Nothing in my life has been more rewarding than reading books from the canon

Last week I was in Baltimore, giving a reading at Johns Hopkins, where I got my MFA. Although I was sort of dreading it–I don’t know, I wasn’t really sure what I had to talk about with my old professors–I actually had a great time! In fact, one of the things that I found most charming, as I interacted with people from the Writing Seminars, was the mustiness and austerity of the program.

I know lots of people hate this about English and/or Creative Writing departments, and I’d probably hate it too if I had to make my career within one, but I like how committed Johns Hopkins, in particular, is to the classics. Because, okay, I just don’t know if there’s a politic way to say this, but…if you’re in the business of studying how to be a great writer, you should probably start by studying great writing.

There is this myth that the stuff being written today is basically as good as the stuff that was written in the past, and you can pretty much level your gaze on any genre or any time period and find more than enough good writing to last you a lifetime.

This myth is both true and untrue. What’s true is that people were not better writers in the past. There are novels coming out this year that are the equal of House of Mirth or Mrs. Dalloway or The Sorrows of Young Werther or whatever other book you might care to name.

The thing that’s untrue, though, is that you’ll be able to find those novels. Because, regrettably, we seem to be completely unable to look at contemporary art with any sort of sense of perspective. I mean, the Pulitzer committee doesn’t set out every year to pick the year’s biggest flash-in-the-pan, forgotten-by-tomorrow book, and yet somehow, nine out of ten years, that’s exactly what they do. And it’s not their fault! You or I would probably do the same thing. I mean when The Goldfinch came out, I too was like…this book is legit. I enjoy reading it. Now, five years later, I’m like…nobody’s life is going to be changed by TheGoldfinch. It’s just sort of an okay novel.

The thing about great literature is that it often changes our definition of what’s good. Which means that when it comes out, lots of people read it, and are like, “This book is not very good.”

The thing about good literature, on the other hand, is that it often conforms very well to our definitions of what’s good. Which means people read it and they instantly think, “This is a great novel.”

Your taste isn’t special. You’re probably not going to be able to recognize all the books coming out in a given year that are truly world-changing, which means if you only read contemporary books, you’re going to read a lot of good novels that are masquerading as great.

It seems absurd to me that in 2018 a writer should need to defend the classics. Possibly it seems absurd to you as well. After all, the classics have basically all of the power of the State behind them. In some metaphysical way, the classics are books that are backed up by authority. If you cannot graduate high school without studying Pride and Prejudice (as is true in a public school I just visited), then Pride and Prejudice, no matter how wonderful a book it might be, has become a tool of social control, and it’s very difficult to love a tool of social control.

So I very much understand if high school or even college students don’t love the classics. Were I they, I’d hate them too. In fact, when I was in high school, I did hate and resent the classics. What I didn’t like was how they made me feel stupid. I was a person who loved books, but because I didn’t love Pride and Prejudice I somehow had terrible taste? I was somehow not a very thoughtful person? What bullshit!

I don’t think people are bad if they don’t love the classics. Nor do I think you need to read the classics to lead a moral or well-rounded life. In some sense, I think rebelling against the classics is healthy. It certainly is aggravating to be forced to read Pride and Prejudice in high school, and I think only a very tenuous case can be made for the book’s educational value (ironically, it’s assigned largely because teachers think it’s one of the few 19th century novels that the average teenager might be able to connect to).

But I do think it’s sad when I meet young writers who dismiss the classics. In my mind, I’m like…what the fuck are you doing? Why even bother to read if you’re not going to read the best that literature has to offer?

If you hate the classics because they’re all men, then fine, read Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Lady Murasaki, the Bronte sisters (even Ann, I think she had a lot to say), Jane Austen, Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Gaskell, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Flannery O’Connor, Patricia Highsmith, Nathalie Sarraute, George Eliot, Aphra Behn, or any of a bunch of other amazing female writers. In fact, this is a particularly unfair criticism for a reader of English to make, because we’re unusually blessed (compared to, say, French, German, or Russian) with a number of incredible 18th and 19th century female British authors.

Similar lists could be made of canonical queer authors (Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Henry James [yes I’m including him!], Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, John Cheever, William Burroughs, Evelyn Waugh) or canonical non-Western authors (Natsume Soeseki, Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata, R.K. Narayan, Chinua Achebe, Luo Guangzho).

But I also have to say that I don’t think reading the dead white men is a terrible idea either. It would sadden me if somebody eschewed the ancient Greek and Latin writers just because they were white men (if ‘white’ can even have any meaning at a remove of two thousand years). Antiquity is such a different place from the modern world that it seems absurd to say, “Because I want diversity in my reading, I’m not going to read these works that are incredibly different from anything that people write today.”

I was going in this article to make a case that reading books from the past opens you up to structures and forms that nobody adopts today. You get something from older books (and from translated novels) that you literally cannot find in modern English literature. And that’s true, but only to a point. For instance, Knausgaard is basically the same, formally, as Proust’s novel. And The Goldfinch is basically a Dickens novel, both in terms of style and structure. All of these influences have been so deeply internalized that they’re still around in today’s literature.

More and more, I think the case for the classics is the simplest one. They’re just some of the best books. I’m not saying that there aren’t greater novels than Anna Karenina, but…what are they? If you have any ideas, please let me know, so I can write them down in a list, discuss them with other people, and maybe get them added to college syllabi

(Although actually I don’t think Anna Karenina is taught very often in college, because it’s too long. It’s actually astonishing how few of the ‘classics’ ever get assigned in class, precisely because they’re too long. Most American English majors will graduate without ever having to read Middlemarch or David Copperfield. And if you want statistical proof of these assertions you can find it here.).

I know that the canon isn’t just a list of amazing books; it’d be absurd to pretend that the classics are not a tool of institutional power. There’s a reason that nobody recommends that young Americans go out and read the Quran, even though it’s an incredible literary achievement that kind of does make you believe, at least for a little bit, in the possibility of divine revelation. It’s because reading the Quran doesn’t really do any good for any powerful people in America. It doesn’t sell books. It doesn’t create jobs. It doesn’t make the reputation of any literary critics. The Quran is something fundamentally not under the control of any white people, not even in a local sense (the way that, say, Edward Seidensticker could be an American expert on Genji), and thus there’s really very little constituency, within letters, for the Quran.

So I admit that. But still, I mean, can’t we also stipulate that IN ADDITION to being a tool of social control, the canon IS ALSO a collection of amazing books?