It’s one of those posts filled with a variety of goodness — or badness depending on how you look at it. Maybe not filled, maybe only partially filled. And maybe not a lot of variety but only some. And — oh heck, you’ll see.
Under the heading of blame it on postmodernists, the internet and book bloggers, comes an essay at the Chronicle of Higher Education What We Lose if We Lose the Canon. Yes, apparently the cannons are still firing on the canon war. There is still a canon to lose according to Arthur Krystal who worries that without it our poets and novelists will have no one to test themselves against, no one to supplant, no inspiration to work out new “aesthetic or philosophical precepts.” And somehow the “dismantling of hierarchies is tantamount to an erasure of history.” I’m not quite sure how that is the case since I’m pretty sure history of any kind isn’t bound exclusively to hierarchies unless of course you mean the history of literature as written by white western men.
Everything was hunky-dory until the postmodernists committed murder:
A few decades ago the modernists themselves became precursors when a loose confederation of critics and philosophers decided that modernism consisted of work that was too oblique and too self-consciously “high art” while remaining at the same time innocent of its own socio-semiotic implications. But what made the postmodern charter different was its willingness to discard the very idea of standards. Starting from the premise that aesthetics were just another social construct rather than a product of universal principles, postmodernist thinkers succeeded in toppling hierarchies and nullifying the literary canon. Indeed, they were so good at unearthing the socioeconomic considerations behind canon formation that even unapologetic highbrows had to wonder if they hadn’t been bamboozled by Arnoldian acolytes and eloquent ideologues.
That heretofore inviolable ideal of art, as expostulated by Walter Pater and John Ruskin, by T.S. Eliot and Lionel Trilling, by the New Criticism, was shunted aside.
I dunno, I’m not an expert in postmodernist theory, but I suspect that it wasn’t standards that were tossed overboard, but the values behind those standards that were brought into question and revealed to be constructed of the subjective opinions of a few rather than the universal objective truths everyone was pretending they were.
Then — horrors! — without the canon and aesthetic standards “every reader could become a person with unimpeachable taste” as if that’s why people read in the first place. Ok, some people read certain books to prove they have good taste, but I’m pretty sure most people who love reading don’t give a fig about taste. Into this wild devil’s brew add the internet and blogs and Amazon book reviews and suddenly “every autodidact with a bad teacher [is able] to address the world.” General readers have the audacity to express their personal opinions on how they thought Fifty Shades of Grey was the best thing since sliced bread. This causes the world to tilt, the poles to flip-flop, fire to rain down from the sky because literature has become “what anyone wants it to be.”
It’s okay to read authors like P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler for a little light fun now and then, to call them Literature with a capital “L” just won’t do. And for books like George R.R. Martin’s to even be mentioned in a classroom let alone seriously discussed just reveals how low we have sunk.
As Krystal says, “Some books simply reflect a deeper understanding of the world, of history, of human relationships” than other books. To that I say yes, yes they do. And those books will continue being read even without there being a canon to shove them down a reader’s throat. If he spent any time reading book blogs at all he would know that book bloggers are really into the classics. Our definition of a classic is broader and more inclusive than his, I’m sure, but he will still find plenty of readers eagerly reading Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Hugo and a boatful of other superstars. That we dare read them for pleasure and share our opinion, isn’t that what readers are supposed to do?
With so many things we could be doing besides reading, it seems to me that those who are still so tied to there being a canon created by mysterious and unknown literary gatekeepers are doing literature a huge disservice. No, George R.R. Martin is not James Joyce but I can see how there is value in teaching Game of Thrones in a literature class on the genre of fantasy. I can see there is value in teaching a class on the fantasy genre. Genre is an important part of literature and literary history. If you want to talk about erasing history, let’s have a conversation about how hierarchy and the canon of dead white men erased quite a lot of literary history that we are still in the process of rediscovering.
Well okay, sorry about the soapbox rant there. Here are a couple of things to lighten the mood:
- The American Scholar has a list of Ten Neglected Classics (via A Different Stripe). Angela Carter and Elizabeth Gaskell made the list as did several books I have never heard of before. What fun! Take that literary canon!
- For something a little silly, at The Toast, How to Tell If You are in a Henry James Novel. I laughed out loud several times while reading the list but I think my two favorites are the first one, “You’ve done something in a piazza that renders you unfit for polite company,” and number 21, “You may be someone else who the narrator is referring to and you may also be yourself; it is impossible to say at this junture just who ‘you’ are.” Though number 18 is pretty awesome too: “If only someone would die, you’d get everything you’ve ever wanted.” Heh, if only.
That’s enough fun for one blog post, I don’t want to over do it.