December 18, 2005

Casting the Canon

Pursuant of this, Lynn has her own comments on "literary" fiction, and Charles Hill of Dustbury has chimed in as well. And one of the commenters to Charles' post had this to say (among other things):

I disagree with Lynn's comments about the literary canon-somebody has to decide what belongs and what doesn't. I hope it's somebody with taste and, yes, a little elitism in his heart. Otherwise Harold Robbins and Danielle Steele will be "taught" because that's what people like.

I'm reminded of a lengthy discussion on the merits of Frank Lloyd wright's Falling Water over at 2Blowhards a year or so ago. Architecturally, Falling Water is a marvel; everybody grants that. It's remarkable, innovative, and amazingly sited. It's a beautiful building. But it fails miserably as a place to live. The firestorm which greeted this fairly obvious statement was something to behold, and it soon became clear there were two camps: those for home a house needs to be a place to live, first and foremost, and those who were following some other aesthetic of architectural beauty. I believe something similar is going on with literary fiction. There are those who want an interesting tale, well-told, and those who, bored with that, want something different. I'm sure that there are diverse values of different in play--flashy writing, polemics, etc.--but I think that's what it comes down to.

Anyway, let's examine this assumption: that someone has to decide what's canonical, or else we'll be teaching Harold Robbins and Danielle Steele in our once-fine universities. This is just silly. A book doesn't enter the canon because one individual, or a handful of individuals, says it does. In fact, books are not added to the canon in any meaningful sense. Rather, books are recognized to be canonical, not by any one person but by general acclaim over time.

It's true that there have been attempts to somehow redefine the canon ideologically in recent decades; we've all heard of the Dead White Males. And yet, somehow, I'm certain the Dead White Males will still be read fifty and a hundred years from now. It's possible that some of the ideologically-motivated "additions" will be still be read as well. It's even possible that Harold Robbins and Danielle Steele (neither of whom I have any interest in) will still be read in a hundred years, and not just as porn. And if so, then one would have to admit that there's something there, something worth looking into, something worth appreciating, even if I can't see it.

And if not, then, well, not.

Posted by Will Duquette at December 18, 2005 08:27 AM