“If you don’t like a book that’s part of The Canon, the fault lies with you, not the book. The book is good, but you just may not be ready for it yet.”
This quote, paraphrased from memory, was uttered by one of my English professors during my time at an indoctrination center – also called a “university.” Many other memories have faded into nothingness, but this quote remains, like a signpost on the astral plane of my mind – a signpost that points to a direction I don’t want to go, ever.
This proclamation is troublesome for several reasons. For one, it presumes the caretakers of The Canon (yes, my capitalization of this phrase is sardonic) are infallible, or near enough so that it doesn’t matter. They – whoever “they” are – have decided that certain books are Great, and that’s all there is to it.
Think Faulkner’s writing is overwrought and boring? Well, you are mistaken, sir or madam! You’re just not…advanced enough to enjoy the Great Man’s sublime prose, his variegated themes, and his sparklingly imaginative characters.
Maybe one day you’ll understand…or not. The “or not,” of course, means you’re an idiot, and incapable of “advancing” to a stage where you comprehend the soul-stirring majesty of The Canon.
Secondly, it presumes that there is such a thing as The Canon, something as solid and definite as a mountain. There isn’t – what The Canoneers are protecting is more like a breeze that blows every which way.
The Canon changes as literature, and society as a whole, changes. Makes sense, right? But anyone who’s read anything about literature has come across a phrase similar to this: “neglected in his/her own lifetime, so-and-so is now regarded as a talented and innovative writer.”
If this neglected author was so talented, why didn’t their contemporaries recognize their proficiency? Were they savages toiling in intellectual darkness? Or were they – bear with me here – just as intelligent as the professors and critics today, except they had different sensibilities?
I’d also like to add that most literature courses and discussions about The Canon completely ignore the publishing industry. Each traditionally-published book had to be edited, printed, promoted, transported, and so on. But to hear proponents of The Canon speak, these Great Books simply appeared, and now we esteem them.
There’s rarely any mention of marketing efforts that propelled a book to superstardom, or of any other twists of fate that led a book to become regarded as Great.
Take The Great Gatsby, for example. It wasn’t in the running for Great American Novel until years after it was published. One of the things that pushed it into the public’s consciousness was its distribution to thousands of American soldiers during World War II:
“One hundred fifty-five thousand ASE (Armed Services Edition) copies of ‘The Great Gatsby’ were distributed — as against the twenty-five thousand copies of the novel printed by Scribners between 1925 and 1942…Was there a connection between the ASE publication of ‘Gatsby’ and ‘Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ and the Fitzgerald revival that commenced in the late 1940s?”
I think the answer is clearly “yes.”
To be fair, The Canon is no longer a clubhouse for a select few Dead White Men. There are more authors being discussed, lectured about, and reviewed than ever before. However, the “multiculturalism” advocates often have their own agendas and criteria, and are just as dogmatic as “traditionalists” like Harold Bloom, a guy whose goal in life is “to build a hedge around the secular Western canon.”
So what is a lone reader, tossed and turned in this tempest – a tempest, not The Tempest – supposed to do?
My advice: read whatever you want. Create your own canon, and don’t apologize for what’s in it.
For example, right now I’m reading a biography of Captain James Cook – a respectable book written by a learned man. But I also have a stack of Spider-Man comics I’m whittling through. Low brow? To some, maybe, but I don’t give a damn what those stuffy twerps think. In fact, I think every writer can learn something about pacing and storytelling from comic books. But I’m not going to insist you read comic books, and then look down on you when you say, “Nah, not for me.” In turn, please don’t shove your favorite book into my hands and insist I like it.
Art is subjective. There’s no stable, one-size-fits-all set of rules that decides what’s good and what isn’t, despite many claims to the contrary. All that matters is what you think. If you’re reading this, that means you’re literate, which means you’re fully capable of deciding for yourself what constitutes good writing.
Your standards will probably be different than mine. That’s fine. Your standards may change over time – mine certainly have. Nothing wrong with that. Or maybe your standards have remained the same for decades. Nothing wrong with that, either.
Keep on reading, don’t worry about The Canon, and ignore the braying hordes trying to shame you into following their agendas.
Have you ever considered waterboarding an arrogant English professor?
Do you like romance novels, but don’t want to admit it in “civilized company”?
Do you agree that Joe Kelly’s Deadpool is the bestest ever?
Talk in the comments!