26 February 2014

Schools of Resentment

Further sychronicity on the topic of canonization...

This time via a backpages piece in the latest Harper’s, in which contributor Arthur Krystal writes “in defense of the canon”:

“The idea that literature contains multitudes is not new. For the greater part of its history, lit(t)eratura referred to any writing formed with letters. Up until the eighteenth century, the only true makers of creative work were poets, and what they aspired to was not literature by poesy. A piece of writing was ‘literature’ only if enough learned readers spoke well of it; but as Thomas Rymer observed in 1674, ‘till of late years England was as free of Criticks, as it was of wolves.’”

Krystal – as you can see – is here writing about the literary canon, and aiming to (re-)assert its categorical imperatives. He’s apparently prompted to do so by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollor’s recent aargument that the idea of what constitutes literature these days has become much more porous. Yes, Krystal admits, the canon (the notion and ranking of “Great Books”) is shaped by consensus, and – yes -- ever since Gutenberg that consensus has overwhelming been a petite-bourgeois enterprise. This has – historically – included not only “informed readers,” critics, and academics, but also the publishers who had an investment in publishing and repackaging The Classics, and moving as much product as possible. And so it goes even today...

“In sum, we live in a time when inequality in the arts is seen as a relative crock, when the distinction between popular culture and high culture is said to be either dictatorial or arbitrary. Yet lodged in that word ‘inequality’ is an idea we refuse to abandon. I mean, of course, quality. The canon may be gone, but the idea of a canon persists. Penguin Books is now issuing a series of ‘modern classics,’ which the publisher has decided are classics in the making. No doubt some of these novels deserve our consideration…[but] do Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues or Nick Hornsby’s Fever Pitch, enjoyable as they are, rate as modern classics? Clearly the idea of greatness continues to appeal, and just as clearly our definition of it has changed – as has our definition of literature.”

It all gets a bit squishy, really – with Krystal at a couple of points writing somewhat disparagingly of the relativism of latter-day “anti-canonists,” only to cede ground to them later in the essay. As the artworld anti-Formalism backlash of a few decades had it: once you start relying on connoisseurial notions like quality, critical disinterest, et al., then things not only get deeply subjective, but aggravatingly tautological, as well.

Sure, plenty of people have read Don Quixote; mostly because many they were assigned to at some point. Still, it must have some lasting appeal because why else did we wind up with something like Man from La Mancha centuries later? But what of Gargantua and Pantagruel and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman? A centuries-old classic, each; but how many people actually read them (in full, if at all)? Can the longevity of their canonical status be charted along the proportional lines of quality-versus-quantity of readers? If so, isn’t this evidence of a top-down cultural elitism? And if yes on that count, what does it matter? All three are brilliant books, ripping good reads. Each is in its own way hilarious the way the author plays with form and narrative structure, frustrates or confounds readerly expectations, and games with lingua and lexicon from start to finish. (Especially Sterne whose idea of storytelling in Tristram Shandy involved not so much an infinite jest, but an long, open-ended digression – thereby negating everything a conventional or coherent story was supposed to be or be about, should and shouldn’t include, etc..) In that respect, one could argue that the prefigured postmodern lit well in advance of modernism, if not before the contemporary idea of a literary canon – comprised of mass-produced and consumable and broadly agreed-upon things – had ossified.

{ image via }

No comments:

  © Blogger template 'Solitude' by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP