One reason I write novels is because the novel--or a long list of novels I've read--is an important part of my life. I have no idea what living would be without access to great books. I have no idea who I'd be had I not had access to great books. No, I don't know what "great" means and maybe I'll go into that later. For now, I want to say that novelists are the artists who've had the greatest impact on my life and personality.
One reason I write novels is because I want to be one of the people whose art has a great impact on the lives and personalities of people like me. I write novels because I am grateful to novelists and I'd like to join that club, be part of the communion of literary saints.
Part of the idea of joining the club of novelists is the idea of writing something that will endure, something that will have lasting value. I don't know what "value" means, no. Nor do I necessarily know it when I see it. But as one who hopes to write something that will endure, I find myself bang up against the Western Canon*.
There are some interesting conversations going on right now about how and why works of art enter the canon, and equally interesting conversations about what the canon itself might be and what it contains. I lack sufficient depth of knowledge to engage much in these conversations, but I will go so far as to say that the Western Canon (a moving target with a pretty solid center but very porous and fuzzy edges) is central to my intellectual life. It's central to my view of what a novel is, and central to the idea I have of joining the league of great novelists. Yes, that's what I want. I want to write novels that will one day be part of the Western Canon.
That's a trick with a high degree of difficulty, and of course since the canonical invitations to novels being written during my lifetime will all be mailed out long after I'm dead, there's no way to measure my progress toward this goal. What I'm left with, which is possibly all that many writers are left with, is to attempt to write novels that stand up well against the novels I respect and love. So I write and then compare what I've written to those works within my beloved Western Canon and I ask myself if I think my books are equal (another term I can't define) to the books I love.
My answer is always "no," though sometimes I think my books are as good as those being written by any of my contemporaries. I don't know what I mean by "as good as," either, thanks for asking.
I pause to wonder if "as good as" is even the right way of thinking about this. One possible definition of "canon" is "convention," which means that I'm attempting to write novels that are, essentially, similar in some way to a lot of novels I've already read. I'm sure that this is an important part of being an artist, to have been influenced, to build rooms onto the existing house of Literature, to join the canonical culture.
When I was a young man, full of arrogant energy**, I imagined that I'd write things that broke the mold, that sheared away from the conventions and showed that I Am My Own Man. I recognize the importance of experimentation, of striking out beyond the edges of the map, but I think that when one does this purely--or primarily, at least--to set oneself in opposition to an idea of "convention," then one is basically just being perverse. "I will be different" is not much of an artistic vision. "I will fit in" isn't either.
So one innovates, I suppose, and possibly it's true that a lot of innovation by young artists comes about through error: the artist is actually attempting to paint like Vermeer but lacks the technique and temperament and so stumbles along creating glorious failures that have their own aesthetic power. "I made it that way because I didn't know what I was doing; I didn't know any better." Yes, that happens. But it's also true that artists, having gathered technique and experience together, see new possibilities and go on to do more difficult*** things. Some of the formal innovations of William Burroughs, for example, are accidental hack work; the formal innovations of Vladimir Nabokov, however, are deliberate and careful. Both are interesting aesthetic experiences, but because I'm an old-school worshipper of craft, I claim that Nabokov is the better writer though it's true that Burroughs can be more fun.
Am I going anywhere with this? From where did I start? Oh, yes. Me versus the Western Canon. I keep writing books. I'm writing book number six right now, unless I've lost count. I think it's going to be publishable, a book people will read. But I have no idea if it's a worthwhile book, whatever that means. I have no idea if it's a book I would respect were I not the author. As the author, it's impossible for me to respect it because I view my own novels as sorts of machines that either run smoothly or they don't; the aesthetic experience I have from them is not the aesthetic of a reader. I keep repeating myself here. I want to write great books. I don't know if I will. Even if I write one (or in fact have already written one), I'll have no way of identifying it as such.
Christ, writers should not be allowed to blog. It should be against the law.
* from the Latin, derived from the Greek kanon, "measuring rod, standard"
** I remain arrogant, but I have far less energy
*** "difficult" meaning here either technically challenging, or challenging to the reader's aesthetic