What does it mean to be against the canon?

I was reading Maria Bustillos’ review of some book*, and I came across this phrase: “For those who, like me, are generally opposed to canonical notions of literature, there will be much to quarrel with in [the book that she is reviewing].”

Now, this is the kind of thing that one runs across alot. People who are not just against our particular literary canon (with its admitted overemphasis on white males and its ignorance of genre fiction), but who are also against all canons. Most of the time, I guess I would say that I too am against the canon. But…as I was thinking about this sentence, I realized that’s not true. I am not really against the canon at all. In fact, when I’m looking for good books to read, I frequently retreat into the canon. I attempt to read outside the canon, but when I do so, my first thought is usually, “Is this good enough to be in the canon?”

What does it mean to be against the canonization of literature? Does it mean that you are against assembling lists of really good literature? Isn’t that what the canon is?

To me, it seems that there are three ways of choosing what books to read. You can either do so based on interest, similarity, or quality. Interest means choosing a book because its topics or themes are interesting to you. Similarity means choosing a book because it’s similar to other books that you’ve enjoyed. And quality means choosing a book because it’s very good.

Of course, most people choose books based on all three of these criteria (often all at the same time). But picking books out of a canon is the only method of selection that does not (theoretically) pre-select books on the basis of similarity or interest. You can’t go on Amazon and tell it to show you a list of great books. You can’t go to a librarian and say, “I’d only like to see the awesome books”. But you can look at a canon and know that thousands of extremely knowledgeable readers thought that these books were pretty great. Of course, that doesn’t mean that other books aren’t great too. The canon is definitely not complete. But it’s also not useless.

The canon is the only method of selection that says to you, “You’ve never shown any interest in 19th century Russia and you’ve never enjoyed any family epics about adultery, but you should definitely read Anna Karenina, because it’s that good.” Word of mouth isn’t going to do that. When friends ask me what they should read, I don’t tell them to read whatever was the last book that I read that was awesome (currently, that is Pursuit Of Love by Nancy Mitford). No, I tell them to read a book that I think they’ll enjoy, based on what I know about them. And that’s great. But on some level, I am shortchanging them. I–and almost every other recommendation engine in the world–don’t give my audience enough credit. I don’t trust people enough to love something just because it’s high quality. I don’t trust them to be willing to strike out and read something that’s not like what they normally read.

I loved Anna Karenina. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. But no one ever told me to read it. I used to read mostly science fiction. Before I start picking books out of the canon, I got most of my book recommendations from Amazon.com’s Listmania. Most of my friends and online acquaintances are more likely to enthuse about Neal Stephenson’s latest book than they are about classic literature. Without the canon, I probably would’ve read Anathem and Reamde and Embassytown and The City and the City , but I never would have read Anna Karenina.

 And it’s easy to say, “Oh, that’s just because you ghettoized yourself; if you’d gone out and solicited recommendations or looked through review pages, you would’ve found Anna Karenina or something else, something even more interesting, something that wasn’t by a dead white male, on your own.” But is that really true? No one ever recommends that I read classics (although, actually, I think a few folks have told me to read Pride and Prejudice). Perhaps if there was no canon, people would recommend classics more often. Perhaps these books would compete in the marketplace on their own. Perhaps they’d live and die on their own merits instead of being artificially propped up by English teachers. I don’t know, but that seems awfully speculative to me.

What I do know is that picking books out of the canon has given me much higher-quality reading experiences than browsing in bookstores or using Amazon’s recommendations or even listening to word of mouth. It’s exposed me to books that I otherwise never would have thought about. And while I can see the dangers of becoming trapped in the canon, I don’t think that’s an argument for it’s abolishment…it’s just an argument for a larger, more inclusive canon (which is what everyone and their English professor wants anyway).

Is anyone out there against the literary canon? What does that mean to you?

*FACT: I was really excited about this book until I finally realized that Tom Bissell is not, in fact, the author of Friday Night Lights. No, the name of that worthy is H.G. Bissinger. Man, I would totally read a book of essays by H.G. Bissinger.

7 thoughts on “What does it mean to be against the canon?

  1. Nicolas G. Farias

    When people talk about — and object to — the notion of the canon they generally seem to be thinking of some unyielding, hallowed list set in tablets and hoisted about in a golden ark. With lightning bolts shooting out of it. But is there anything objectionable about the canon as a something organic and amorphous, created and sustained by the evolving tastes of and interactions between academics, consumers and artists themselves? If you see the film version of No Country for Old Men, then read the book, then read more Cormac McCarthy, then maybe you want to encounter similar writers, then maybe you want to delve into his influences. This leads you to, among others, obviously, Faulkner, which could lead to Melville, etc. Admittedly, this is a reductive and somewhat far-fetched example, but we all follow similar paths when we choose to engage with the media that we consume. It’s very difficult to actively listen to and explore pop music and not encounter The Beatles, or read science fiction and never find Dune. And the deeper into the rabbit hole you want to go, the easier it is to either go into more esoteric places or further back in history.

    I don’t understand why people freak out so much about this!

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yeah, exactly. Admittedly, the literary canon is a bit more strictly codified and closely kept than the other canons, but I do think of it as ultimately reflecting the tastes of the readers. Things fall out of the literary canon all the time (like, for instance, the novels of Sinclair Lewis or John O’Hara) and other things enter it. And you’re right, there’s definitely a science fiction canon that I don’t see people objecting to. I’ve definitely found the SF canon to, at times, be a useful reading guide.

    2. Anonymous

      I recommend Umberto Eco’s Infinity of Lists. Basically says that making lists is the essence of human culture. You can’t kill it.

      Also, this gets at the issue of why books are famous and widely read. It’s not always because they’re of the highest literary quality; often it’s some combination of quality with other factors of culture importance such as historical influence (Silent Spring, Uncle Tom’s Cabin), artistic influence (Don Quixote, Oroonoko), publicity (Bonfire of the Vanities), celebrity recommendation (Oprah), or academic recommendation (Melville, Bach in the music world), etc. That doesn’t mean that the works are bad. But if you define ‘canon’ as ‘the shit everybody feels compelled to consume in order to be considered cultured’, then any argument about the canon isn’t about literary quality; it’s a misdirected argument about cultural values.

      Tristan’s Contribution to the Abbey Boy Book Club

      1. R. H. Kanakia

        I guess that is one way of thinking about canonicity that I should have considered. Perhaps people are not against lists of great books, they’re just against culturally privileging those lists. In that case I’d have to agree. I am not convinced that reading great literature makes you more thoughtful or discerning, and I am absolutely positive that it doesn’t make you kinder or more moral. The person who reads Anna Karenina is not any better than the person who reads Reamde, just like the person who likes the Velvet Underground isn’t any better than the person who likes Britney Spears. It’s all just entertainment.

  2. Nicolas G. Farias

    Yes, but at the same time, if I interview a cook and he has not read Escoffier or Thomas Keller, and if I ask him about Alinea or Mugaritz and he looks at me cluelessly, he will not get a job. Those things are part of the professional canon, and I see a failure to know them well as a disturbing lack of engagement. But I wouldn’t judge anyone not in the industry for the same lack of knowledge.

    I love talking about film with other enthusiasts, and if you haven’t seen Andrei Rublev I wouldn’t think twice about it. But if you’ve never seen anything by Tarkovsky, or Welles, or Mizoguchi, or Tati, or Kubrick, or Bergman, or Hitchcock, or Ford, or whoever, then I think that we will have very little to talk about after a short while. I arrived at those directors’ films because other films that I enjoyed and their accompanying critical dialogue led me to them. Only occasionally have I come across something deemed canonical that I have found of very little value.

  3. prezzey

    This is quite amusing, since last year I gave in and read Anna Karenina after about a dozen people recommended it to me, and I’m not exaggerating! It was totally a word of mouth thing. Then again, most of the people who recommended it (or flat out ordered me to read it! 😀 ) were Hungarian and not American.

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