Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Me Versus the Western Canon

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


  1. One point Harold Bloom makes is that many writers of books in the Western Canon misinterpreted the books they were trying to be similar to. I can relate to that. If two people like the same book, they probably like it for different reasons. If those two people then tried to write their own book using what they saw as strengths in the previous book, they would end up with two different things. The attempt to move forward leads to a divergence because no book will be exactly the same as the one before it. I've given up on the idea of writing a lasting book. I don't care about what happens after I'm dead anymore. But I do compare my work to all the books I've read and admired. I ask myself the same questions as you, and my answers are the same as yours.

  2. I like the image of generations of writers all misreading the same books, as generations of readers (also all misreading the books) add more books to the big pile for future generations of readers and writers to misread.

    I'm not sure I care about my "legacy" or whatthefuckever, but I do care about the worth of what I'm writing today. It's just that I don't have any useful tool to measure that worth. It gives me a headache.

  3. As someone who can't ever quite get his head around the full literary mindset, I'll say that I think a book is lasting as long as a couple of people think of it enough to talk about it, even if that's only one guy running a used book store in 2073 and the college student who buys the book from him.

    And I'll add that from a purely anthropological standpoint, worth is also negotiated. Anything is worth what the producer and the recipient ultimately agree its worth. If they come to no agreement, it's literally worthless. If they come to a place where they agree, then that establishes the worth, but only for those two individuals. When you're talking about cultural rather than economic property (and I would count literature as cultural property) than the negotiation is often indirect. I think the only way for an author to get a handle on it is to take some experience of their own and establish that as what they hope each reader will have of this book that the author is creating. Then, they look at each transaction and if at least one reader has that experience, they have agreed on the worth, and the transaction is successful. That book then has worth.

    I'm not 100% sold on that, but that's where anthropology is leading me at the moment.

    A canon is important, but it is establishes the bucket for greatness within the realm the of conventional wisdom. There is also greatness which is exceptional. By definition, if it's exceptional it won't be canon.

  4. I don't think artists have any part at all in the establishment of cultural worth. What's Shakespeare got to do--today--with the cultural worth of his plays? Nothing. I don't see the idea of "agreement" giving the artist any place at the table. The agreement, if there is one, is all among the audience, if we're talking about canonical works. Reception and influence exclude the author and his intentions, I believe. In almost all cases, the experience of the reader is going to be wholly invisible to the writer. Which is probably a good thing.

    I also think that plenty of "exceptional" works are in the canon, depending on how you define "exceptional," of course. It's the definitions of all these words that makes this discussion so tricky. Shakespeares plays are both conventional and exceptional. They are a cornerstone of the canon they defy. Same goes for Keats, say, or Borges. Though Borges is less cornerstone than window sill, maybe. And a lot of people don't recognize that window yet. If I can presume a "yet."

  5. The agreement is all among the audience

    That is where I would place current writers - they are particularly influential members of the audience.

    When Bloom talks about misreading, he drags out this favorite word, "strong." "Strong misreadings" are the good ones. I think he means something like "original," not insipid. I wonder how many aspiring writers have been damaged by Bloom's idea, consciously trying to come up with an original misreading of something.

    Wonderful post, Scott. Writers should be required to blog, dangit.

  6. Tom, I'm not sure this doesn't just boil down to "I hope people really like my book" dressed up to look like deep thought.

    It's too bad Bloom has to keep using that undefined term. I wonder if "strong" is a stand in for "Bloom-approved" and nothing else? I wonder if Bloom considers the possibility that he also misreads? I'll have to give Bloom another misread in the near future.

    I like (a great deal!) the idea of writers being influential readers, since in many ways they get to pass on the genetic material of the canon in new works, if you'll forgive that clumsy metaphor. Would that make the publishing industry a form of eugenics program, though? Who decides what gets published these days is an important part of the question of reception and influence. Maybe. We can't discount the role of small presses. Do you know the old saw about how the Velvet Underground's first album (with the banana on it) only sold 1,000 copies, but everyone who bought one went out and formed a band?

    The idea of "originality" has probably ruined a lot of artists. Or has at least given young artists the excuse to be insufferable for a decade or two before growing out of it.

  7. I like the way you tackle the big issues so nonchalantly.

    Has late-capitalism and technology shortened canon entry? Time will tell, of course, but I'd argue that Eliot and Hemingway were pretty solidly in there during their lives. If you've got academics discussing you already, then you've got at least a foot in the door of the canon. Not that any of that is fair. If there are people out there writing PhD theses on Franzen, well, I don't really want to know about it. That's marketing.

    But on the bright side, the canon is getting cracked open by the fact that the academia is too. If we accept my proposition that the canon is defined by academics, that is. Technology for good and ill.

  8. Abigail, I think that academics study parts of the canon and claim their favorite bits as the canon, but I think that the canon is more what's read than what's studied. Academia is on the sidelines, writing theses about what other people make and read.

    People I know in English departments tell me that the canon isn't seriously being offered up to students; most of the conversations are about contemporary pop culture or about competing literary theories that are all driven by political ideologies. If that's true, than academia has even less to do with curating our literary heritage than I credit it with.

    I think Hemingway and Eliot established themselves as important voices during their lifetimes, yeah. But don't you think that they only become canonical after their deaths, since we're still reading them?

    Anyway, I don't know the answer to your question. I don't know when a work can be said to have entered the canon. I don't know if there's any consensus about that. Which is why I offer up the idea about something being canonical only after the contemporary readers have all died. I'm going claim that David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen are not in the canon (though there's a lot of interest in them both, if you're a postmodernist in academia anyway).

    This conversation moved beyond my depth just before you started typing you comment! My entire response here has been nothing but me parroting smarter people.

    I'm also in too serious a mood because I just now finished reading Fitzgerald's story The Cut Glass Bowl and that's a little tale to make you want to slit your wrists.

    Hey, you and TG and M and I should get together soon and drink and eat and talk smart.

  9. Ha ha! Best last sentence ever. I try very hard to avoid personal commentary on my blog to a point, but it somehow always ends up being me working out my many, many moments of self-doubt.

    Looking forward to reading your book.

  10. I'll tell you this much from my experience - it's awfully difficult to put a book out there, and when you do, you get these kinds of thoughts and where you will ultimately land, and in my own experience (which is all any of us have, I suppose), I've had moments of sheer panic about where I'm going, where my books will end up, how long they will last, how they'll be received now and later and beyond my own life if they even last that long. And then I start new books and wonder if they're better or worse or completely different and if that difference is going to severely hurt what I've already built up.

    It's enough to make one mad.

    When you talk about influence, I think that's where a writer can truly think and not feel too helpless. I don't know how and where my books will be influential, but they already have to some degree, and it's amazing to see. Who knows how far that influence carries. Who knows.

  11. Michelle: Who knows, indeed? Maybe the best we can hope for is to keep doing good work, and to keep writing books that engage us personally as writers. Everything else is completely beyond our control, right? But one does wonder, and worry, and drive oneself mad with it. It's a funny sort of self-inflicted wound.

  12. We def. should. I am very good at those first two things.

    Entry into the canon: parts of all of the above? To me it has to be more than simply what's read. I have a far less dim view of academia than you. It really pushed literature beyond "I liked the part when" for me. Partially because I don't write, I'm sure. When school was good, it was really good. Perhaps I was just lucky. I enjoy and esteem literary theory. (Ducks.)

    Though, my father was driven out of graduate school in the mid 1950's by a class in which every student was assigned a part of speech to count in something by Dryden. That's the dark side of literary theory.

  13. Literary theory can be fun and sometimes useful! I have shelves of it at home, you know. I just don't believe that academia is really leading the way in canon formation or has that much a part in canon curation. I don't see a mechanism for transferring the interest of lit profs into people who are not in lit programs actually buying and reading books. And that, I think, is really how the canon is formed: people buy and read the books. University English departments don't have that much power over the marketplace, I claim!

    One interesting project is to go through "Hamlet" and count every use of the words "ghost," "ear," and "poison." That's an informative little task that looks like make-work until you do it.

    I like ducks.

    We should start thinking, maybe, about the 27th or 28th? Food and booze?