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.