantial socio-economic status, the way we have viewed the classic novel – as something that meets common high standards of quality and influence – affects how we view ourselves. There’s a reason there’s a huge market for listicles around Classic Books That Teens Will Actually Like, and why literature enthusiasts are often branded as pretentious – we seem to have forgotten that “good” literature can also be fun.

How exciting would it have been for Penguin Random House to have had authors of colour rewrite classics in a modern, intriguing way?

Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair, a poetic retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest exploring themes of postcolonial identity and the female body, is one of many examples of engaging with this dialogue of classic literature and diversity. With just as pretty a cover as Diverse Editions, this approaches diversity in a way that celebrates differences. We need to replace the idea of the literary canon as something antiquated and immoveable, instead allowing it to ebb and flow with the current debates that are happening now. In a recent article published by Disabled journalist Myra Ali, it was revealed that more than 80 actors and entertainment industry professionals such as Amy Poehler and Jessica Barden have signed an open letter around including Disabled actors in Hollywood. How many Disabled main characters can you name in a classic book? Do they have full, varied lives?

This is not the say that the typical Classic is useless – diversity is a complex, multifaceted issue and so there isn’t, unfortunately, a simple solution – but the dialogue of diversifying the canon has to keep moving. It is not enough to have one Black author on a syllabus. If, as perhaps Hamlet would suggest, literature is a mirror to our society – why, then, are we not letting students see themselves? With such a growing mental health crisis in young people today – and Covid-19 seeing us consume the Arts at a ravenous pace – isn’t it worth revaluating how and why we teach classic literature?  Teaching a wide range of diverse pieces of work in an accessible way will allow us as a society to recontextualise the classic – after all, even Frankenstein was once viewed as a “minor horror story”. Perhaps the best stories out there are not being heard.

Literature by a white man is art, separate from himself. A piece written by a marginalised woman is a political statement, whether on purpose or otherwise. This is not something we can fix with a syllabus; the issue is wider than a novel, or a film, or a person writing a blog about the subject. But what we can do is take little steps towards recontextualising the idea of a “classic” – which has, for far too long, upheld ideals of class, race and ability – and engage with the long-lost idea that literature can be enjoyable, diverse and exciting as well as informative and challenging.