Join 3,561 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Lame and trite and read all over
July 21, 2009 7:37 AM   Subscribe

Fired from The Canon. Classics that maybe aren't so classic. (kottke via secondpass)
posted by littlerobothead (211 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Early in the novel, Gladney surveys students arriving on campus, and apparently this laundry list passes for incisive:

". . . the junk food still in shopping bags — onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints."

As in almost every scene in the novel, DeLillo sacrifices any sense of realism for dull, thin polemic. To critique the image on just one level, this is a completely unlikely haul of groceries for any one person. They can be believable characters, or they can buy bags and bags full of things called Waffelos, Kabooms and Dum-Dum pops. In his strong desire to make his characters ridiculous and contemptuous, DeLillo opts for the candy.


Obviously the article author has never seen a college student shop whilst stoned as hell.
posted by FatherDagon at 7:42 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love the pairing of this and the thread immediately below. Antonymisterical.
posted by mippy at 7:42 AM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


I have to say, in the service of full disclosure, that White Noise is one of my favorite novels. there. I said it.
posted by littlerobothead at 7:44 AM on July 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


In 2003, I was a final year linguistics student, and while hanging out with a friend of mine who did an English course, we met some friends of hers who'd just left an exam.

'What was it on?'

'The Great American Novel.'

'Oh, right...is that stuff like Steinbeck and Fitzgerald?'

'Oh no, it's books that you won't have heard of, things like White Noise.'

I didn't have the heart to tell her that the reason that she probably had to go and buy her own copy was because I had had it out of the university library as a break from taxonymy coursework.
posted by mippy at 7:44 AM on July 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


How I hate "edgy" contrarianism. It's like the kid who sits next to you in algebra who just read Vonnegut and wants to tell you how fake everything is and how the world is full of hypocrisy. Which he spells "hypocracy" of course.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:46 AM on July 21, 2009 [23 favorites]


(kottke via secondpass)

It's not so much via secondpass as it actually IS secondpass. Via kottke.
posted by kingbenny at 7:46 AM on July 21, 2009


The Road was absolutely the worst book I've ever read that I could not put down.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:46 AM on July 21, 2009 [16 favorites]


My SO read it recently - he doesn't read much fiction and adored it.

My copy of 100 Years of Solitude went mouldy before I could get chance to read it.
posted by mippy at 7:48 AM on July 21, 2009


....When did The Road come out? Just a few years ago, right? So how are we sure people are even including it in "The Canon" yet in the first place?

Besides, well, I liked it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:48 AM on July 21, 2009


Hurm. I agree with him on White Noise, but the part about the college kids showing up is one of the best-written parts. It takes place in a part of the book before the characters cease acting anything like actual human beings (that is to say, it's on the first few pages).
posted by Bookhouse at 7:48 AM on July 21, 2009


I actually loved The Road, but I wouldn't have ever expected to find it listed in any 'Canon'. Same with On The Road.
posted by kingbenny at 7:50 AM on July 21, 2009


If I put together a list of all my favorite (reasonably prolific) authors, and then a sub-list of all my third or fourth favorite books by those authors, and then ranked all of those books in order of personal preference, The Road would be about third. I liked it. I'm not sure anybody's calling it canon yet.
posted by penduluum at 7:53 AM on July 21, 2009


I started reading this practically rubbing my hands with anticipation, and seeing someone who agreed with my assessment of White Noise only increased that feeling. But honestly, the critique of The Road is completely facile and misses the point of McCarthy's style. Then I scrolled a bit and saw The Corrections and Dos Passos and I closed the tab.
posted by CRM114 at 7:54 AM on July 21, 2009 [5 favorites]


Most of these books aren't even in the canon. They are too new.

Now, if you want to go kicking books out of the canon, how about _Paradise Lost_? That book has no redeeming value whatsoever.
posted by QIbHom at 7:56 AM on July 21, 2009


A blog post isn't really the best medium for literary criticism, especially when you're trying to say something about the Western literary canon. It's hard to relate anything other than your personal opinion in two paragraphs; hell, managing to tell others what you personally think about a book in two or three paragraphs is an achievement in itself. The only reasonable way to react to something like this is with a shrug and a "YMMV".
posted by daniel_charms at 7:57 AM on July 21, 2009


How I hate "edgy" contrarianism. It's like the kid who sits next to you in algebra who just read Vonnegut and wants to tell you how fake everything is and how the world is full of hypocrisy. Which he spells "hypocracy" of course.

Goddamn. He's so edgy he's writing you notes about Vonnegut.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:59 AM on July 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


Now, if you want to go kicking books out of the canon, how about _Paradise Lost_? That book has no redeeming value whatsoever.

And Lady Chatterley's Lover was just as tedious as The Rainbow, but that doesn't get a mention.

And Proust. I actually made an attempt to read Remembrance of Things Past when I was in college, on a lark; I checked "Swann's Way" out of the library, struggled through about two pages in which I don't recall anything actually happening except for the narrator lying in his bed describing his wallpaper, and then I gave up and returned it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:00 AM on July 21, 2009


Anyone who has a contrary-but-not-with-fact-or-even-interesting-opinion-but-just-to-be-contrary opinion about famous novels should be required to pay a tax whereby one time each year they are led into a cornfield and beaten with metal baseball bats and buried alive.
posted by Damn That Television at 8:01 AM on July 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


On Jacob's Room:

Sadly, stream-of-consciousness had been better employed by better writers for years by the time [Woolf] tried to use it...Woolf’s attempts with it were little more than an easy way to get over the tricky matter of not having lived any of what she was writing.

Bitch, please. The SOC in Mrs. Dalloway is one of the most psychologically authentic passages in modern literature. How cheap to nitpick one of her lesser (and comparatively non-canon) works just because you got a C+ on a Woolf paper in your Modern Lit class.
posted by zoomorphic at 8:04 AM on July 21, 2009 [8 favorites]


Or you can read the original scroll [of On the Road] released by Viking in 2007

If they did reissue this in scroll format, that would be pretty cool, but it's just a book.
posted by snofoam at 8:07 AM on July 21, 2009


Meh, I haven't read all the books on the list, but for the ones I have read, I disagreed with his opinions. Sort of makes me want to pick up White Noise and Absalom! Absalom! from the library.
posted by muddgirl at 8:07 AM on July 21, 2009


My favorite part is the sheer breadth of his critical analysis. Lessee here...

1. "dull"
2. "same story told over and over"
3. "bored"
4. "numbing"
5. "eventless"
6. "filled me with awe and boredom"
7. "to the point of stultification"
8. "deliberately obscure"
9. "we watch with a yawn"
10. "uninspiring"

This guy's thesaurus is on fire!
posted by ormondsacker at 8:09 AM on July 21, 2009 [12 favorites]


I thought the list/article was OK, but I'm more excited to check out rest of the blog and discover the world of NASCAR-based romance novels! Two things I don't get combined for great hilarity.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 8:15 AM on July 21, 2009


This guy's thesaurus is on fire!

It was number 11 on his list, that's why. He didn't think the story held together.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:16 AM on July 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


I was ready to dismiss this as knee-jerk contrarianism, but I was lured into the thread by the negative opinions on White Noise, a book I think is bad or at least evil.

This is pretty scattershot, though, and I'm alarmed to learn that "The Second Pass" is a literary magazine with more than a dozen contributors, and not just some guys blog.
posted by grobstein at 8:17 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


The UK Rugby Union Football-based romance novels are even worse better.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:17 AM on July 21, 2009


I agree with the comments noting that The Road isn't part of the canon. It can't be; it's too young. I would like to focus on one particular thing, though; this sentence:

McCarthy benefits greatly from specificity of character and complexity of plot . . .

--which indicates that the author of this piece doesn't know a fucking thing about Cormac McCarthy. The best parts of The Road is the prose; the plot is secondary. And has the author ever read Blood Meridian, McCarthy's finest work imho? There is no plot in that book, no real characterization (except for The Judge, who is like a black hole of character -- he is so monstrous that all other characters pale before him); and that lack of plot, the lack of character, are the book's great strengths. The thin plot of that book is the backdrop for some of the most gorgeous, breathtaking, and perverse prose I've ever read.
posted by Frobenius Twist at 8:17 AM on July 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


Arrrgh . . . "the best PART of The Road is the prose . . . "
posted by Frobenius Twist at 8:18 AM on July 21, 2009


I don't think it's necessarily edgy to dislike various works. We're often worshipful of things which enter The List of Things Enlightened Minds Ought to Like. I think the use of the word "canon" is appropriate here. The idea of these sacred reading lists of great fiction is entirely contrary to the concept of liberation. If someone tells you something like "every free-thinking person ought to like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (I am paraphrasing actual experience), not only are they guilty of some unimaginative snobbery, they're guilty of radically misunderstanding the label which they so gleefully display as a badge of entry to whatever little club they think they've got going on.

I have entirely gotten over not being able to stand On the Road long enough to finish it. It may or may not be a great book, it may or may not have been historically important or influential, but it doesn't make me backwards. I am perhaps a little less well-read than I could be. I might be in danger of missing a question in Trivial Pursuit. It doesn't mean that I am an unrefined savage who is unable to appreciate the subtle and marvelous parade of literature, however. I find The Scarlet Letter to be a terrific bore which might well have served as a short story; pages upon pages of description devoted to Pearl's "qualities" is a test to be endured for the sake of story, not an automatic shoo-in for great literature.

As long as these lists are holy and unquestioned, where, once entered, a work might never leave, we leave the realm of critical thought and enter into mere idolatry.

Having said that, the article's author primarily writes criticisms which strongly suggest that Ritalin might be of great benefit.
posted by adipocere at 8:19 AM on July 21, 2009 [9 favorites]


I'm alarmed to learn that "The Second Pass" is a literary magazine with more than a dozen contributors, and not just some guys blog.

The impression I have is that it's a group blog that calls itself a magazine. Everything in it seems to be by the same few people, which isn't really how magazines work.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:19 AM on July 21, 2009


Dissing On The Road (and the Beat movement in general) is akin to saying, "I don't like jazz." While I can see your point, I feel compelled to say YOU'RE WRONG! I first tried reading it when I was 18 or 19, got through maybe 80 pages and found it very easy to put down and forget about ... for more than 10 years, at which point I stumbled upon the same copy, opened it up and, for some strange reason, started reading again, picking up exactly where I left off. This time I couldn't put it down. I guess I'd done some growing.

As for DeLillo, I haven't troubled myself with White Noise, but if I could have the month or so back that it took me to get through Underworld, I'm sure I'd be leading a more fulfilled and meaningful life. The guy's a fine wordsmith but he's way too cool to tell an actual story.

And The Road? I started it a few months back (it was pressed upon me as a must-read), read two chapters but quickly decided nahhh! I blame Blood Meridian for this; deserving of all the praise it's ever received but, rather like going to war I suspect, an experience that didn't need to be repeated.
posted by philip-random at 8:20 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's necessarily edgy to dislike various works.

No. I was referring to the piece itself, not to the idea of critiquing literary canons. In general, though, I would suggest that "I thought it was boring" is not a particular insightful or useful critique of canonical literature.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:21 AM on July 21, 2009


Now, if you want to go kicking books out of the canon, how about _Paradise Lost_? That book has no redeeming value whatsoever.

Dude, angels fight each other in suits of armor with cannons. They need to wear the armor so that the cannonballs have something to hit, as angelic substance cannot be harmed. That's some Jack Kirby shit right there.

Hell, is Jimmy Olsen out of copyright yet? I'm going to make my millions like the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by sticking Olsen into the narrative.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:24 AM on July 21, 2009 [5 favorites]


Anyone hating on DeLillo is cool with me. I should probably reread White Noise, just to be fair, but my initial reaction to the book was so viscerally negative I'm afraid to try. One Hundred Years of Solitude has one of the greatest opening sentences and closing sentences that I've ever read, and a whole bunch of dipsy-doodly stuff in between. I don't get the complaint about A Tale of Two Cities, though: it's the one Dickens novel that doesn't suffer from having been written by wheelbarrow. How is that a bad thing?

Oh, and Proust is someone whose work I was constitutionally incaoable of appreciating until I hit 40. Now I look forward to a lifetime of reading my way through the entirety of it.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:24 AM on July 21, 2009


I really enjoyed all the books that I've read that he disliked. I think he's right about White Noise in his criticisms. I think it doesn't matter. Delillo's characters in white noise don't act like real human beings significantly because it's a (smug) critique of how we aren't behaving like human beings. The throw away bits about the most photographed barn and the generic food containers and using your finger as a tooth brush are what you come for. The book isn't a strawman so much as it's a reductio ad absurdum.

On the road is cool because the characters do actually cool things. Yeah reading on the road is less cool than going to burning man but it is much more cool than reading 'my fun time at burning man'. It's a dipshit's critique.

The Road is a great book for any given year but it's not one of the great books. I don't think it belongs in the cannon and very few people do. I think his argument was probably alright in this case it's a shame he's more or less arguing with no one.
posted by I Foody at 8:26 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Paradise Lost and Remembrance of Things Past? Really?

Maybe I'm just weird, but I read PL and had hairs standing up on the back of my neck. It's got a very cinematic sweep to it. I can see how Proust is a thing people can take or leave alone depending on how much patience they have with a slow-moving book, but PL is fantastic. I've been slowly working my way through Bloom's Western Canon list for (what probably only I would call) fun, and those were two of the ones I really enjoyed.

Tristram Shandy, though, is just not ever going to happen. If you think Proust is bad, trying reading Sterne. I know it's supposed to be one of the great comic novels of English literature, but I just can't see any humor in it.
posted by winna at 8:28 AM on July 21, 2009


On the Road was chauvinistic garbage that is so frustratingly overrated, especially in progressive circles.

I had to read it in my high school English class. I guess my teacher thought he was being hip or something.

It makes me feel very vindicated when other people shit on it. So, thanks.
posted by lunit at 8:30 AM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


I remember that after reading On The Road the first time (all the way thought), my thoughts could well be summed up with "Christ, what an asshole". Maybe I need to go back and try reading it again.
posted by bjrn at 8:31 AM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


I don't think it's necessarily edgy to dislike various works. We're often worshipful of things which enter The List of Things Enlightened Minds Ought to Like. I think the use of the word "canon" is appropriate here. The idea of these sacred reading lists of great fiction is entirely contrary to the concept of liberation. If someone tells you something like "every free-thinking person ought to like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (I am paraphrasing actual experience), not only are they guilty of some unimaginative snobbery, they're guilty of radically misunderstanding the label which they so gleefully display as a badge of entry to whatever little club they think they've got going on.

You know, you may have just inspired me to try to revive a pet project - at the time that the 1001 books you must read before you die book came out, which was also about the time that the Julie/Julia project blog debuted, I toyed with the idea of creating a blog in which I actually read through and reviewed all 1001 of those books. (That fell by the wayside, though, because reading 1001 books fast enough to write about them consistently is very daunting.)

But the reasoning I had is very similar to what you've said -- that we are somehow a little too reverent of these "classic books," which -- at the time they were written -- were just books. Melville didn't write Moby Dick because he wanted high school students to have something to study -- he wrote it so the average yutz could have something to just read. In his day, Melville was more like John Grisham than he was like Homer. And just like not everyone likes John Grisham, probably not everyone liked Melville back in the day; some people probably thought "feh, Moby Dick blows goats." (Well, maybe not in those words.) Just because something is In The Canon, that doesn't mean that a) you'll like it, b) you'll get anything out of it, or c) everyone thinks it should be there.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:32 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


In general, though, I would suggest that "I thought it was boring" is not a particular insightful or useful critique of canonical literature.

I dunno, Sidhedevil.

It does have a certain deadly concision.

(We still have a teenager in the house...)</small.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 8:32 AM on July 21, 2009


I keep meaning to read Proust, but y'know, once you've got round to getting all those volumes that copy of Heat looks even more enticing.

I'm surprised they didn't lance Ulysses here - but then most people who've managed to read the whole thing love it. Once you treat it as a prose poem, and let go of the idea of parsing every word in a sentence one after the other, it flows wonderfully.
posted by mippy at 8:33 AM on July 21, 2009


I don't like jazz and I like On the Road. Go figure.
posted by item at 8:35 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Most of these I haven't read, though I've been gearing up for my own run through the canon—I have a collection called Britannica Great Books that saved me a little bit of cash in college, since it meant I already had Locke and Mill, etc. What's holding me back is that I know that the stuff it starts out with—Iliad, Odyssey—are some of the worst translations imaginable. By Samuel Butler (schoolmaster), even Wikipedia hates them, noting that they're confusing and archaic. Things that should be no brainers, like rendering Greek gods with Greek names, instead we're reading about Jove and Minerva. Since the compilation came out in the '50s, and the translations were written, oh, in the middle of the eighteenth century, you'd think they could have done a better job choosing them.

Still, I'm rather looking forward to reading stuff like Moby Dick again, assuming I don't throw in the towel trying to decipher Newton's treatise on optics.
posted by klangklangston at 8:37 AM on July 21, 2009


I'm surprised they didn't lance Ulysses here - but then most people who've managed to read the whole thing love it. Once you treat it as a prose poem, and let go of the idea of parsing every word in a sentence one after the other, it flows wonderfully.

I visited the Joyce Centre in Dublin somewhere between my third and fourth attempt at Ulysses -- they had a video presentation you had to watch before you went on the tour, which was essentially devoted to "Why Joyce picked June 14, 1914 For The Day In Ulysses." The video revealed that that was the very day of his first date with his wife, and that there were all sorts of little hidden references to their relationship throughout. That was what helped me a lot when I picked up the book again - if there was something I didn't get, I just shrugged and thought, "eh, it must be one of his in-jokes" and went on.

I was also comforted when the guy who ran the center -- a man whom I later learned was Joyce's nephew -- struck up a conversation with me about the book. When I confessed that I'd tried reading the book a few times and hadn't gotten through it, he comfortingly said that it was a dense book, and a lot of people thought that...and when I said that I'd tried three times with no luck, he just burst out laughing, and said, "Darlin', it took me twelve tries."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:38 AM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Tristram Shandy, though, is just not ever going to happen... I know it's supposed to be one of the great comic novels of English literature, but I just can't see any humor in it.

Then you need medical attention. I'm sorry. That was too harsh. But I really don't see how anyone could read Tristam Shandy and not find it funny. Different strokes, I guess.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:39 AM on July 21, 2009


Actually, Melville was like a less-successful Nathaniel Hawthorne, and very few people read Moby Dick when it first came out—it was seen as a disappointment from a nautical adventure author, an over-reach that combined too many mish-mashes of literary technique into a self-conscious mess.
posted by klangklangston at 8:42 AM on July 21, 2009


Tristam Shandy isn't funny, it's droll. Gulliver's Travels is funny.
posted by klangklangston at 8:43 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised they didn't lance Ulysses here - but then most people who've managed to read the whole thing love it. Once you treat it as a prose poem, and let go of the idea of parsing every word in a sentence one after the other, it flows wonderfully.

Huh. In my experience, few books benefit more from a close reading.

I don't think this list is knee-jerk contrarianism. If they wanted to be knee jerk contrarians on the internet at this particular moment in time, they would have named Infinite Jest and said it was "too long".

I suppose I'm sympathetic to this list, though; I agree 100% with what they say about White Noise and The Road.
posted by mr_roboto at 8:54 AM on July 21, 2009


Please add A Separate Peace to the list, if we're including public school lit. Christ what an awful book.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:01 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Or you can read the original scroll [of On the Road] released by Viking in 2007

This was at the fancy library at the university where I did my undergrad. They rotated it every day, so a different 15 feet or so were readable. It was awesome.

I want this dude to tell me some more books he thinks suck so I can figure out what to read next (though I do agree with his disdain for A Tale of Two Cities).
posted by solipsophistocracy at 9:01 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: full of festering bushels of dud coinages, Biblical bluster, and diarrheal sentences that do nothing but draw attention to their over-toasted ornamentation.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:05 AM on July 21, 2009


For criticizing One Hundred Years of Solitude in the way that he did, he officially can't borrow any of my issues of Love and Rockets. Ever.

Heathen.
posted by Joey Michaels at 9:11 AM on July 21, 2009


Now, if you want to go kicking books out of the canon, how about _Paradise Lost_?

Yeah! Boring, worthless, stupid old Paradise Lost. Stupid perfect epic manifestation of the endless human struggle between authority and insurrection, order and chaos, even at the level of the line (where the orderly march of the pentameter strains on every page to contain the warm, active cosmos of the sentences). And can you believe it took 9 years to write? How could such a dumb book take so long of a time? Probably because I heard the guy who "wrote" it was blind and couldn't even see, that probably explains how stupid it is too. What a dumb piece of trash.
posted by sleevener at 9:13 AM on July 21, 2009 [9 favorites]


In general, though, I would suggest that "I thought it was boring" is not a particular insightful or useful critique of canonical literature.

I think it's a great critique of any sort of literature. I think of it as the "hits you in the gut" effect. Does a book hit you in the gut consistently? Then it's great literature. If there are parts of a book that do, but parts that keep you from feeling sufficiently tenderized (and, if you're reasonably well-educated things like awful prose or characterization will get in the way, which saves us from canonizing a sufficient amount of pulpy mainstream novels, like The DaVinci Code), then it's just an OK book. But if you're bored throughout? If you don't feel at least poked in the ribs a few times? Then goddammit, what's the point?!

But then, I don't read novels for edification. I have non-fiction for that. I read them, by and large, to be entertained.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:16 AM on July 21, 2009 [8 favorites]


If the point of a Canon were to create a list of books that everyone 'likes' and breezes through then the authors of this list might never have read enough challenging works to actually have formed an opinion on what merits inclusion and what does not. Ironic no?
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:22 AM on July 21, 2009


His first three are favorites of mine, so he got me. Still, Delillo, Marquez, MacCarthy and Franzen aren't even in "The Canon" yet; seems a little premature to throw them out.
posted by xod at 9:22 AM on July 21, 2009


I hated A Separate Peace too! There were other books in highschool that I didn't like or didn't get much out of but only with a seperate peace was I sure that the problem was with the book and not with me. What an awful book! God I hated that it was somehow chosen for me when almost every other book is better. How can a teacher in good conscience make people read that book? Those are hours that the students will never get back and for what? A greater resentment of the written word?
posted by I Foody at 9:25 AM on July 21, 2009


As a friend of mine said, as lazily waved a copy over his head; standing majestically amid the empty pint pots, crisp packets and ashtrays of a sociable Sunday session in The Richard Steeles - a pub so drenched in the history of piss-artistry that, were you to wring it out, would drip tears of laughter, madness and Timothy Taylor's Landlord all the way down Haverstock Hill until the denizens of Camden would drown, spluttering in the agony and the history - where only moments ago we had descended into an earnest but not exactly sober argument on the relative merits of various of the above mentioned notable works:

"One Hundred Years Of Solitude can suck on my balls."
posted by Jofus at 9:26 AM on July 21, 2009 [9 favorites]


If the point of a Canon were to create a list of books that everyone 'likes' and breezes through then the authors of this list might never have read enough challenging works to actually have formed an opinion on what merits inclusion and what does not. Ironic no?

I think that The Road and On the Road would easily qualify as books that many people like and breeze through. What's a challenging book? A big book? There are several of those on the list. An experimental book? The authors of the list go out of their way to recommend The Sound and the Fury. I don't agree with everything on the list here (I loved The Corrections), but "If you like books that aren't painful to read, you must not be well educated" is a weird, weird argument, and one that's not even reflected in the original article.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:28 AM on July 21, 2009


Does a book hit you in the gut consistently? Then it's great literature.

Different strokes and whatnot, but this hardly the only criteria for whether I think something was great.

Same goes for when somebody told me years ago the only music they could appreciate was music that made them uncomfortable.
posted by kingbenny at 9:29 AM on July 21, 2009


Whoops, I misread.

But still, I'd much rather see the canon preserve books that are enjoyable, more often, than painful.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:29 AM on July 21, 2009


I think it's a great critique of any sort of literature. I think of it as the "hits you in the gut" effect.

The problem with that sort of critique is that not everyone has the same idea about what is "boring" in literature.

For example, I thought 100 Years of Solitude was absolutely breath-taking. A real page-turner. Same with The Road - it was well-crafted and I literally couldn't put it down. Yet the author of this blog post hates both books for different reasons - one because it's too literary and "boring" and the other because it's not literary enough and repetitive (aka, boring). So if two books with wildly different styles fail to hit this particular author "in the gut", how can I take his advice to avoid these books? If even the author "can’t decide whether I was bored when I picked up García Márquez or whether García Márquez bored me," why should that exercise be left to the reader?

Upon reflection, I realize that the shoddy critiques are probably due to the fact that this article was written by several different people - probably each person contributed one book. So if the title was changed to, "Books our contributors thought were boring", I'd probably have less of a problem with it.
posted by muddgirl at 9:30 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


A stupid, self-indulgent list, perfectly summed up by ormondsacker's comment. I particularly liked "we watch with a yawn on our lips": no, asshole, that's just you. Leave the rest of us out of it.

They even provide a response to their own nonsense: "Who cares if you don’t like – for example – Middlemarch?" Well, exactly: who cares? Not me.
posted by languagehat at 9:30 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


How can a teacher in good conscience make people read that book? Those are hours that the students will never get back and for what? A greater resentment of the written word?

I'll grant you I'm thinking of a different book right now, but there is no telling what book a student may actually dig.

My sophmore year English class was assigned Silas Marner, and we all hated the first chapter -- however, everyone else in my class gave up and got the Cliff Notes while I decided to give it one more shot and muddle through it. And I found, to my great delight, that with the second chapter, it started getting way better. So everyone else in the class was grumbling about how "these are hours we'll never get back, how dare the teacher do this to us," but meanwhile I was there happily reading and thinking, "no, seriously, you guys, this actually ain't bad."

This isn't to say that all books are equal just because "someone somewhere may like it," but more a defense of the idea of recommending books that have stood some kind of a test of time because "hey, a lot of people seemed to like this, give it a shot."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:30 AM on July 21, 2009


If someone tells you something like "every free-thinking person ought to like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (I am paraphrasing actual experience), not only are they guilty of some unimaginative snobbery, they're guilty of radically misunderstanding the label which they so gleefully display as a badge of entry to whatever little club they think they've got going on.

ZAMM was written for people who like to waive those kinds of badges. It’s all about badge-wearing.
(but only if you’ve made that badge yourself like a true authentic)

I think of it as the "hits you in the gut" effect. Does a book hit you in the gut consistently? Then it's great literature.

*pulls out telephone book* Grab 'im, boys.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:34 AM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


I love jazz.

But some of it sucks.
posted by The World Famous at 9:36 AM on July 21, 2009


The problem with that sort of critique is that not everyone has the same idea about what is "boring" in literature.

Well, I'm not going to argue against the idea that, perhaps, the idea of a canon in and of itself is flawed, that tastes are deeply subjective, and that people should read things and form opinions of books themselves.

I had a conversation with a friend about Ulysses once, just before I started reading it for a class. He said that Joyce was a genius, but that he only enjoyed the last chapter. But that, of course I should read it, because Joyce was a genius. Having read it now, I see it as a deeply, deeply flawed work even if one tries to read it as a prose poem (I think that what Joyce really needed was a good editor); even though I enjoyed bits of it, I don't think it was really enjoyable enough to bear out the amount of work required to read it. And I'll tell people that when they ask me my opinion of it. Sometimes they're surprised, I guess because that goes against the canon. But honestly? I'd much rather have people tell me to stay away from a novel, and have good reasons why, than have them try to tell me something's worth reading for reasons that seem to have nothing to do with the text or the experience of reading a book itself. Which is, I think, part of how we get something like a literary canon in the first place.

That, and high school English classes.

(Speaking of which, I loved Silas Marner, too!)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:39 AM on July 21, 2009


Well, I'm not going to argue against the idea that, perhaps, the idea of a canon in and of itself is flawed, that tastes are deeply subjective, and that people should read things and form opinions of books themselves.

I wouldn't argue with that either, but in the context of the posted article, I would argue that any of those books form some sort of Canon (as they are wildly different styles and have wildly different audiences) save for On The Road. The Contributors seem to be railing against a phantom authority.
posted by muddgirl at 9:42 AM on July 21, 2009


I believe My Humps should be removed from the canon as well. It is simply terrible. Please see to this at once.
posted by Naberius at 9:44 AM on July 21, 2009


But then, I don't read novels for edification. I have non-fiction for that. I read them, by and large, to be entertained.

But literary canons are not about "what's most entertaining."

That's what beachread lists are for. And best-seller lists.

It's apples and oranges. You learn things from reading novels for edification that are different from the things you learn from reading non-fiction for edification, which are different from the things you learn reading novels for fun, which are different from the things you learn reading non-fiction for fun.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:44 AM on July 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


I totally agree with adipocere that Great Works of Literature need knocking down now and then. If only to keep our admiration from stultifying the act of actual reading and appreciation.

Though his knocking down isn't very clever or insightful it seems.

I wonder why he chose 100 yrs of solitude. In my mind that's in the class of Popular Reads. It's hard to argue with popularity. It will still be popular.

In a different vein I'm surprised by his dismissal of Dos Passos. I perused it when I was in high-school. I remember it as a form experiment like Finnegans Wake with a similar degree of unsurprising unreadability. Its unreadability is not exactly the reason it's part of the canon but at least necessarily connected to its admission to the canon.
posted by jouke at 9:44 AM on July 21, 2009


Up-thread, lunit mentioned having to read some of these in high school, and BitterOldPunk mentioned how some of these books didn't resonate until he was 40 . I've always found that curious that many of the "great books" are pushed on kids when they're sixteen, even though these books were never intended to be read by kids. I understand that there is a range of difficulty in any given literary canon, but I've always wondered if pushing a book like Moby Dick on a kid in high school runs more risk of turning him off of literature for good, rather than opening his eyes to great works.
posted by nushustu at 9:44 AM on July 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


And, yeah, it's fine to say "the idea of a literary canon is flawed and people should just read what they enjoy." I disagree, but it's a consistent position.

But that's not what that article is saying. That article takes for granted the utility of a literary canon--it's just suggesting that books one person found to be boring don't belong there.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:45 AM on July 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Well, I enjoyed the list despite not having an opinion about most of the books on it. I like it when people bitch about books, because it gives me an excuse not to read them.

And Proust. I actually made an attempt to read Remembrance of Things Past when I was in college, on a lark; I checked "Swann's Way" out of the library, struggled through about two pages in which I don't recall anything actually happening except for the narrator lying in his bed describing his wallpaper, and then I gave up and returned it.

You realize this comment makes you look like a puffed-up philistine, right?
posted by nasreddin at 9:45 AM on July 21, 2009


But literary canons are not about "what's most entertaining." That's what beachread lists are for. And best-seller lists. It's apples and oranges. You learn things from reading novels for edification that are different from the things you learn from reading non-fiction for edification, which are different from the things you learn reading novels for fun, which are different from the things you learn reading non-fiction for fun.

But the literary canon of today WAS the "bestseller list" of yesterday. That's part of what elevated a lot of these books into the canon.

And that is why I believe people should feel free to say they didn't like something in the canon. We wouldn't think twice about saying we didn't like something on the bestseller list, would we? Do we think anyone before us thought twice about saying they didn't like a popular book of the day back then, either? Why do a few years make the difference?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:47 AM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


These articles never solve anything, do they? Either they confirm our prejudices (yes, I disliked The Corrections* even more than he did) or they raise us to outraged defense of our beloved books. And here we are.

*the only things I now remember are the middle-aged professor's making love to his chaise lounge, the same character's utterly predictable seduction of a cute undergrad, and how much I kept looking at my watch waiting for the father to die already.

A Tale of Two Cities makes a much better TV miniseries (where I first came across it) than a book; it was not one of Dickens' best.
posted by emjaybee at 9:50 AM on July 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


> I believe My Humps should be removed from the canon as well. It is simply terrible. Please see to this at once.

I respectfully disagree. "My Humps" should be stuffed into a cannon and shot into space.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:50 AM on July 21, 2009


You realize this comment makes you look like a puffed-up philistine, right?

*shrug* If someone gets that idea about me, so be it. I'll be honest that I'm not even sure what's meant by that, but...I wasn't trying to "look like" anything. I'd heard about the book, I tried reading it, I decided I didn't like it, I stopped. Whatever that chain of events makes me "look like" is whatever you decide it makes me "look like."

We are not all hardwired to like the same things, and I ain't gonna read something that I'm having a problem getting through. I'll just put it down and try something else instead. That's the point of reading for pleasure -- pleasure has to be an element in it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:50 AM on July 21, 2009


In his day, Melville was more like John Grisham than he was like Homer.

This is wrong on both counts--about Homer and about Melville.
posted by OmieWise at 9:51 AM on July 21, 2009


But the literary canon of today WAS the "bestseller list" of yesterday. That's part of what elevated a lot of these books into the canon.

GAH! No. Except for Dickens, that's not actually true. We don't read the bestsellers of the past.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:53 AM on July 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


I actually made an attempt to read Remembrance of Things Past when I was in college, on a lark; I checked "Swann's Way" out of the library, struggled through about two pages in which I don't recall anything actually happening except for the narrator lying in his bed describing his wallpaper, and then I gave up and returned it.

You don't get to kick anything out of the canon on the basis of only reading two pages.

Now, I'm not saying Proust is easy, or to everyone's taste. I gave up near the end of the first book when I first tried to read him several years ago.

But I tried again years later, and I think probably because I'm now older and have built up more experiences to reflect back on, this time I totally "get it" and am now up to being halfway through book five.

I'd agree, though, that some authors, like Proust and Joyce, you can't just pick up and read out of nowhere like you can a common novel. You need the context of what they were trying to achieve, for why the books are the way they are; and, particularly with Joyce, you need some help with historical footnotes. When I read Ulysses in college, the prof gave us a copy of a chapter-by-chapter summary, and told us to read the summaries before each chapter of the book - it alleviated the concern for trying to figure out what was going on plot-wise, and made appreciating the writing and the method easier. (And even then, the prof singled out a couple chapters to "just skim" because he felt they were too flawed or problematic.)
posted by dnash at 9:53 AM on July 21, 2009


We are not all hardwired to like the same things, and I ain't gonna read something that I'm having a problem getting through. I'll just put it down and try something else instead. That's the point of reading for pleasure -- pleasure has to be an element in it.

Read what you like, the canon's a lie anyway. But don't presume to judge Proust or sneer at his narrative style without reading the whole thing. That's just grossly ignorant.
posted by nasreddin at 9:53 AM on July 21, 2009


Moby Dick, for example, sold only 50 copies during Melville's lifetime.

Austen sold hardly any copies during her lifetime.

Even the people who had decent sales--Fitzgerald, Hemingway--were massively outsold by people totally unknown today, like Harold Bell Wright and Gene Stratton Porter.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:56 AM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


>In his day, Melville was more like John Grisham than he was like Homer.

This is wrong on both counts--about Homer and about Melville.


I claim a clumsy analogy, then; what I was trying to get at is that rarely does a book get intentionally written To Be Part Of The Officially Designated Literary Canon. In the day and age a given author is writing, they just want the book to get read, by whoever wants to read it. They also don't expect to get INSTANTLY enshrined in the marble-bust pantheon of the ancients, they're just...a writer, writin'.

What I mean is more like: you know how a few of us said that "why is THE ROAD considered canon? That's a little soon, no?" Well, all I meant is that back in Melville's day, people were probably saying, "why are people calling MOBY DICK canon? That's a little soon, no?"

(This is, of course, setting aside the earlier observation that people apparently didn't like MOBY DICK that much anyway. I'm speaking mainly of the difference between how an author is viewed in his own time and how he is viewed by later generations.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:57 AM on July 21, 2009


I don't like jazz and I like On the Road. Go figure.

Well, we can't be RIGHT all the time, can we?

These articles never solve anything, do they? Either they confirm our prejudices (yes, I disliked The Corrections* even more than he did) or they raise us to outraged defense of our beloved books.

I'll quote my brother on this. "I always agree with critics who I agree with."
posted by philip-random at 9:58 AM on July 21, 2009


Saw this last week.
posted by Beardman at 9:59 AM on July 21, 2009


In the day and age a given author is writing, they just want the book to get read, by whoever wants to read it. They also don't expect to get INSTANTLY enshrined in the marble-bust pantheon of the ancients, they're just...a writer, writin'.

To name just three, Melville, Poe, and Dickinson talked in letters and diaries about how they wanted to be part of literary posterity.

And they are, of course--it just didn't happen while they were living.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:04 AM on July 21, 2009


On the note about 100 Years of Solitude. It's definitely considered canon in Spanish reading. It will always be included in high school right around junior or senior year. On the other hand, the English translations I've seen are absolutely horrible and destroy all the magic in the writing of Márquez in Spanish. I can't stand more than a page or two in English. It just destroys the absolute beauty of his writing, and yes disclaimer: I love 100 Years of Solitude.

There's also the fact that within 100 Years of Solitude there's a lot of criticism for the United States and how it handles/handled Latin America as well as how Latin Americans have generally handled their own countries, hence the time passing and the vague passing of maybe, maybe not 100 years. It takes a bit of knowledge about Latin American history and our view of the whole subject to really understand what Márquez is getting at in his treatment of characters sometimes. It's par for the course about how Márquez treated his stories. Something he beautifully crafted with some form of criticism in mind.

I will definitely be on the bandwagon for everyone should read 100 Years of Solitude...but only in Spanish. If they happen to come out with a good English translation, then yeah, I can accept it, but so far the ones I have seen are just incredibly dull.
posted by lizarrd at 10:05 AM on July 21, 2009


I find The Scarlet Letter to be a terrific bore

Good gods, yes.

I loved both The Road and Blood Meridian, but their styles couldn't be more different. In one word each:

The Road: spare.

Blood Meridian: florid.

I found No Country very stylistically similar to The Road.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:06 AM on July 21, 2009


The best parts of The Road is the prose; the plot is secondary. And has the author ever read Blood Meridian, McCarthy's finest work imho? There is no plot in that book, no real characterization (except for The Judge, who is like a black hole of character -- he is so monstrous that all other characters pale before him); and that lack of plot, the lack of character, are the book's great strengths. The thin plot of that book is the backdrop for some of the most gorgeous, breathtaking, and perverse prose I've ever read.
This sounds more like the sort of book that is very appealing to other writers. There's always going to be a divide between people who marvel at the workmanship and those who are more impressed with the utility. It strikes me that most people who complain about the "canon" are those interested in things like plotting and reading quality. As the content of the canon is highly influenced by what other writers think should be in the canon, their priorities are going to be different. Breathtaking prose is nice and everything, but few people outside of writers are interested in prose for prose's sake.
posted by deanc at 10:07 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sadly, stream-of-consciousness had been better employed by better writers for years by the time [Woolf] tried to use it...Woolf’s attempts with it were little more than an easy way to get over the tricky matter of not having lived any of what she was writing.

Stream of consciousness? We had a modern American writer who excelled at it and, unfortunately, I've never seen him nominated for "canonship". He basically wrote two novels, and hit them both out of the park.

Who? Ken Kesey. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. I would nominate Sometimes a Great Notion as the Great American Novel.

The problem with book lists: You can only judge what you have read, and you can't read everything.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:09 AM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Read what you like, the canon's a lie anyway. But don't presume to judge Proust or sneer at his narrative style without reading the whole thing. That's just grossly ignorant.

Oh, I see what you're saying now. Yes, you're right that I was a little presumptuous to say that it should be struck from the canon based on only two pages.

But in my defense, I do tend to be a bit skeptical of books that get recommended chiefly on the basis of their professed Importance. I've come across this in the theater world sometimes -- at times there is an "Emperor's New Clothes" effect surrounding some playwrights, in which people embrace a playwright's work because a couple cool people regard them as Ahead Of Their Time Avant-Garde Geniuses, and then everyone else falls all over themselves to celebrate these playwrights because "all the cool kids are doing it". I never have held much truck with "all the cool kids are doing it," so I've always tended to err on the side of "feh, it has to win me over on its own merits first." I'd rather trash-talk something and then later read it and be proved hideously wrong than I would accept something is good just because others assure me it is so.

It is indeed extremely likely that I will pick up Proust again later, read it, and decide that "oh wait, I get it. Okay, yeah, this is good. Damn, I was an idiot." And I have no problem with that, and with looking like an idiot for the things I say now -- if I do indeed decide I like Proust. But I also know that the more people tell me I'm just going to love him someday, the less likely it is to convince me.

But, I freely admit that's just me. And I do firmly believe that everyone should feel comfortable enough to do the same.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:14 AM on July 21, 2009


To name just three, Melville, Poe, and Dickinson talked in letters and diaries about how they wanted to be part of literary posterity.

Well, yeah, I've said that too. But when it comes to how realistic I think that is, I always amend that with, "And while I'm at it, I'd also like a pony."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:18 AM on July 21, 2009


I find that some novels (Remembrance of Things Past and The Tale of Genji to name two close to my heart) really benefit from being read in a group -- the challenge of keeping up with your fellow readers encourages you to get past the parts that you stick on, and you have more brains to puzzle out difficult parts and do the occasional bit of research.

I spent the better part of a year climbing the mountain of Proust, and, while I can't claim that I enjoyed every step, I like the view from the top.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:22 AM on July 21, 2009


In the day and age a given author is writing, they just want the book to get read, by whoever wants to read it. They also don't expect to get INSTANTLY enshrined in the marble-bust pantheon of the ancients, they're just...a writer, writin'.

To name just three, Melville, Poe, and Dickinson talked in letters and diaries about how they wanted to be part of literary posterity.


Cormac McCarthy is another one. His constant allusions to Moby-Dick and Paradise Lost in Blood Meridian have been seen as pretty direct pleas to be considered their peers.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:22 AM on July 21, 2009


I've come across this in the theater world sometimes -- at times there is an "Emperor's New Clothes" effect surrounding some playwrights, in which people embrace a playwright's work because a couple cool people regard them as Ahead Of Their Time Avant-Garde Geniuses
When it comes to "the canon," it's possible that some of those writers were Ahead Of Their Time Avant-Garde Geniuses, but in context of the current time, what was genius and new and different in the author's day gives us a reaction of, "what's the big deal?" unless you're aware of the specific temporal and technical context in which the work was created (This is my reaction to Citizen Kane). That's the challenge of creating a work that's enduring. Sometimes, even works of genius aren't enduring across generations, even if the work itself was influential.

Newton was a genius ahead of his time. But unless you go to St. John's College, you're not going to learn calculus by reading Principia Mathematica.
posted by deanc at 10:26 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I know it's supposed to be one of the great comic novels of English literature, but I just can't see any humor in it.

I find Tristam Shandy absolutely hilarious. Of course sense of humour is extremely relative so it is absolutely no surprise that opinion on it differs.

Mody Dick is also spectacular and is a great gateway book. It leads to so many other works of literature both in reference and technique. It is truly one of the great encyclopedic masterpieces.

That said, we all can't respond to things equally. Take cinema. I know intellectually and appreciate that Citizen Kane is one hell of a film and deserves all of it's critical examination. I don't care for the film personally. I found it dull. But this is irrelevant to an actual value judgment. It's easier to sit through a brilliant film you don't react to then read 600 pages of a book you don't react too.

Music is another area. There are plenty of bands that I recognize as talented and innovative but I can't really stand to listen to them. They deserve to be canonized as it were nonetheless.
posted by juiceCake at 10:31 AM on July 21, 2009


Actually, I can pretty much see where The Second Pass is coming from, even if I don't necessarily agree that it makes all of these books worth skipping. On the Road is sloppy, sexist and sappy, but sometimes people you meet who aimlessly travel around the country as an antidote to their ADD are... sloppy, sexist, and sappy. Even if it is not the Greatest American Novel it is a cultural reference that comes up time and time again. I'm not sure if you can fully grok Hunter S. Thompson if you didn't read On the Road.

One Hundred Years of Solitude was a book given to me by a good friend who adored it. Lovely dreamy prose that sent me to the land of nod every time I picked it up. I figured after a good ten years of trying that I should have gotten through at least ten percent of the book, and when I realized I wasn't even close, I passed it on.

Tale of Two Cities- yeah, Dickens is a hoarder who picks up little bits of string and straw and weaves them into giant textual accretions with all sorts of curious detritus to reward the patient unraveler. Dickens is exalted in accumulation, and not nearly as rich when stripped down. It is a shame that this is often the book that is foisted on high school students, because it really isn't his best. Then again, I don't see how you could really entice the average (or even above average) student to read Bleak House. It is an awesome book, but not for the faint of eyeball.

So, yeah, I think many of their criticisms are valid, though I don't know if they necessarily mean one should avoid these books. I also don't think all of them are canon, actually just the three I commented on. So it is sort of a strange list to begin with.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:35 AM on July 21, 2009


I read "On the Road" and "The Road" and share his assessment. I didn't care for either of them. Maybe I have something against roads.
posted by chairface at 10:36 AM on July 21, 2009


Read as much as you can of whatever seems to be worth reading. Then decide for yourself. You will change your mind later in life in any case. Ask yourself years after reading: which books would I really want to reread. ps: fired ought not to be the name but perhaps "deleted." You fire a person or a gun; you delete items that have appeared.
posted by Postroad at 10:49 AM on July 21, 2009


festering bushels of dud coinages, Biblical bluster...

...followers of obsolete, unthinkable trades, doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesized, black marketeers of World War III, excisors of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit, investigators of infractions denounced by bland, paranoid chess players, servers of fragmentary warrants taken down in hebephrenic shorthand charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit...
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:49 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


> It is indeed extremely likely that I will pick up Proust again later, read it, and decide that "oh wait, I get it. Okay, yeah, this is good. Damn, I was an idiot." And I have no problem with that, and with looking like an idiot for the things I say now -- if I do indeed decide I like Proust.

This is a very sensible attitude. I wish more people could adopt it.
posted by languagehat at 10:50 AM on July 21, 2009


There's always going to be a divide between people who marvel at the workmanship and those who are more impressed with the utility. It strikes me that most people who complain about the "canon" are those interested in things like plotting and reading quality. As the content of the canon is highly influenced by what other writers think should be in the canon, their priorities are going to be different. Breathtaking prose is nice and everything, but few people outside of writers are interested in prose for prose's sake.

I just wish that good prose didn't seem to so often come at the expense of a well-thought out, well-developed, and smartly paced story. I mean, those were my problems with The Road specifically. I'd love for there to be more prettily written novels that are also engaging and fun--they're just hard to find, and given my druthers, I'll take a gripping, but efficient novel over a pretty snooze fest any day.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:51 AM on July 21, 2009


When it comes to "the canon," it's possible that some of those writers were Ahead Of Their Time Avant-Garde Geniuses, but in context of the current time, what was genius and new and different in the author's day gives us a reaction of, "what's the big deal?" unless you're aware of the specific temporal and technical context in which the work was created (This is my reaction to Citizen Kane). That's the challenge of creating a work that's enduring. Sometimes, even works of genius aren't enduring across generations, even if the work itself was influential.

No, you're right. But in the present, there's no way of knowing whether Sid Schlomo really is an underrated genius, like the guy in the coffee shop says, or whether the guy in the coffee shop just has weird taste and Sid Schlomo really isn't that great after all.

My point is this. There's a difference between something like

a) Sid Schlomo writes his epic work, the guy in the coffee shop says it's great, but everyone else ignores it...then 150 years from now, someone discovers it, falls in love with it, republishes it, and everyone 150 years from now sees what Sid Schlomo was talking about, and they fall in love with it as a genius ahead of his time.

and

b) Sid Schlomo writes his epic work, the guy in the coffee shop says it's great, and everyone else says "okay...well, I don't get it, but the guy in the coffee shop says it's great, and I don't want to look like an idiot, so....okay, yep, I think it's great too! Really!" and Sid Schlomo gets famous, and this Fame is enough to enshrine Sid's work into The Canon for years to come -- even though everyone is secretly thinking "to be honest, I really don't get it," and so no one ever really finds out that the one guy in the coffee shop who liked it was actually kind of an idiot and we shouldn't have been listening to him anyway.

I'll grant that there are a lot of other alternatives for the eventual path a book can take into and out of the canon. I'm just especially on guard against the "everyone else likes it, so I like it" reaction -- or even worse, the "I'm SUPPOSED to like it, so I'm going to make myself like it" reaction. I've seen it happen more than a few times.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:54 AM on July 21, 2009


Austen sold hardly any copies during her lifetime.

Sidhedevil
Wiki disagrees:

During her time at Chawton, Jane Austen [she died in 1817] successfully published four novels, which were generally well-received. Through her brother Henry, the publisher Thomas Egerton agreed to publish Sense and Sensibility,[D] which appeared in October 1811. Reviews were favourable and the novel became fashionable among opinion-makers;[76] the edition sold out by mid-1813.[E] Austen's earnings from Sense and Sensibility provided her with some financial and psychological independence.[7
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:59 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Breathtaking prose is nice and everything, but few people outside of writers are interested in prose for prose's sake.

The analogy I like to make is to this guy's guitar work. In terms of craft, I'm sure it's second to none ... but pity about the songs.
posted by philip-random at 11:12 AM on July 21, 2009


Wait, tell me why the fuck I'm supposed to care that this guy doesn't like some famous books??? I hope he stops kidding himself that he can make a career out of his B.A. in English...

And for the record, many of these books are great books.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:12 AM on July 21, 2009


White Noise is valuable for this part. Go ahead. Read that excerpt, especially if you haven't already read the book. I'll wait.

...

Done? Good. You don't have to read the rest of it now.

I could never stand Faulkner. I always sort of resented his inclusion in "the canon" because I think he fails the key feature -- universality. I'm sure there's some way to write about gothic southern families that will still strike a universal human chord in a bone-deep northeasterner, but Faulkner sure as hell didn't do it.

One Hundred Years of Solitude Tedium.

The Road I'm more conflicted about. I'm glad I read it, but I will not ever feel any desire to read it again. I think it's sort of the endpoint of apocalyptic fiction -- its the place where we finally admit that the end of the world has no redeeming feature. It will just be miserable, inhuman, and it is even now inevitable. And I don't want to be there when it arrives. Really, you could just skip reading The Road and have a listen to the Modest Mouse song "Bury me with it" instead. To wit:

Well as sure as planets come I know that they end
And if I'm here when that happens just promise me this my friend:
Please bury me with it
I just don't need none of that mad max bullshit


There. You're done with that one too.

On the Road I read in high school because of the "cool" reputation surrounding it. I was left with the impression that Kerouac was an aimless dork who had wasted a shitload of time doing nothing much, and had little of interest to say about it. He just sort of went back and forth across the country and slept on couches? And... that's it? Huh.

I read and enjoyed The Corrections. Canon? Nah. It's a fluffy family drama book. Read it at the beach. Ironically, it is ideal Oprah Book Club material. Franzen must have been so disappointed to find that out.

I wholly agree with him on A Tale of Two Cities. If it were by anyone but Dickens, it could perhaps be excused. But damn. It is Dickens' worst book by a long country mile. From someone you know can write better, there's no reason to bother with it.
posted by rusty at 11:17 AM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


I haven't heard that good books punch you in the gut, but it's not dissimilar to "If it keeps you awake, it’s art; if it puts you to sleep, it’s a drug," which sounded good to me.

It seems like lazy contrarian linkbait: "Your favorite classic sucks."
posted by Pronoiac at 11:33 AM on July 21, 2009


It fascinates me that some people are so ready to stand up and dismiss classics -- for whatever reason, because they are bored and don't want to bother, because they are trying to be hipster contrarians, or just because the fashion these days seems to be meaningless and obtuse iconoclasm for the sake of iconoclasm.

I've not read Remembrance of Things Past or 100 Years of Solitude but I'm not ready to dismiss them because I haven't read them. While this person's musings are somewhat diverting, I'm not ready to use them as a basis for much of anything, let alone deciding whether I'm going to eventually read On the Road or not.

Recommendations or anti-recommendations, I like and appreciate and learn many things from, including many in this thread. I like people telling me about books that are supposedly great but on actual examination are not that great. "Don't read this -- because you're supposed to like and appreciate it and it's part of the canon and the canon sucks," not so much. Especially if someone's actually read only two pages or not read it at all.
posted by blucevalo at 11:33 AM on July 21, 2009


Despite the fact that I could write love letters to "Absalom, Absalom" (a wonderfully messy collection of Gothic soap opera plot points lacking only a vampire and a cursed Indian burial ground and written in High Faulkner-- language thick as river silt and sentences that seem to sweat off of you), I thought it was a reasonable list. I took his argument to be less the contrarian "these books suck" and more the "if you're determined to complete your fool's errand of reading your way through one of the many Great Books list, I feel like you could probably skip these and still be okay." Some of that is the by-book--if you're only going to read one McCarthy novel and you've never read any McCarthy novels, "The Road" isn't the one I'd recommend either (I'd personally go with "Blood Meridian"). Same is true for Faulkner (start with "Sound and The Fury" or "As I Lay Dying"), Lawrence ("Sons & Lovers" or "Women in Love"), or Dickens. I enjoyed Delillo a lot more when I was twenty-two than I do at thirty-three and I've always felt about "On The Road" sort of the same way I feel about "Catcher In The Rye." Great for getting teenagers excited about books, bitch of an influence to shrug off when you first start writing.

Our favorite books are often those we respond to for very personal reasons. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, just as everyone is entitled to have an opinion about those opinions. We're living in a time in which my high school teacher friends are happy their students are reading "Twilight" because it shows that they're reading anything at all. On a very personal level, it makes me happy that we're quibbling over Proust and questioning whether "Ulysses" is best read as a prose poem and trying to articulate the ingredients of what makes a great novel. If you care enough about literature to argue about it I consider you all right in my book, even if I don't happen to agree with a thing you say.

And on that note: Paradise Lost is dangerously, deliciously good.
posted by thivaia at 11:35 AM on July 21, 2009 [5 favorites]


Sidhedevil: "It's like the kid who sits next to you in algebra who just read Vonnegut and wants to tell you how fake everything is and how the world is full of hypocrisy."

What, it's not?

QIbHom: "Now, if you want to go kicking books out of the canon, how about _Paradise Lost_? That book has no redeeming value whatsoever."

Hello, I would like to register my disapproval of this comment.

robocop is bleeding: "Hell, is Jimmy Olsen out of copyright yet? I'm going to make my millions like the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by sticking Olsen into the narrative."

OH GOD PLEZ DO THIS. I can't wait for the reveal in which we find out Satan's been working for Darkseid all along!
posted by JHarris at 11:37 AM on July 21, 2009


I would like to point out two things:

1. "The literary canon" is a very silly idea, fostered by a poorly-thought-out analogy between literature and sacred scripture. The only people who can invoke the idea of a literary canon in good faith are people like Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom who actually think that literature is a kind of secular Bible; they're dead wrong, but at least they're consistent. The rest of us should jettison the idea altogether. There's no shortage of lists of what Prof. So-and-So or the editors of So-and-So Press consider to be the "great books," but there is not and has never been a canon into which writers can be inducted or from which they can be "fired."

(The notion of a literary canon would probably have died a natural death if it hadn't been strenuously revived by both sides in the extremely ridiculous "canon wars"; both the self-proclaimed iconoclasts and the self-proclaimed defenders of tradition used the language of "the canon" to give a semblance of intellectual dignity and relevance to a change in academic teaching practices that was totally insignificant from any perspective except those of the academics and students themselves.)

2. Absalom Absalom! is amazingly good; disagree and be eaten by fire ants.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 11:38 AM on July 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


I can't wait for the reveal in which we find out Satan's been working for Darkseid all along!

You know, looking over some of the Fourth World stuff and jotting down some parallels, I think Kirby already did all this. Guess I'll have to try Option Two: A Tale of Two Cities AND OH SHIT IS THAT APOKOLIPS!?
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:49 AM on July 21, 2009


My lovely lady lumps!
posted by Kwine at 11:56 AM on July 21, 2009


Guess I'll have to try Option Two:

The Old Man and the Sea-lver Surfer.
posted by penduluum at 12:25 PM on July 21, 2009


Our critic:
To critique the image on just one level, this is a completely unlikely haul of groceries for any one person.

Since DeLillo's pretty pointedly describing a mass migration of students to a college campus at the beginning of Fall semester, it's obtuse and a little weird of this critic to run down White Noise on the grounds that no single freshman would purchase both Waffelos and Kabooms.

The rest of the list seems just as flouncy and off-handed.
posted by washburn at 12:36 PM on July 21, 2009


Maybe some of these books don't achieve the greatness to which they aspire, but I would be happy if this discussion piqued someone's curiosity enough to give any of them ago instead of James Patterson or 'The Secret'.
posted by mattholomew at 12:39 PM on July 21, 2009


Sorry, give any of them 'a go'.
posted by mattholomew at 12:40 PM on July 21, 2009


White Noise is valuable for this part. Go ahead. Read that excerpt, especially if you haven't already read the book. I'll wait.

Nice piece of journalism, which is precisely where DeLillo shines. It's his fiction, more concerned with themes and ideas than narrative, that sends me running to Elmore Leonard.
posted by philip-random at 12:50 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


"The literary canon" is a very silly idea, fostered by a poorly-thought-out analogy between literature and sacred scripture. The only people who can invoke the idea of a literary canon in good faith are people like Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom who actually think that literature is a kind of secular Bible; they're dead wrong, but at least they're consistent.

I'd be very interested in seeing the reasoning behind this statement. Not that I necessarily disagree with your opinion, but I wish you would elaborate on what you mean by the words "sacred", "scripture", "literature" and "secular".

Does a book hit you in the gut consistently? Then it's great literature.

I guess Norman Mailer used the same logic to conclude that punching people in the gut consistently at cocktail parties made him a great writer.

And while I think there's good reason for some of the DeLillo-hating here, I'm surprised that his frequently fantastic pre-White Noise work doesn't get more acknowledgement in this thread and in general these days. It's been a while since I've read it, but The Names in particular always struck me as an almost-perfectly crafted novel, but I think all of his books from Americana through Mao II are, to one degree or another, extraordinary, and are really the basis for the reputation that now seems to come increasingly under attack with each new novel.
posted by newmoistness at 12:50 PM on July 21, 2009


people totally unknown today, like Harold Bell Wright and Gene Stratton Porter.

You mean the Gene Stratton Porter who wrote Freckles and A Girl of the Limberlost? Those books were on a par with Little Women and Anne of Green Gables to me when I was a kid. Still are, actually.
posted by cereselle at 12:51 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'd be very interested in seeing the reasoning behind this statement. Not that I necessarily disagree with your opinion, but I wish you would elaborate on what you mean by the words "sacred", "scripture", "literature" and "secular".

Just guessing, but I suspect that DaDaDaDave was referring to the Biblical canon when he said "sacred scripture."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:15 PM on July 21, 2009


"The literary canon" is a very silly idea, fostered by a poorly-thought-out analogy between literature and sacred scripture. The only people who can invoke the idea of a literary canon in good faith are people like Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom who actually think that literature is a kind of secular Bible; they're dead wrong, but at least they're consistent.

There's more than one sense of "The Literary Canon." The above sense is the easiest to dismiss, but also probably the least widely held. I suspect that "people like Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom" is a set containing, at this point, pretty much just Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom.

A more widespread way people think of the canon is as a de facto and semi-arbitrary list of Great Book one is supposed to have read or at least be familiar with, if one wants to appear literate and educated, and hence able to use pronouns like "one" and adverbs like "hence."

But probably the most common way to define "the Canon" would be "the books you were forced to pretend to read in high school." Which makes it not so much a poorly-though out idea as a handy abbreviation for a list which is eternally being updated and revised as a consequence of lots of people's choices about what is and isn't important for an educated person to be exposed to, and a list which grows out of the desire to share literature with people who haven't read any of it yet. Which is not such a bad thing.
posted by rusty at 1:17 PM on July 21, 2009


For the record, I really, really liked White Noise. An odd choice since I normally prefer books that are very plot heavy, but it really resonated with me. The authors are criticizing White Noise for precisely the things that DeLillo got right.
posted by deanc at 1:25 PM on July 21, 2009


But probably the most common way to define "the Canon" would be "the books you were forced to pretend to read in high school." Which makes it not so much a poorly-though out idea as a handy abbreviation for a list which is eternally being updated and revised as a consequence of lots of people's choices about what is and isn't important for an educated person to be exposed to, and a list which grows out of the desire to share literature with people who haven't read any of it yet. Which is not such a bad thing.

No, it's not. I think it's the using-the-canon-list-as-justification to sneer at people for not liking book X, or feeling bad about yourself because you didn't like book Y, that makes the canon problematic. True, going on a whole tear about "I don't get why this is on the canon because it SUCKED" columns are a little obnoxious too, but perhaps if we did without one we wouldn't see as much of the other.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:43 PM on July 21, 2009


We don't read the bestsellers of the past.


The terse authority (I detect) behind this comment has really got on my nerves.

(Nothing personal, Sidhedevil).

Sometimes we do - and, of course, sometimes we don't.

And many (not all, but many) of the reasons author A becomes a modern classic, and author B has all but vanished from memory - are complex and absolutely fascinating - and endlessly debatable.

One of my favorite lucky dip reads is Michael Korda's "Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900-1999".

(He purposefully starts his lovely, deceptively chatty, study after the international copyright law of 1891 - because widespread USA piracy before 1891 makes earlier records extremely dodgy.)

Korda restrains himself from offering any retrospective rules - because (as former editor in chief of Simon & Schuster) - he points out that if he could figure out any hard & fast formulas for spotting perennial sellers of quality prose he'd be God.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:49 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


With all the hate for White Noise, I'm definitely going to have to revisit it. My first reading was about 20 years ago, after a diet of mostly, er, speculative fiction.

I recall the protagonist describing his love for his current wife in such matter-of-fact, undramatic yet devoted terms that made it all the more touching and believable. Romantic, even.
posted by whuppy at 1:57 PM on July 21, 2009


I think it's the using-the-canon-list-as-justification to sneer at people for not liking book X, or feeling bad about yourself because you didn't like book Y, that makes the canon problematic.

That's just the kind of thing that someone who didn't like Remembrance of Things Past would say.
posted by rusty at 2:00 PM on July 21, 2009


How I hate "edgy" contrarianism.

Now, if you want to go kicking books out of the canon, how about _Paradise Lost_? That book has no redeeming value whatsoever.

Like that?
posted by steambadger at 2:20 PM on July 21, 2009


Just guessing, but I suspect that DaDaDaDave was referring to the Biblical canon when he said "sacred scripture."

Yep.

A more widespread way people think of the canon is as a de facto and semi-arbitrary list of Great Book one is supposed to have read or at least be familiar with, if one wants to appear literate and educated, and hence able to use pronouns like "one" and adverbs like "hence."

I think this is basically a degenerated variant of the Frye-and-Bloom sense. Instead of literature as the Great Code of the human soul, you get literature as a kind of generally-agreed-upon pretext for cocktail-party chatter. If Frye and Bloom are fiery evangelists of literature, the "cultural literacy" crowd are their weak-kneed latitudinarian epigones. What they share is the idea that there's a list of great books that you need to read if you want access to the inner sanctum. This idea is silly. (Which is not to say that I don't think there are great books; I just don't think it's particularly incumbent on anyone to read them. There is no question in my mind whether, say, King Lear is great, but I don't think people who haven't read it are missing an item on their scorecard.)

But probably the most common way to define "the Canon" would be "the books you were forced to pretend to read in high school." Which makes it not so much a poorly-though out idea as a handy abbreviation for a list which is eternally being updated and revised as a consequence of lots of people's choices about what is and isn't important for an educated person to be exposed to, and a list which grows out of the desire to share literature with people who haven't read any of it yet. Which is not such a bad thing.

I think it's very questionable whether you can sensibly call this a "canon." A multiplicity of ever-fluctuating lists of important books is one thing; a canon is something else entirely. "Canon," at least to my ears, implies reverence, definitiveness, authority, all the bullshit that makes our public discourse about literature and literary education so irritating. This is what I meant when I mentioned good-faith usage--a lot of people say "canon" when they just mean "good books," or "books widely held to be good." This is a bad habit.

(Also, I don't know what high school you went to, but I was never forced to pretend to read Proust! Or Woolf, or Mann, or Marquez, or Blake, or Cervantes, or...)
posted by DaDaDaDave at 2:23 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, and Proust is someone whose work I was constitutionally incaoable of appreciating until I hit 40. Now I look forward to a lifetime of reading my way through the entirety of it.

Dude, don't say things like that. That's like being short in the army and saying "I'm going home right after we take porkchop hill, Sarge."

Only, y'know, with less mortar fire in the background.
posted by steambadger at 2:29 PM on July 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


There's a big difference between books most people read for enjoyment, regardless of when they were published and books that "book experts" read for enjoyment.

My husband is something of a music snob. He's spent the majority of his time for 33 years listening to music, reading about listening to music, reading about reading about listening to music, etc. I make fun of him now by saying he never listens to actual music anymore. I call what he listens to "noise." Now, I'm joking, but it is all "noise-rock" or Japanese death metal, or Tibetan Throat-singing or whatever weird thing noone else has ever heard of this week. And that's what he enjoys, because he's listened to everything else available, he knows the context of this music. He is constantly seeking something new and different and has to reach further and further to find it.

It's the same thing with other people, but with books. Now, I've read and finished Ulysses on my first try, but did I enjoy it? Not really. I respect it, but it didn't rock my world. I have a friend who is writer and Ulysses is his ultimate book. In the same way that I can respect Swedish Noise Rock Made With Found Objects, but not choose it as my driving to work music, I can respect some of the more difficult and obscure novels while still choosing a nice mystery as my vacation reading.

Some books are accessible and enjoyable to anyone and some are just not. It doesn't make them bad if they're not your thing, if other people emphatically and genuinely believe them to be their thing. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude without much difficulty, but like the reviewer, it just didn't do much for me. But I recognize that it might do something profound for someone else. I happen to love D.H. Lawrence. I love him for his writing style, because at the time I first read him, I was actively writing fiction and his style blew me away. If I picked up one of his books now, I might feel differently.

So, I think we need to get away from both expressing our personal opinions as universal truths, whether we liked or disliked something.

(Except for Hemingway, which is total pointless crap.) :P
posted by threeturtles at 3:11 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


As an obnoxious contrarian of a certain milieu, I'm often the lone defender of a canon at cocktail parties (or drunken forays into message boards).

To begin with, I define the canon as a group of works that a every person should understand.

This makes sense when you think of it as a Renaissance ideal, the thought that international conversation was now possible through shared rediscovery of pagan classics. Everyone knew the Bible, which is OK as literature, and Homer, Plato and Aristotle were part of the lingua franca.

This led to a tremendous flourishing of culture, which, in turn, was churned into the canon. But to understand vast swaths of important documents, like, say, constitutions and Declarations and the such, having a grounding in that canon is assumed by the authors. Experiencing the canon is to make oneself more like the authors. It's circular, but that doesn't mean it isn't useful or important, or that a broader understanding of culture and history isn't lost when canonical works are abandoned.

However, every culture builds a canon that suits its own needs and desires. Chinese classical studies no doubt has its own canon, with very little if any overlap with the Western canon. We don't read Confucius, they don't read Plutarch. And when formerly venerable works, like, say, Principia Mathematica are outdated, when they lose their immediacy, they're replaced.

This is magnified by two things—first, the massive amount of media we consume. The idea that one person could be familiar with everything worth knowing in any field, or even simply within their own field, was probably never true anyway, but now it's farcical. It was even farcical during the great surge of canon building, the 19th century, when most of what we think of as the canon was compiled. That was the last great gasp, the reactionary surge of wanting to preserve a seat and seed of knowledge, a doomed endeavor even if we ignore all of the now-obvious issues of power that have so greatly contributed to the undermining of canon qua canon. But it's not a coincidence that this occurred contemporaneously with the push for public education and the ossification of curricula.

To speak now of a single, extant canon is to affect learning the lyre or dressing in knee breeches. But the idea that to truly understand some aspect of our culture, there are a set of works to engage with, that still has force and is a valuable concept even in the absence of universal possibility. It's entirely possible to set up a list of the most important examples of a given genre, e.g. Invisible Man, Black Boy, Go Tell It On The Mountain, and Manchild In The Promised Land for mid-20th Century African American literature, and to have it function as a petite canon—a round, if you will. These books should be the starting point for any exploration of the sub-genre, and anyone working in it could be expected to be reasonably conversant with the other works (well, allowing for deviation in date of creation—Richard Wright wouldn't know James Baldwin, but Baldwin certainly knew Wright). Having that base is invaluable in reading other works, even if the quality of other works is greater—Black Boy is a pretty crummy read, though far better than the abhorrently stilted Native Son. That's where a canon is valuable.

There are still big problems, even in that model, of canonical thinking. The first is the frequent assumption that the canon is definitive, which is based on a worldview developed when people still thought you got sick from witches. Any sort of canon only gives you the most common allusions of a culture, but is fundamentally tautological—they're the most important because they're the most common, and most common because they're the most important. Which means that to understand the canon, you have to understand the responses to it, etc. But people come in with the idea that you only have to read those 100 books or see those 100 films and then, bang, you're done, you're cultured. You're more cultured for that value of culture than someone who hasn't read any of the books, but that's like a Christian claiming salvation just because they made it through all of the New Testament (to talk again of canon). It's people confusing comic book canon for cultural canon.

The second big problem is that very few people actually have any sort of real grounding to declaim on the canon. Not only do they have to know every work in it, but also all the rival works that might have been included but weren't. In high school, we could either choose to read Madame Bovary or Crime and Punishment; I chose the latter and have never really bothered looking back. Even a public intellectual or literature professor isn't expected to be equally conversant with Tolstoy, Goethe and Flaubert—a serious study of any one of them tends to preclude anything more than a greatest hits approach to the rest. As our options expand, the core of the canon necessarily shrinks.

Which is why I both appreciate this list and disdain it. The list would function better primarily as a list of over-rated literature (though it would lack the Digg-bait of "canon"), as the vast majority of it is barely applicable to any real consideration of the classic canon—it's like railing against the inclusion of Troilus and Cressida, something people should vaguely be aware of but no one ever recommends as your first drama. But I also think that there's value in having that reactionary rearguard fighting every new inclusion into any so-called canon. Someone needs to say that The Road doesn't belong (I found myself unable to put it down too, but by that measure alone Me Talk Pretty Someday should be included long before The Road) and to cling desperately to what little common culture we have left, fighting off the incursions of well-meaning partisans with dogged conservatism, if only to contradict claims of self-evidence, the only justification for including things in the canon anyway. But I'm glad that job doesn't fall to me, and it's rarely interesting to read anyone making those claims. Me, I'm off to read another book that I'll enjoy and happily foist off on others as soon as I'm done.
posted by klangklangston at 3:12 PM on July 21, 2009 [10 favorites]


"Cryptonomicon" had men being wounded by canon fire. I love that typo because it works either way.
posted by Pronoiac at 3:25 PM on July 21, 2009


As a bit of a side note, I found my old teacher talking about our high school program here(jstor link) in The English Journal. Through this class, I found that when I went to college, I had read a lot of the material, and a second reading is always easier and more rewarding than a first. But you can see where I got some of my formative ideas about a canon.
posted by klangklangston at 3:29 PM on July 21, 2009


This led to a tremendous flourishing of culture, which, in turn, was churned into the canon. But to understand vast swaths of important documents, like, say, constitutions and Declarations and the such, having a grounding in that canon is assumed by the authors. Experiencing the canon is to make oneself more like the authors. It's circular, but that doesn't mean it isn't useful or important, or that a broader understanding of culture and history isn't lost when canonical works are abandoned.

The problem with this is that it isn't really true. There are two possible scenarios in what you've presented here:

1. I want to understand the Constitution or Tristram Shandy or whatever in a way that gets at the gist of what it's trying to say.

2. I want to understand the Constitution or Tristram Shandy or whatever thoroughly and exhaustively.

If you want 1, you don't need a canon. Wikipedia is more than enough. There are plenty of Cliffs Notes type resources and annotated texts that will happily identify and explicate all the references and allusions for you.

If you want 2, the canon isn't enough. The Declaration of Independence isn't just influenced by Locke, who is admittedly canonical. It is also profoundly rooted in Montesquieu, who is borderline, and Pufendorf and Grotius and Harrington and Trenchard and Gordon and Bolingbroke, whom no one but a masochist would read without a very good reason for doing so. (Locke himself is neither interesting nor logically compelling.) Every text you'd want to use the canon to understand is the same way.

You'll say, of course, that the purpose of the canon is to provide the middle path. But there's no identifiable purpose to such a thing. Either I want to understand the text as completely as possible for its own sake, or I just want to understand it to get by. I don't need a third option.

I've seen your argument in lots of places, and it's almost always a sign that someone is invested in the canon due to some sort of cultural elitism or need for intellectual self-justification and then feels compelled to appeal to something greater. You recognize the fact that it's ultimately a circular argument, but bizarrely refuse to provide any further argumentation. "A broader understanding of culture and history"? Who cares, other than people already invested in the idea of a canon? "Making oneself more like the authors"? Why in God's holy name would I want to do that?
posted by nasreddin at 3:39 PM on July 21, 2009


Cormac McCarthy is another one. His constant allusions to Moby-Dick and Paradise Lost in Blood Meridian have been seen as pretty direct pleas to be considered their peers.

God, I hope not. Is there anything more pretentious than thinking you're making some sort of signal to Posterity by making allusions to other authors? Literary references occur in numerous contexts. Frequently they're used to add resonance. Perhaps we can give McCarthy the benefit of the doubt and assume that was his intent instead of his making some sort of plea to the future reader.

---

Breathtaking prose is nice and everything, but few people outside of writers are interested in prose for prose's sake.

The quality of prose is what determines literature. While the majority of readers may not be interested in the style of the author, there are plenty of non-writing readers who are. And if we aren't evaluating prose then we can only talk about the 'canon' in terms of historical importance.

Readers who focus on the content of the story are attracted to what Joyce called 'kinetic' art. Kinetic art makes an appeal to the emotions, it looks to excite or repulse, e.g. a main character to identify with, a social situation that needs to be addressed. Joyce held, and I think correctly, that all true art is static - it creates a sense of wonder with the work of art itself. He equated kinetic art with pornography, as in the writing of whores.

---

A multiplicity of ever-fluctuating lists of important books is one thing; a canon is something else entirely. "Canon," at least to my ears, implies reverence, definitiveness, authority, all the bullshit that makes our public discourse about literature and literary education so irritating. This is what I meant when I mentioned good-faith usage--a lot of people say "canon" when they just mean "good books," or "books widely held to be good." This is a bad habit.

I agree that 'canon' does mean one list, and I see nothing wrong with that. Equivalence amongst the "multiplicity of ever-fluctuating lists of important books" undercuts the notion of merit. Perhaps that's agreeable to you, but if I believed that, I would have no interest in anyone else's list. Part of the appeal in listening to someone else's recommendation is judging their claim for a book's worth. Without a standard (ambiguous, it may be), that can't happen.
posted by BigSky at 3:53 PM on July 21, 2009


Kinetic art makes an appeal to the emotions, it looks to excite or repulse, e.g. a main character to identify with, a social situation that needs to be addressed. Joyce held, and I think correctly, that all true art is static - it creates a sense of wonder with the work of art itself. He equated kinetic art with pornography, as in the writing of whores.

What an utterly meaningless distinction. Modernist self-congratulation at its worst. I wonder what Joyce would think of the fact that he's appreciated more for "yes I said yes I will yes" than for any other part of Ulysses.

I agree that 'canon' does mean one list, and I see nothing wrong with that. Equivalence amongst the "multiplicity of ever-fluctuating lists of important books" undercuts the notion of merit. Perhaps that's agreeable to you, but if I believed that, I would have no interest in anyone else's list. Part of the appeal in listening to someone else's recommendation is judging their claim for a book's worth. Without a standard (ambiguous, it may be), that can't happen.


If merit just means "my subjective preference for certain features of a book," then why don't you just go with that? There's no need to complicate things with fatuous pseudo-universality.
posted by nasreddin at 4:01 PM on July 21, 2009


The only people who can invoke the idea of a literary canon in good faith are people like Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom who actually think that literature is a kind of secular Bible; they're dead wrong

Disagree. They're dead right. You can be that when you say something is "kind of".

What they share is the idea that there's a list of great books that you need to read if you want access to the inner sanctum.

Nonsense. Frye doesn't believe nor advocate inner sanctums whatsoever. He did quite emphasize studying the actual art of literature rather than the extra-literary focus that continues to dominate today (i.e. The role of women in 1984: A Femnist/Marxist/Meteorologist Perspective).

There is no question in my mind whether, say, King Lear is great, but I don't think people who haven't read it are missing an item on their scorecard.

Neither would anyone else with any sense, including Frye. It's a field he devoted his life to, so it's important to him but I have seen no evidence whatsoever that Frye ever proscribed it as being therefore important and essential to others. Just the opposite. Scorecards would be considered absolute nonsense and were.
posted by juiceCake at 4:02 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Anyway, if we go by the Joycean criterion, the only possible "true author" would be Robbe-Grillet (not, alas, a Scotsman).
posted by nasreddin at 4:07 PM on July 21, 2009


BigSky, a prose-for-prose sake work is just a language experiment. And language experiments are fun, but that's not literature. You might call it linguistic art. Literature might contain linguistic art. You might even claim that the presence of linguistic art is necessary for it to be literature in the first place, but that's not why it's considered great literature.

Joyce held, and I think correctly, that all true art is static - it creates a sense of wonder with the work of art itself.

Unfortunately, what you are doing is taking Joyce's premise to be true, and then agreeing with his conclusion because given the premise, the alternative to Joyce's conclusion sounds terrible.

I agree that 'canon' does mean one list, and I see nothing wrong with that. Equivalence amongst the "multiplicity of ever-fluctuating lists of important books" undercuts the notion of merit.

You seem to believe that each and every book has a quantitative score indicating its merit, and once we tally up those immutable scores, we can organize them in a list, and the top "X" are regarded as canon. That's not why those works were regarded as canon. What we regard as canon is always going to fluctuate, in part because some works of importance were not given enough attention in their day and in part because what we regard as important changes. While it might seem arrogant to claim that we know better now what is canon than people regarded as canon in the past, it strikes me as more arrogant to assume that we will know better today what is canon than people will regard as canon in the future.
posted by deanc at 4:09 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


"If you want 1, you don't need a canon. Wikipedia is more than enough. There are plenty of Cliffs Notes type resources and annotated texts that will happily identify and explicate all the references and allusions for you. … You'll say, of course, that the purpose of the canon is to provide the middle path. But there's no identifiable purpose to such a thing. Either I want to understand the text as completely as possible for its own sake, or I just want to understand it to get by. I don't need a third option."

You're better than the fallacy of the excluded middle. First off, no, Wikipedia isn't enough—having a sense of how those references function in their original context is important too. Second off, it's entirely consistent to argue "canon" as a marginal utility log curve, where knowing more from the center is more valuable than equal time spent on the fringes.

"I've seen your argument in lots of places, and it's almost always a sign that someone is invested in the canon due to some sort of cultural elitism or need for intellectual self-justification and then feels compelled to appeal to something greater. You recognize the fact that it's ultimately a circular argument, but bizarrely refuse to provide any further argumentation. "A broader understanding of culture and history"? Who cares, other than people already invested in the idea of a canon? "Making oneself more like the authors"? Why in God's holy name would I want to do that?"

Then you're misreading my argument, and, I feel, ascribing some pretty insulting motivations. The reason for a canon is the same reason for a shared vocabulary. Where you argue that to know German you either have to be able to comprehend Heidegger or you might as well just use Babelfish, there's real utility in knowing conversational German if you'd like to have conversations with Germans. German itself is doubly arbitrary, both in the underlying lack of connection between words and sounds that any language has, and learning it instead of French or Russian or Japanese, especially when studying German to the extent necessary to use it on a conversational level means that you're not studying any number of other languages at that point in time, despite the fact that there's no objective utility for everyone to learn to order kartofflen over pommes de terre.

And the circular argument is only really important regarding what is included in the canon, not so much regarding the importance of a canon.
posted by klangklangston at 4:12 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Then you're misreading my argument, and, I feel, ascribing some pretty insulting motivations. The reason for a canon is the same reason for a shared vocabulary. Where you argue that to know German you either have to be able to comprehend Heidegger or you might as well just use Babelfish, there's real utility in knowing conversational German if you'd like to have conversations with Germans. German itself is doubly arbitrary, both in the underlying lack of connection between words and sounds that any language has, and learning it instead of French or Russian or Japanese, especially when studying German to the extent necessary to use it on a conversational level means that you're not studying any number of other languages at that point in time, despite the fact that there's no objective utility for everyone to learn to order kartofflen over pommes de terre.

I see what you're getting at, but this would be a true claim only if there were someone to have a conversation with. I don't need the canon to understand contemporary culture--and if I did, I'd need it far less than, say, a decent understanding of financial markets. I don't need it to have a conversation with anyone, either in the literal or in the metaphorical NYRB sense. I've met a vanishingly small number of people, even among humanities professors, who have anything like a solid mastery of even half of "the Western Canon."

What do I need the canon for? I need it, in a very general sense, to understand certain aspects of canonical books. But if I don't care about the canon I have no reason to read canonical books. So it's still circular. It stops being circular only if you expand "canon" to encompass the works of Akon and the Farrelly Brothers, at which point it is no longer recognizable as a canon.
posted by nasreddin at 4:20 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


nasreddin, I think you have a very naive view of culture, which is now causing me to reevaluate your (and my) comments on the Onion thread. Contemporary culture is not something that comes out fully formed, like Athena out of Zeus's head. We exist in a place that is much larger than ourselves and our immediate physical and temporal surroundings. Canon is both "how we got here" and some of the best of what was done before we arrived.
posted by deanc at 4:30 PM on July 21, 2009


Cormac McCarthy is another one. His constant allusions to Moby-Dick and Paradise Lost in Blood Meridian have been seen as pretty direct pleas to be considered their peers.

God, I hope not. Is there anything more pretentious than thinking you're making some sort of signal to Posterity by making allusions to other authors? Literary references occur in numerous contexts. Frequently they're used to add resonance. Perhaps we can give McCarthy the benefit of the doubt and assume that was his intent instead of his making some sort of plea to the future reader.


I agree. The idea isn't mine, which explains my weaseling passive voice above. I got it from Amy Hungerford.
posted by Bookhouse at 4:35 PM on July 21, 2009


nasreddin, I think you have a very naive view of culture, which is now causing me to reevaluate your (and my) comments on the Onion thread. Contemporary culture is not something that comes out fully formed, like Athena out of Zeus's head. We exist in a place that is much larger than ourselves and our immediate physical and temporal surroundings. Canon is both "how we got here" and some of the best of what was done before we arrived.

I'd say your condescension is unwarranted. Beyond that, I never said anything about Zeus's head (what a trite cliché!). As klang put it, it's a matter of marginal utility: despite what people with literature degrees would often like to believe, our world is not really all that influenced by long-winded nineteenth-century English writers, and the return on investment, in terms of cultural understanding, would be far greater with something like business history. If you believe otherwise, I'm not surprised--you've probably been socialized, like I have, into a bourgeois-aspirationist mindset in which one acquires cultural capital by boring oneself into catatonia. Life is short.
posted by nasreddin at 4:44 PM on July 21, 2009


The point is that the canon isn't something you pick up in a weekend. It takes years or decades to read all those books. If you don't want to read it for its own sake, then throwing away your time on it, no matter what your high school teachers say, is stupid. I happen to like the canon, or at least the feeling of reading through it, so I read through it and enjoy it. I don't need to have it justified to me by the kind of paperthin reasons that are generally offered.
posted by nasreddin at 4:50 PM on July 21, 2009


Disagree. They're dead right. You can be that when you say something is "kind of".

Would you care to expand on this?

Nonsense. Frye doesn't believe nor advocate inner sanctums whatsoever. [. . .] Scorecards would be considered absolute nonsense and were.

You're certainly right that Frye is not the sort of vulgar canon-thumper who says "Here's the list of books you ought to read." His canon is structural; for him, the "inner sanctum" isn't a matter of which books you read but of your capacity to understand those books in terms of the big archetypal categories that organize literature and literary history. I don't agree with him on this, but I do think it's a much more admirable notion of the literary canon than the usual bloviation, not to mention a much more demanding one--there are moments in The Anatomy of Criticism where, if I recall, he almost seems to be saying that you can't practice true criticism until you've read every book there is. (I find this idea much more congenial than the notion of a checklist of books that will give you access to a "common culture.")

To atone for my not having giving Frye his due, here's a passage from the introduction to the Anatomy that puts to shame any BS about Lifetime Reading Plans etc:

[T]he skill developed from constant practice in the direct experience of literature is a special skill, like playing the piano, not the expression of a general attitude to life, like singing in the shower. The critic has a subjective background of experience formed by his temperament and by every contact with words he has made, including newspapers, advertisements, conversations, movies, and whatever he read at the age of nine. He has a specific skill in responding to literature which is no more like this subjective background, with all its private memories, associations, and arbitrary prejudices, than reading a thermometer is like shivering. Again, there is no one of critical ability who has not experienced intense and profound pleasure from something simultaneously with a low critical valuation of what produced it. There must be several dozen critical and aesthetic theories based on the assumption that subjective pleasure and the specific response to art are, or develop from, or ultimately become, the same thing. Yet every cultivated person who is not suffering from advanced paranoia knows that they are constantly distinct.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 5:35 PM on July 21, 2009


Equivalence amongst the "multiplicity of ever-fluctuating lists of important books" undercuts the notion of merit. Perhaps that's agreeable to you, but if I believed that, I would have no interest in anyone else's list. Part of the appeal in listening to someone else's recommendation is judging their claim for a book's worth. Without a standard (ambiguous, it may be), that can't happen.

Who said anything about equivalence? We don't have to choose between one absolutely authoritative list on the one hand and total subjective isolation on the other. I trust some people, and some lists, more than others; I can give reasons for my preferences. But I don't expect my reasons or my preferences to be binding on anyone else.

what little common culture we have left

On the contrary, we have loads of common culture--we have The Simpsons and The Sopranos, Superman and the Terminator, the Yankees and the Cowboys, George W. Bush and Hugo Chavez, etc etc. The fact that our "common culture" does not include Finnegans Wake or the Divine Comedy should occasion no concern to anyone who is not, as Frye says, "suffering from advanced paranoia."

People like to argue that we poor moderns are culturally impoverished in comparison to "traditional" societies, where artists were nurtured in an atmosphere of shared stories and assumptions. For evidence to the contrary, I adduce Aristotle, talking about that supposedly "communal" art, Greek tragedy:

We must not, therefore, at all costs keep to the received legends, which are the usual subjects of Tragedy. Indeed, it would be absurd to attempt it; for even subjects that are known are known only to a few, and yet give pleasure to all.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 5:49 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


the return on investment, in terms of cultural understanding, would be far greater with something like business history.

I'm sort of disagreeing here. Just because something is a bourgeois-aspirational affectation doesn't mean that they're weren't right about adopting that affectation. Finance and business matters are nice and everything, but who we are is grounded a lot more in what we regard as the canon than a few recent pop culture trends. My earlier complaint was about basing canon on what writers think should be canon. I think it's totally fair to think about canon in terms of what people who like to read think is canon.

And, yeah, culturally we really are descended from 19th century Victorian England. Which in a certain way could be used to argue against canon: our culture doesn't completely come from an unbroken descent of love for Shakespeare and Homer (though in part elements are there), but the fact that these beliefs predominated in Victorian England created much of the world we find ourselves in today.

I mean, there's something to be said for the common statement that you should read what you find pleasurable rather than forcing yourself to slog through something you hate because you think it's "important," but I think you're dismissing the canon/culture argument out of hand for no good reason.

Feel free to chalk up my thoughts on the canonical value of Greek texts to ethnicity, but I still think western culture, if you believe we are a western culture, requires familiarity with the texts and how the authors think... and I"m willing to extend that to a lot of non-Greeks, too.
posted by deanc at 5:54 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Good list, and good discussion here, too. I didn't feel the the author(s) was being deliberately contrarian, nor arguing that these books should necessarily be excluded from whatever canon they're currently floating in.

Rather, the author was just making conversational recommendations, based on their on impressions. Why get all het up about it? Christ, don't you guys do this a million times a year in your conversations with fellow readers? I know I do.

I think the idea of a canon has some utility - much like any list of books - in that it can expose readers, people who ostensibly enjoy reading, to new and interesting authors they may not have otherwise read.

Beyond that, and into claims of some kind of cultural lingua franca or humanist education/edification, I think you're getting into pretty shaky territory. Not indefendable, but pretty ambiguous.
posted by smoke at 6:02 PM on July 21, 2009


What an utterly meaningless distinction. Modernist self-congratulation at its worst.

Perhaps there is something Modernist in that articulation, or in the desire to make that distinction. Brecht had a different motive in developing his alienation effect, but shared Joyce's disdain for passive emotional engagement. But since Brecht created didactic works, perhaps I'm reaching. Joyce's distinction came from studying Aquinas on beauty.

This isn't a meaningless distinction at all. Advertising and propaganda are two obvious examples of works that point outwards; they aim to pull the attention towards something beyond themselves. Escapist fiction does so as well; it creates another world and invites the reader to daydream. There is a psychological hunger in the reader that is recognized and addressed by authors of Romances, Westerns, Fantasy/SF, etc. We have an image of the stereotypical reader of each of these genres. The stereotype is a perfect fit for no one, but it is evidence of a recognized commonality. By this distinction, literature does not create a fantasy for the reader, or at least that is not its only attraction. The book brings the reader back to it as the object of fascination.

---

BigSky, a prose-for-prose sake work is just a language experiment. And language experiments are fun, but that's not literature.

Couldn't disagree more. Maybe prose is too limited a word. It's more than just the sentence structure, it's the entire construction of the book, including both fulfilling and subverting the expectations of the reader. There's a difference between reading Geek Love and something by Stephen King. Geek Love may horrify but it repays my attention and gives something more than a feeling of horror. I want to reread it so I can get more out of it. On the other hand, once I've read Carrie the book is more or less disposable, the story may be interesting, but the book is not.

You seem to believe that each and every book has a quantitative score indicating its merit, and once we tally up those immutable scores, we can organize them in a list, and the top "X" are regarded as canon. That's not why those works were regarded as canon. What we regard as canon is always going to fluctuate, in part because some works of importance were not given enough attention in their day and in part because what we regard as important changes.

I agree that's not why we consider them canon. The texts considered 'canonical' are there because they reflect our self conscious understanding of our civilization's history and values. There's no argument that that's the way the word is used. I was trying to make an argument for objective merit quickly and used the quote regarding "multiple lists" to do so. Even though considerations of values and history must necessarily come into play, still, I think ranking is both possible and important.

---

Bookhouse,

Thanks for the link. While her earlier thought may make me groan, I'll be listening to her two lectures. The part about the appropriation of texts and using them for ambiguous ends is a good description of what McCarthy is getting at in that fevered dream of the Kid with that long sentence describing what the Judge is judge of.
posted by BigSky at 6:18 PM on July 21, 2009



Beyond that, and into claims of some kind of cultural lingua franca or humanist education/edification, I think you're getting into pretty shaky territory. Not indefendable, but pretty ambiguous.

I disagree. There are some forms of knowledge that not only ground one to a particular culture but also lubricate the machinery of life itself.

I think of the idea of a canon tantamount to knowing things like: "Righty tighty, lefty Loosey"; how to read a compass; how to shoot a pistol; how to gut a fish; how to cook; and CPR.

I don't HAVE to know those things. One can get along in life without all those things. But knowing them sure has made life far easier/more enriching.
posted by tkchrist at 6:24 PM on July 21, 2009


PS> FWIW: I hated The Corrections and On The Road, too.
posted by tkchrist at 6:26 PM on July 21, 2009


Finance and business matters are nice and everything, but who we are is grounded a lot more in what we regard as the canon than a few recent pop culture trends. My earlier complaint was about basing canon on what writers think should be canon. I think it's totally fair to think about canon in terms of what people who like to read think is canon.

On what basis is that fair? I know a lot of people who like to read, but only two or three who have seriously dedicated themselves to reading and preserving the Western canon. Of everyone I've ever met or seen in my life, these three people are the least representative of our culture. The issue of the canon, like open source code, foxhunting, and expensive DJ gear, is a lot more about what people would like to imagine themselves as than what they actually are. Though the ideal of the tweedy polymath might still be with us to some extent, that doesn't mean it has any real relevance for our culture.

And, yeah, culturally we really are descended from 19th century Victorian England. Which in a certain way could be used to argue against canon: our culture doesn't completely come from an unbroken descent of love for Shakespeare and Homer (though in part elements are there), but the fact that these beliefs predominated in Victorian England created much of the world we find ourselves in today.

I disagree that we're "descended" from Victorian England in a way that makes the nineteenth-century literary canon indispensable to us. Trollope, George Eliot, and the rest are really inadequate mirrors for the parts of that society that are most influential. Maybe Balzac and Dickens are a little better. If we really wanted to get insight into the culture of the period, we'd be reading precisely the bestsellers and not the works that ended up in the canon. In any case, you'd be much better served by reading Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson--and yet I don't see anyone recommending them here.

Past ages had all sorts of beliefs that were crucial for us but had no effect whatsoever on the canon--the humoral theory of disease, mercantilism, universal languages. How is it not special pleading for you to pick out their love of Shakespeare and Homer as a normative determinant for our behavior?

I mean, you call my idea of culture "naive," but it looks like your definition amounts to a self-serving tautology: culture=canon=culture. I can tell you that no cultural historian has thought that way since the '60s.
posted by nasreddin at 6:26 PM on July 21, 2009


"On the contrary, we have loads of common culture--we have The Simpsons and The Sopranos, Superman and the Terminator, the Yankees and the Cowboys, George W. Bush and Hugo Chavez, etc etc. The fact that our "common culture" does not include Finnegans Wake or the Divine Comedy should occasion no concern to anyone who is not, as Frye says, "suffering from advanced paranoia.""

Contrary yourself—the Simpsons' highest rated episode since 2004, one they showed last November, got a rating share of 6.2. Which means that about seven million people saw it. If we're talking about US culture, that's big only relatively—roughly 300 million people didn't see it. As part of either Western or global culture, it's a very small drop in a very large bucket. While I don't have any real problem in seeing the Simpsons as part of our cultural canon, I also think that they're a pretty facile answer given the context that the idea of a single canon exists in. We've forgotten plenty of things more relatively popular, and serious arguments about what the Simpsons mean to us as a culture are pretty few and far between. I'm not particularly concerned about either the Divine Comedy or Finnegan's Wake per se, especially since I've only read one of them and that was years ago. But that the Divine Comedy is what, roughly 400 years old and still well-known enough to reference seems to be a heartier justification than what is at best an uneven work from the last 15 or so years.
posted by klangklangston at 6:28 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


The texts considered 'canonical' are there because they reflect our self conscious understanding of our civilization's history and values.

What do you mean "our," Kemosabe?

I was trying to make an argument for objective merit quickly and used the quote regarding "multiple lists" to do so. Even though considerations of values and history must necessarily come into play, still, I think ranking is both possible and important.

You've provided no argument, only assertion. An argument that takes the form "If X were true, Y would also be true; Y is bad; therefore X is false" is not a valid argument.
posted by nasreddin at 6:30 PM on July 21, 2009



I think of the idea of a canon tantamount to knowing things like: "Righty tighty, lefty Loosey"; how to read a compass; how to shoot a pistol; how to gut a fish; how to cook; and CPR.


Hmmm, not quite like that, TK, it's like saying that those are the things that will give everyone the validation and happiness they gave you, and that other entries that other people may want to put on this hypothetical list wouldn't aid in as much 'lubrication' for whatever readons.

fyi, I have no idea what "Righty tighty, lefty Loosey" means. Is it a golf thing?
posted by smoke at 6:56 PM on July 21, 2009


What do you mean "our," Kemosabe?

If I was making such a list it would be the values I identified as American or Western. But I'm not making such a list. That quote is in reference to how the word is used. It is in agreement with deanc reply that merit was not why works were considered canonical. So "our" is defined by the list maker.

You've provided no argument, only assertion. An argument that takes the form "If X were true, Y would also be true; Y is bad; therefore X is false" is not a valid argument.

That we're curious about how others rank and value works of art and willing to argue about it, suggests that there is some basis of comparison and resultant order, was the argument in the first post. It does not follow the structure above.
posted by BigSky at 7:25 PM on July 21, 2009


Contrary yourself—the Simpsons' highest rated episode since 2004, one they showed last November, got a rating share of 6.2. Which means that about seven million people saw it. If we're talking about US culture, that's big only relatively—roughly 300 million people didn't see it. As part of either Western or global culture, it's a very small drop in a very large bucket.

I will bet you any amount of money that the percentage of Americans who watched that episode of the Simpsons is larger than the percentage of Renaissance Europeans who read Homer, Plato, and Aristotle, whose works you have called "part of the lingua franca" of Renaissance culture. But that's not the point, is it?

While I don't have any real problem in seeing the Simpsons as part of our cultural canon, I also think that they're a pretty facile answer given the context that the idea of a single canon exists in.

This is the point: what "context" is the canon supposed to exist in? In your posts, you seem to have been making two claims:

(1) The canon is the collection of books you need to read in order to understand western culture.

(2) The canon is the medium of communication and mutual understanding for participants in western culture.

If it's (1), then the canon has no aesthetic authority; it's just a collection of more or less informative bits of historical evidence. You drew the consequences of this notion of the canon in your long post: you end up with a sub-canon for every conceivable interest. If you want to understand the novel, read the canon of novels. If you want to understand architectural theory, read the canon of architectural theory. If you want to understand sheep-shearing technique, read the canon of sheep-shearing manuals. In order to argue that "western culture" is a privileged object of understanding, you at least need to give some indication of what the benefits of that understanding are, beyond the purely academic satisfaction of understanding a large and complex subject matter. And in any case, why would the "great books" be especially helpful in this endeavor? Why is Shakespeare a better guide to the meaning of western culture than Dekker or Massinger?

If it's (2), then I think a little explanation is in order. When you say something like "The reason for a canon is the same reason for a shared vocabulary," I simply don't know what you mean. Are you saying that we all need to know the canon in order to participate together in western culture? If so, that's patently false. Are you saying that the canon is a kind of shared stock that we draw on in our cultural life? If so, how? Simpsons quotes are much more integral to my interactions with my co-culturists than allusions to Shakespeare. I don't think I've ever used, say, Gogol to help me negotiate the complexities of the Western world. Are you saying that reading the canon is our way of achieving some kind of deep continuity with the history of our culture? If so, forgive me if the notion of reading the same books that some ruffly-shirted serf-driver read 400 years ago doesn't exactly fill me with awe and reverence. In the words of a "canonical" author, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." The less continuity the better, says I.

In short, I think you're trying to make the notion of the canon do triple duty as a source of historical understanding, a principle of historical and cultural continuity, and a collection of rewarding aesthetic artifacts. That's simply too much to ask of any collection of books, no matter how good they are.

But that the Divine Comedy is what, roughly 400 years old and still well-known enough to reference seems to be a heartier justification than what is at best an uneven work from the last 15 or so years.

I would hope that canonical status amounts to something at least slightly more impressive than having a recognizable title. (And in any case it's more like 700 years.)
posted by DaDaDaDave at 8:04 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


There's a difference between reading Geek Love and something by Stephen King. Geek Love may horrify but it repays my attention and gives something more than a feeling of horror. I want to reread it so I can get more out of it. On the other hand, once I've read Carrie the book is more or less disposable, the story may be interesting, but the book is not.

Man, I know he's often used in these arguments, but Stephen King is such a poor example of the type of pulpy, pedestrian novel I think you're probably trying to reach for. Several of his novels are fairly complex or stylistically daring (Dolores Claiborne, the single-passage novel, comes to mind). Sure, Carrie is an efficient little novella that doesn't really need a second read, but it's in no ways representative of his fiction in terms of either heft or complexity.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:15 PM on July 21, 2009


fyi, I have no idea what "Righty tighty, lefty Loosey" means. Is it a golf thing?

When turning a screw, you turn it right to tighten it, and left to loosen it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:17 PM on July 21, 2009


Hmmm. . . IMO, much more important than the question of what to read is learning how to read. That is, how to receive and interpret all the info flooding our senses day in and day out. How to analyze texts of all sorts, think critically about them, and engage in constructive dialogue about the issues of the day. These skills are what will make our society smart and strong. Granted, reading Great Books is certainly an important part of this. But, as a bottom line, I think the notion of The Literary Canon is missing the point. (To put it more simply: Harold Bloom, it is my understanding, thinks that if our youth read the Great Books--as determined by experts--our society will be strong. I'm skeptical of his emphasis on Greatness, on the subject matter. I think the method, the pedagogy, the teaching/learning how to think, is the important part.)
posted by flotson at 8:24 PM on July 21, 2009


I would hope that canonical status amounts to something at least slightly more impressive than having a recognizable title.
My guess would be that far more people know the premise of the story of Dante and going through the 9 circles of hell than know that the story itself is entitled "The Divine Comedy."
posted by deanc at 8:29 PM on July 21, 2009


Was the comment about Paradise Lost serious, ironic, or a troll? I spent a semester studying it as an undergrad and came away with an a sense of awe of just how incredibly brilliant and learned Milton was. There are layers upon layers of complexity in Paradise Lost that few works of literature approach and I am not sure any surpass. If you truly feel that it has no redeeming value I think you should reexamine it more closely in an annotated version. If you still feel that way, well, I don't know what to say. YMMV seems trite.
Also, the article's comments on White Noise are off base. It's not established in the canon in the same way as Paradise Lost and it's been a while since I read it but I am pretty sure I laughed out loud at least once. In any case, it's a short book so what do you lose by reading it. A day? A weekend?
posted by Tashtego at 10:15 PM on July 21, 2009


I'm sure there's some way to write about gothic southern families that will still strike a universal human chord in a bone-deep northeasterner, but Faulkner sure as hell didn't do it.

I spent a semester on Faulkner my senior year of high school, and as a east Texan (southerner) with a reasonably gothic family background, he didn't always strike that chord for me either. While I suspect I would get more out of him at 40 than I did at 17, I think I'd rather go back and read Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor again.
posted by immlass at 10:46 PM on July 21, 2009


"This is the point: what "context" is the canon supposed to exist in? In your posts, you seem to have been making two claims:

(1) The canon is the collection of books you need to read in order to understand western culture.

(2) The canon is the medium of communication and mutual understanding for participants in western culture.
"

Those aren't really the claims I'm making. The claim that I'm making is that the idea of canon is valuable, and that people who seriously concern themselves with maintaining the canon are a worthwhile part of criticism. I am claiming that having a canon helps people understand Western culture, and that the canon has been a method for mutual communication.

"If it's (1), then the canon has no aesthetic authority; it's just a collection of more or less informative bits of historical evidence. You drew the consequences of this notion of the canon in your long post: you end up with a sub-canon for every conceivable interest. If you want to understand the novel, read the canon of novels. If you want to understand architectural theory, read the canon of architectural theory. If you want to understand sheep-shearing technique, read the canon of sheep-shearing manuals. In order to argue that "western culture" is a privileged object of understanding, you at least need to give some indication of what the benefits of that understanding are, beyond the purely academic satisfaction of understanding a large and complex subject matter. And in any case, why would the "great books" be especially helpful in this endeavor? Why is Shakespeare a better guide to the meaning of western culture than Dekker or Massinger?"

Two things—First off, the idea of canon carries with it aesthetic judgment, meaning that its aesthetic authority is implicit with the body creating the canon. If you're saying there's no objective authority, yeah, sure, of course. I don't really think there's any serious claim that can be made to any aesthetic authority objectively; aesthetic authority is always persuasive speech. Second off, I was pretty open about dismissing the idea of a single canon anymore, but I think that's more from practical concerns. I simply do not believe that anyone can be enough of a polymath to be able to criticize a broad canon. Even within genres, like, say, novels, I think holding to a single canon is doomed. But I appreciate the ability to say that it's quixotic.

And no, because "we" here all grew up in Western culture, so understanding Western culture on a richer level doesn't seem purely academic to me, and it seems fairly nihilistic to imply that it is. As far as why Shakespeare is a better guide, well, because we all know Shakespeare, but if you'd like to make a case that we should study Dekker or Massinger, have at it. I don't particularly know enough of other Elizabethan playwrights, though I've enjoyed what Marlowe I've read. I've argued before that Shakespeare is over-rated, but I don't really have any problem with Shakespeare being the default to be argued against. If you do, make your case and change the canon, if not, it sounds like petulance in search of an argument.

"If it's (2), then I think a little explanation is in order. When you say something like "The reason for a canon is the same reason for a shared vocabulary," I simply don't know what you mean. Are you saying that we all need to know the canon in order to participate together in western culture? If so, that's patently false. Are you saying that the canon is a kind of shared stock that we draw on in our cultural life? If so, how? Simpsons quotes are much more integral to my interactions with my co-culturists than allusions to Shakespeare. I don't think I've ever used, say, Gogol to help me negotiate the complexities of the Western world. Are you saying that reading the canon is our way of achieving some kind of deep continuity with the history of our culture? If so, forgive me if the notion of reading the same books that some ruffly-shirted serf-driver read 400 years ago doesn't exactly fill me with awe and reverence. In the words of a "canonical" author, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." The less continuity the better, says I."

You can't grasp the utility of a shared vocabulary? I can't tell whether you're retreating to rhetorical convenience or are truly baffled by what seems like a fairly self-evident idea. I don't think that the broadcast accent and American Standard English that news anchors use is the only proper way to speak English, nor that it's not artificially constructed, or even that it doesn't come with fairly heavy assumptions of power, privilege and propriety, but I do think that it's a handy concept to have and that it's a useful starting point for the diversity of voices that are consciously being encouraged in radio.

On the other hand, this fatuous claim that the less continuity of culture the better is belied by, like, every artistic work ever in the history of everything. It's the childish rejection, a pose that can neither be supported nor justified. It's the Hot Topic of criticism.

"In short, I think you're trying to make the notion of the canon do triple duty as a source of historical understanding, a principle of historical and cultural continuity, and a collection of rewarding aesthetic artifacts. That's simply too much to ask of any collection of books, no matter how good they are."

Really, it's not, even though that's not really what I'm arguing. Are you seriously arguing that a canon of works doesn't aid in historical understanding, represent a particular continuing narrative of Western culture and contain rewarding cultural artifacts? I could see the objections if I was arguing that it was the sole provider of those goods, but since I'm emphatically not, it seems stupidly contrarian to argue against a canon on that basis. I can come up with a decent thesis on historical understanding, cultural continuity and aesthetic worth based on any three zombie movies. If you can't with the whole of Western thought to draw from, ur doon it rong.

"I would hope that canonical status amounts to something at least slightly more impressive than having a recognizable title."

That's right, the only reason why anyone knows the Divine Comedy is its catchy title.
posted by klangklangston at 11:17 PM on July 21, 2009


Even the people who had decent sales--Fitzgerald, Hemingway--were massively outsold by people totally unknown today, like Harold Bell Wright and Gene Stratton Porter.

gene stratton porter isn't totally unknown - there's signs all over the place near rome city, indiana telling me that there's a historical farmhouse or something down a side road, every time i drive to ft wayne

is it as good as edmund fitzgerald porter or arcadia london porter or the famous taddy porter?
posted by pyramid termite at 11:23 PM on July 21, 2009


Now, if you want to go kicking books out of the canon, how about _Paradise Lost_? That book has no redeeming value whatsoever.

it's poetry, try reading it aloud

don't make the mistake of expecting it to make much sense, though - milton wasn't good at that - but it sounds great

---

I remember that after reading On The Road the first time (all the way thought), my thoughts could well be summed up with "Christ, what an asshole". Maybe I need to go back and try reading it again.

kerouac wrote many better books than on the road - i suggest dr sax, big sur or visions of gerard

---

all i can say about some of the others is i only made it through proust halfway - there's something contrived and overly self-referential about him, even as i recognize the intensity of his attempt to make the past live

the real problem with james joyce is people take him seriously - really, he was funnier than hell and much of ulysses is a pisstake - much of it i still don't get, but some of it just about chokes me up laughing

tristam shandy is just a long ass shaggy dog story with no shaggy dog - that's not a criticism

i'm disappointed that pilgrim's progress wasn't shot out of someone's canon here - and strangely relieved that spenser wasn't

---

In the words of a "canonical" author, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." The less continuity the better, says I.

except that you can't really awaken from history - something i'm certain joyce knew
posted by pyramid termite at 12:00 AM on July 22, 2009


> Of everyone I've ever met or seen in my life, these three people are the least representative of our culture.

So the fuck what? Why should people be "representative of our culture"? What does that even mean?

> The less continuity the better, says I.

What a dumb idea.
posted by languagehat at 4:57 AM on July 22, 2009


klangklangston, I think you think I'm trying to be more of an asshole than I am. (Okay, I was trying to be an asshole with that "the less continuity the better" crack.) I don't want to debunk the idea of great books or claim that Dante is the same as The Simpsons, or for that matter that Shakespeare is the same as Dekker. But as I've tried to make at least semi-clear, I don't think "the canon" is just synonymous with "great books," or even "a list of great books." Since you've argued eloquently for both the importance and the impossibility of maintaining a single canon, I'm trying to figure out why you think we should be quixotically invested in that notion rather than simply saying "I think these books are great. Why don't you tell me which books you think are great?"

The thing is, when I read Milton or Hölderlin or whoever, I don't think "Wow, I really am gaining a greater understanding of Western culture!" I think "Wow, this book is fucking amazing." When I notice an allusion to Sterne in Melville, I don't think "Aha, the continuity of Western culture!" I think "Ha ha, good one, Melville." As far as I can tell, the only good reasons to read a work of literature are for the pleasure and, if you like, the spiritual exercise--and those reasons are more than good enough. The notion of the canon as medium of culture and source of universal understanding seems to me an anxious attempt either to give some kind of outward purpose to an activity that is its own end, or to stand up in valiant defense of something that doesn't really need it.

My basic objection is to that second notion, the idea of cultural gate-keeping. A lot of canon-speak has a paranoid element to it, an implication that the barbarians are on the march and we need to start worrying about the preservation of our heritage. Maybe I'm too sanguine, but I think this worry is misplaced. For one thing, there is virtually no danger that people are going to stop reading Goethe or Dante or Racine. For another, if those authors do go out of circulation, them's the breaks. People in the West stopped reading Homer and Plato for a thousand years or so, then the texts were reintroduced and people read them again. The plays of Agathon and the dialogues of Aristotle, on the other hand, were lost for good. It would be nice if we had them. But that's history for you.

I think the correct attitude toward the loss of continuity, the Balkanization of culture, etc etc is well expressed by Borges:

English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön. I pay no attention to all this and go on revising, in the still days at the Adrogue hotel, an uncertain Quevedian translation (which I do not intend to publish) of Browne's Urn Burial.

(A concession: I think it's fine, if misleading, to use "X is canonical" as shorthand for "X is a book that has been influential.")
posted by DaDaDaDave at 6:41 AM on July 22, 2009


Tristram Shandy, though, is just not ever going to happen. If you think Proust is bad, trying reading Sterne. I know it's supposed to be one of the great comic novels of English literature, but I just can't see any humor in it.

I loved Tristram Shandy. It is one long penis joke. Of course, I read it when I was 16, which is just the perfect time for long penis jokes.
posted by QIbHom at 7:19 AM on July 22, 2009


A scholium in defense of assholery:

The less continuity the better, says I.

What a dumb idea.


Tell it to these morons.

posted by DaDaDaDave at 7:41 AM on July 22, 2009


I'm sure there's some way to write about gothic southern families that will still strike a universal human chord in a bone-deep northeasterner, but Faulkner sure as hell didn't do it.

Oh dear! The Sound and the Fury is among my very favorite books along with P&P, Bleak House, and Middlemarch. Of course my opinion is of no consequence.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:19 AM on July 22, 2009


This is pretty interesting to me, I don't read a whole lot of canonical books. I always thought the idea of 'canon' referred more to a measuring stick of examples and extremes. Not necessarily things anyone needs to like, just the examples of someone doing something better or something incredibly original.

From the discussion, here, it seems that sales (or exposure) and personal enjoyment are larger factors than I previously thought... Interesting. Thanks.
posted by ServSci at 8:33 AM on July 22, 2009


"But as I've tried to make at least semi-clear, I don't think "the canon" is just synonymous with "great books," or even "a list of great books." Since you've argued eloquently for both the importance and the impossibility of maintaining a single canon, I'm trying to figure out why you think we should be quixotically invested in that notion rather than simply saying "I think these books are great. Why don't you tell me which books you think are great?""

You're right that the canon is more than a list of great books. This is especially apparent when you note that no two compilations of "the canon" include the same set of great books.

From time to time, I like to talk about baseball. I like to do things like put together teams of the greatest Tigers ever, or greatest AL players. Those teams can't ever really exist, but by accepting the idea that there could ever be such a thing as the greatest Tiger team, we can argue about what exactly constitutes greatness on both an individual and a team level. Was Mickey Cochrane a better catcher than Pudge Rodriguez? Well, while you can make some extrapolations from statistics, there's no real way to compare them. But when I say yes, I obliquely value different skills (straight hitting and speed over defensive acumen and power).

You could argue that this trivializes the canon, makes it into a parlor game, but I disagree. There's real implications following from the idea of a canon, especially pedagogically. You can't possibly teach every worthwhile work to students, so how do you decide? That decision means money and power to different actors, and arguing that there shouldn't be a canon implies that any work is as good as any other work, something that seems patently false, even if we're stuck using the accreted sediment of subjective aesthetic value laid upon us over the ages.

Thus, the canon should be taught as a concept, critically examined, but still an important concept regarding what we as contemporaries see as the ultimate manifestations of our heritage.

"My basic objection is to that second notion, the idea of cultural gate-keeping. A lot of canon-speak has a paranoid element to it, an implication that the barbarians are on the march and we need to start worrying about the preservation of our heritage. Maybe I'm too sanguine, but I think this worry is misplaced. For one thing, there is virtually no danger that people are going to stop reading Goethe or Dante or Racine. For another, if those authors do go out of circulation, them's the breaks. People in the West stopped reading Homer and Plato for a thousand years or so, then the texts were reintroduced and people read them again. The plays of Agathon and the dialogues of Aristotle, on the other hand, were lost for good. It would be nice if we had them. But that's history for you."

Part of the idea of cultural gate-keeping is that these works still have value. Look, The Republic is a great example of why this is important—not only are the discussions about the foundation of justice incredibly relevant today, but they also form the foundation of so many other thinkers responding, directly or obliquely, to Plato. While I agree that there's a lot of weird chauvinism implicit in the way the canon is handled, my objections to conservatism are utility based, not ideologically based. So, gate keeping, excluding new works so that older ones can still be seen and studied, I think has value. I think a skepticism toward efforts to dismantle the canon is healthy.

You'll also note that when people stopped reading Homer and Plato, those years were called the Dark Ages.
posted by klangklangston at 10:52 AM on July 22, 2009


You'll also note that when people stopped reading Homer and Plato, those years were called the Dark Ages.

Commonality does not mean causality, however. It's not like it suddenly became the Dark Ages just because people stopped reading Homer and Plato.

And people actually DIDN'T stop, if you include Eastern Europe in your reckoning.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:22 AM on July 22, 2009


"Commonality does not mean causality, however. It's not like it suddenly became the Dark Ages just because people stopped reading Homer and Plato.

And people actually DIDN'T stop, if you include Eastern Europe in your reckoning.
"

The term Dark Ages was coined specifically by Petrarch to refer to the time when the classics of antiquity were lost to Western Civilization. So, uh, yeah, those years did become "the Dark Ages" just because people stopped reading Homer and Plato. That's what the Dark Ages refers to. It wasn't just really dark outside.
posted by klangklangston at 11:45 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


The term Dark Ages was coined specifically by Petrarch to refer to the time when the classics of antiquity were lost to Western Civilization. So, uh, yeah, those years did become "the Dark Ages" just because people stopped reading Homer and Plato. That's what the Dark Ages refers to. It wasn't just really dark outside.

I know it wasn't referring to a weather phenomenon, thanks.

My point was that, Petrarch's opinion notwithstanding, the influences of the period we refer to as "The Dark Ages" were much, much more complex than just "people stopped reading Homer" -- the Roman government had been spread too thin to cover the size of the Empire, and was sufficiently weakened to the point that it had difficulty fending off the barbarian invasions. Economic pressures were plaguing the Empire from within, and the growth of Christianity as a religious movement was also bringing about great societal change within the Roman Empire; meanwhile, outside the Empire, other groups were finding Christianity to be a unifying force, and were aligning themselves as global powers in competition with each other and with Rome. All of these factors, and others, led to the great changes which brought about what we commonly refer to as "The Dark Ages," and so to my mind, it's a little naive to attribute the coming about whole period of history just to that one factor, is all. At best, it's something that happened to happen during that time, rather than a cause of it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:13 PM on July 22, 2009


Um, yeah, EmpressCallipygos is right. The Middle Ages weren't a dark age. Even outside the Byzantine Empire, which did a pretty good job of preserving classical culture, it's common to speak of a twelfth-century Renaissance and a Carolingian Renaissance. The use of the term "Dark Ages" to mean anything but "we don't have as many sources about them as we'd like" is an artifact of woolly-headed nineteenth-century Whig historiography, and medievalists have long rejected it.
posted by nasreddin at 12:25 PM on July 22, 2009


The use of the term "Dark Ages" to mean anything but "we don't have as many sources about them as we'd like" is an artifact of woolly-headed nineteenth-century Whig historiography, and medievalists have long rejected it.

To be scrupulously accurate, Petrarch coined the term "Dark Ages" in the 14th Century rather than the 19th.

But from the sound of things, he chose the term largely because of a whole "oh woe everything was so much better in the old days and now the world has just gone to pot because people don't do X Y or Z any more" kind of agenda. Kind of like how some people think that the whole country went down the tubes when we stopped letting people smoke in restaurants.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:53 PM on July 22, 2009


"I know it wasn't referring to a weather phenomenon, thanks."

Really? In your zeal to give a little recital on the history of millennial Europe, you seem to have missed the point twice. Dadadadave said that there were 1000 years where no one read Homer or Plato, by which he obviously meant in Western Europe (as this is a discussion on the Western canon primarily—no one's been talking up the Chinese canon, I assume because we have no Chinese scholars this deep in the thread), and he was obviously indulging in hyperbole. Those same "1000" years were the period known directly afterward as The Dark Ages, known as The Dark Ages because they were seen then as devoid of the classical culture that marked Rome.

So, yes, you're correct about the causes that brought about the "Dark Ages," but you miss the obvious point about why they were called the Dark Ages and why they were seen as bad by the folks coming out of them, which is hardly an argument that losing Homer and Plato was no big deal. That loss was the consequence, but that consequence was what was meant when people referred to the Dark Ages.

"But from the sound of things, he chose the term largely because of a whole "oh woe everything was so much better in the old days and now the world has just gone to pot because people don't do X Y or Z any more" kind of agenda. Kind of like how some people think that the whole country went down the tubes when we stopped letting people smoke in restaurants."

Well, no, he also chose it as a direct antithesis to the common Christian view of the pagan world being one of darkness and Christianity being the light of the world. It's a pretty clear canonical allusion, and glibly tossing it into misplaced nostalgia misses the rhetorical point of the language, thus you inadvertently provide an object lesson on why knowledge of the canon provides a richer understanding of history.
posted by klangklangston at 1:27 PM on July 22, 2009


It's a pretty clear canonical allusion, and glibly tossing it into misplaced nostalgia misses the rhetorical point of the language, thus you inadvertently provide an object lesson on why knowledge of the canon provides a richer understanding of history.

Or, I've given an illustration about just how widely two different people can diverge when it comes to what is and what is not canon.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:06 PM on July 22, 2009


And nasreddin makes a good case for how some consider the "canon" to be an outdated concept anyway.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:12 PM on July 22, 2009


You can't possibly teach every worthwhile work to students, so how do you decide? That decision means money and power to different actors, and arguing that there shouldn't be a canon implies that any work is as good as any other work, something that seems patently false, even if we're stuck using the accreted sediment of subjective aesthetic value laid upon us over the ages.

I don't agree that "arguing that there shouldn't be a canon implies that any work is as good as any other work," either aesthetically or pedagogically. Aesthetically, Gulliver's Travels is better than The Island of Doctor Moreau, not because it's "higher in the canon," but just because it's better--better conceived, better written, etc. Pedagogically, it depends on the kind of class you're talking about, but even if the rubric of the class is something like "The Most Important Works of Western Culture," I'm fine with letting each teacher construct his or her syllabus on the basis of individual judgment rather than by recourse to a canon. I don't see the point in trusting "the accreted sediment of subjective aesthetic value" more than one's own aesthetic and historical judgments. The point of arguing against the canon is not to say "Everything is equal, hooray" but to say "Judge for yourself."

I guess a counter-argument would be something like, What if Prof. Z wants to assign Tom Clancy in their Most Important Works of Western Culture class instead of Virgil? I would reply: 1. people with bad taste will have bad taste whether you posit a canon or not; 2. if Prof. Z thinks Tom Clancy is more important than Virgil, he'll probably give better lectures on Tom Clancy than he would on Virgil. The Most Important Works of Western Culture sounds like a class everyone would sleep through, anyway.

Put another way, my argument is that the canon is a superfluous notion. Everyone has their preferences. Some of those preferences are widely shared. All of those preferences, the shared and the idiosyncratic, are dependent in some way on the ambient culture and circumstances of the persons holding them. People debate about which books are the best, change their minds, change other people's minds, require their students to read X rather than Y, etc. Why posit some canon floating above it all? In terms of your analogy, I think the canon would be something like "the actual greatest AL players of all time," or "the all-but-universally-agreed-upon greatest AL players of all time." I would say, don't worry about that--just pick the ones you think are the greatest. If someone challenges your selections, make your case, but don't imagine it's a sign of cultural collapse if you can't come to an agreement.

Part of the idea of cultural gate-keeping is that these works still have value. Look, The Republic is a great example of why this is important—not only are the discussions about the foundation of justice incredibly relevant today, but they also form the foundation of so many other thinkers responding, directly or obliquely, to Plato. [. . .] I think a skepticism toward efforts to dismantle the canon is healthy.

I agree unreservedly that the great works of the past still have value, and in particular that anyone who wants to understand the theory of justice or the history of political philosophy ought to read The Republic. I agree that it's healthy to be skeptical, indeed incredulous, when someone claims that all books are equally good or that Milton was an overrated hack or whatever. I just don't think you have to believe in a canon to be able to value old books or defend great authors against callow attacks.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 3:26 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


And nasreddin makes a good case for how some consider the "canon" to be an outdated concept anyway.

And klangklangston makes a very good case for how creating and maintaining a "canon" is a "quixotic" endeavour that nevertheless can be important and have great value.

I'm not a scholar and am much too ignorant to participate in this argument (but love reading the thread) but personally, the existance of something even just resembling a literary canon -- and perhaps more importantly: the underlying discussion -- has made me interested in some Great Works to the point of actually reading them (or trying to in some cases, looking at you Ulysses). Because of it I've read works by Milton, Plato, Dante, Woolf, etc. that I probably never would have, had there not been an ongoing argument about the importance and particular selection of (the) Great Works.

I know I'll never read all of the Great Works out there (or see all of the Great Paintings, etc.), as certainly as I know there can be no final, authoritative list of Great Works to sum up and define western or any other culture. But as a non-scholar, being presented with various lists/arguments of what is "canon" and why has without question enriched my life. It has exposed me to some otherwordly literature and has improved my understanding (by whatever tiny amount) of our shared culture.

A lot more effort has probably been put into other "impossible" projects with less positive results.
posted by Glee at 4:47 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


otherworldly, probably..
posted by Glee at 5:10 PM on July 22, 2009


I guess a counter-argument would be something like, What if Prof. Z wants to assign Tom Clancy in their Most Important Works of Western Culture class instead of Virgil? I would reply: 1. people with bad taste will have bad taste whether you posit a canon or not; 2. if Prof. Z thinks Tom Clancy is more important than Virgil, he'll probably give better lectures on Tom Clancy than he would on Virgil. The Most Important Works of Western Culture sounds like a class everyone would sleep through, anyway.

This is one of the best arguments for the canon posited in this thread.
posted by Bookhouse at 5:50 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love all you litnerds.
posted by benzenedream at 6:35 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


A character in Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives says (maybe quoting someone else?) that the unkindest thing you can do to Jack Kerouac is re-read him when you're in your 30s.
posted by serazin at 7:30 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


My apologies if I've given the impression that I'm saying that the idea of there being a canon is a bad thing (I think I actually said that a couple posts ago, and I don't actually mean that, so my bad). I'm reacting more to other people's reactions to the canon -- treating it as a sort of knee-jerk Credential Of Greatness, wherein its very inclusion carries with it an automatic message that "this book is great, therefore you must like it and if you don't like it you're just stupid" or "this book's ideas about history are static and unchanging and this is an Iron-Clad Statement On The Foundation Of Our Culture, Amen."

That kind of reaction to the Canon, I object to. Because society changes, and people's morals and values and conceptions about history and tastes change with it. Petrarch's views on history aren't unimportant, but they need to be understood within the context of his time, not ours. At the time Petrarch was alive, it did indeed make sense to perceive of antiquity as a more enlightened age. But since Petrarch's time, we are more aware of what other factors were going on in history at that time, and we have a much more of a sense of global history than Petrarch did. During the ages Petrarch was lamenting were "Dark," other parts of the world were making great advances in technology, mathematics, sciences, art, literature...for someone in Europe, sure, the ages looked Dark, but for someone in China, that same period included the years of the Tang Dynasty, which was considered by many to be a golden age. It's important to understand Petrarch's responses to the age as being a product of the times in which he spoke, but to say that the Dark Ages happened because "people stopped reading Homer" seems a bit naive, because -- well, people in China hadn't even started reading Homer yet, and they certainly seemed to be doing okay. On the other hand, though, it makes perfect sense to say that "Petrarch believed that the Dark Ages happened because people stopped reading Homer." Because -- well, he did.

Again, though, this doesn't invalidate Homer, or Petrarch, or the Canon. To my mind, it just means that we shouldn't slavishly follow the Canon, is all. Each book is a product of its age, and can be very valuable in understanding the age in which it was written. Conversely, understanding the age in which a book was written can go a great way towards helping us understand a book. Reading The Republic can help us understand what previous thinkers read, and can help us trace the process by which they developed their own ideas; but we are still free to draw our own conclusions about those ideas.

And we can still also just plain not like a book even though it is on the Canon, and that doesn't mean anything less about us. Understanding the context of a Great Book is one thing, and a literary analysis of why Finnegan's Wake was so groundbreaking teaches me something about Finnegan's Wake -- but those are both separate matters from my own individual taste, and my own individual taste is also valid. I can appreciate why Finnegan's Wake is groundbreaking, but still want to throw the damn thing across the room because "MOTHER OF GOD I GIVE UP I CAN'T FOLLOW WHAT'S GOING ON". We should feel free to do that, rather than slavishly following some appointed list and discarding our own judgement.

It's a different list, but I'm reminded of something I read in an interview with Maurice Sendak -- he was having a conversation with a woman who said that she read Where The Wild Things Are to her kids every month, even though "the kids think it's scary, and it gives them nightmares for a week afterward". Sendak asked her incredulously why she continued to read them the book, then, and the woman just said, "but it's a Caldecott book, they're supposed to like it."

The Canon is just a collective opinion. And to paraphrase an old canard, "opinions are like butts -- everyone's got one." So the Canon is, in a sense, just a collection of butts -- and sometimes you just don't like the feel of one of the chairs you're given. And there's nothing wrong with that, and believing that there is something wrong with that is nonsenical to me.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:07 AM on July 23, 2009


I'm reacting more to other people's reactions to the canon -- treating it as a sort of knee-jerk Credential Of Greatness, wherein its very inclusion carries with it an automatic message that "this book is great, therefore you must like it and if you don't like it you're just stupid" or "this book's ideas about history are static and unchanging and this is an Iron-Clad Statement On The Foundation Of Our Culture, Amen."

Why so obnoxious, Empress?

You talk, variously, of readers (and writers) from the past being trapped by their ideology - and hence limited in what they thought was "great".

You, too, are blinkered by your ideology in all of its 2009 complexity!

The canon simply offers a shortlist of works that have survived generations of ideologies, and thereby appear to offer something enduring - worth your time if you have it -that transcends the particular time in which they were written.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 8:43 AM on July 23, 2009


The canon simply offers a shortlist of works that have survived generations of ideologies, and thereby appear to offer something enduring - worth your time if you have it -that transcends the particular time in which they were written.

I....don't recall ever saying it wasn't. I also believe I pointed out twice in my post above that I did not object to the Canon as an idea.

I am reacting EXCLUSIVELY and SOLELY to the people who say some variant of "oh, it's on the Canon, therefore YOU MUST LIKE IT! And if you do NOT like it, you are STUPID!"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:12 AM on July 23, 2009


I also believe I pointed out twice in my post above that I did not object to the Canon as an idea.

Fair enough - although you did point out quite a few other things as well:)


But you do say (in various ways) - and it seems to represent the heart of your position:


my own individual taste is also valid.

Great. That's got you covered. But of what value is your taste to me?
posted by Jody Tresidder at 9:26 AM on July 23, 2009


Great. That's got you covered. But of what value is your taste to me?

That's entirely your decision. It doesn't have to be of any value to you whatsoever -- if I like a book, and I suggest it to you, but you hate it, all that means is that we have different taste in books. I'm not talking about before you read the book, I'm talking about what happens AFTER you read it, regardless of how you found the book.

But that's my whole point -- that the Canon is a set of suggestions, not Holy Edict. But nevertheless some people TREAT it like Holy Edict. If I recommend a book to you, but you hate it, it would really be rude of me to snark that, "oh, well, there must be something WRONG with you, then, if you didn't like it." You not liking a book I recommended doesn't make me smarter than you, or you dumber than me, or you lesser than me -- it only means that you didn't like a book I suggested. And it's okay to not like a book someone else suggests to you.

So -- if we feel free to dislike a book our friends suggest to us, we should also feel free to dislike a book the Canon suggests to us. That doesn't detract from the Canon itself as an idea, that just means we didn't like a book we read, and we should be okay with that. And -- for the same reason that it's rude to tell your friend "oh, there must be something WRONG with you for not liking Twilight, I mean, I loved it and I thought it was the most awesome book ever,*" I believe it's also rude to tell someone, "oh, there must be something WRONG with you for not liking Moby Dick, I mean it's only a literary CLASSIC...."

The Canon is a series of suggestions, and it's okay to personally dislike a book someone suggested to you. No matter what credentials those suggestions came with. Sometimes you just plain don't like something, and it's okay to just plain not like something, isn't it?


* No, I actually do not like Twilight. For the record.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:55 AM on July 23, 2009


the Roman government had been spread too thin to cover the size of the Empire

well, actually, i think it was partially a case of people didn't want to pay the taxes to keep the empire going in the west

something the republicans might keep in mind
posted by pyramid termite at 10:01 AM on July 23, 2009


That doesn't detract from the Canon itself as an idea, that just means we didn't like a book we read...

Now I'm picturing your concept of The Cannon as an idea with no value?

(Though I entirely take your point about yelling "thicko" at someone with an opinion you don't share. Yup, it's rude.)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:15 AM on July 23, 2009


Now I'm picturing your concept of The Cannon as an idea with no value?

As I have repeatedly said, I'm not talking about the Canon itself. I am ONLY talking about the excessive reverence with which some people regard the Canon.

The only difference between the Canon suggesting a book and your Uncle Sid suggesting a book is that with the Canon, you know that it's a collective suggestion. With your Uncle Sid, it's just your Uncle Sid. The odds are better that you may get something out of a Canon-suggested book, because that's a bunch of people recommending it rather than just one.

Once you've read the book, though, then you can rely on your own opinion about it, which trumps what your English teacher, your Uncle Sid, or anyone else said, as far as I'm concerned.

The fact that a book is on the Canon only means that a lot of people have gotten something out of it. But that doesn't mean that you have to also be one of those people, is all, and if you're not, that doesn't mean anything's wrong with you personally. And yet people tie themselves into knots because they think there's something wrong with them for not liking a book.

All I'm really getting at is, people sometimes forget that reading is supposed to be fun. It's possible to respect a book's place in literary history, but to also think "even so, I didn't think it was fun, so meh."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:41 AM on July 23, 2009


....My apologies for sounding a little shrill in that last comment, Jody. I just was getting a touch frustrated that there seems to be a disconnect that people think I'm talking about the Canon itself, and I'm not.

In a nutshell, I think the Canon is a fine idea, but I also think some people don't quite get the point of why we have a Canon in the first place and get themselves way too hung up on it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:53 AM on July 23, 2009


....My apologies for sounding a little shrill in that last comment, Jody.

Hey, not necessary at all, EmpressCallipygos .

I was idly thinking that maybe it's partly because I've had a privileged - but weirdly spotty - education (moving countries far more than most), I've had to rely on short cuts to Received Opinion About What's The Bee's Knees & What You Can Safely Avoid Without Sounding Like A Rube. Maybe I do have some lazily unexamined elitist prejudices as a result.

(Anyway, I can do "shrill" in my sleep!)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 11:19 AM on July 23, 2009


"My apologies for sounding a little shrill in that last comment, Jody. I just was getting a touch frustrated that there seems to be a disconnect that people think I'm talking about the Canon itself, and I'm not."

That's funny, in that I kept being frustrated because I felt like people were trying to argue against straw men like how some people who are not in this thread at all revere the canon excessively.
posted by klangklangston at 11:35 AM on July 23, 2009


That's funny, in that I kept being frustrated because I felt like people were trying to argue against straw men like how some people who are not in this thread at all revere the canon excessively.

...Yeah, it's not like anyone in this thread said "the world entered the Dark Ages because people stopped reading Homer, and that's why the Canon is important."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:47 AM on July 23, 2009


Right, it's exactly not like anyone said that because no one did. And not only that, after someone tried to imply that they did, that someone was corrected.

Perhaps you're unclear—regarding what was said in this thread, only this thread is canon. I know that it's needlessly prescriptive, but perhaps if you're interested in understanding this thread, you could treat this thread as the primary source.
posted by klangklangston at 11:53 AM on July 23, 2009


Right, it's exactly not like anyone said that because no one did. And not only that, after someone tried to imply that they did, that someone was corrected.

Perhaps you're unclear—regarding what was said in this thread, only this thread is canon. I know that it's needlessly prescriptive, but perhaps if you're interested in understanding this thread, you could treat this thread as the primary source.


I'll make you a deal -- I'll do that if, when I misunderstand you, if you can correct my misconception WITHOUT getting snippy at me in the process. Deal?

So now that we have those ground rules -- please let me know exactly where I went wrong in misunderstanding your point.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:56 AM on July 23, 2009


Dadadadave said that there were 1000 years where no one read Homer or Plato, by which he obviously meant in Western Europe (as this is a discussion on the Western canon primarily—no one's been talking up the Chinese canon, I assume because we have no Chinese scholars this deep in the thread), and he was obviously indulging in hyperbole. Those same "1000" years were the period known directly afterward as The Dark Ages, known as The Dark Ages because they were seen then as devoid of the classical culture that marked Rome.

See: Petrarch's Conception of the Dark Ages by Mommsen, Speculum, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Apr., 1942), pp. 226-242 (jstor link).

The light was classical knowledge. Hence "Dark Ages." That the severing of Eastern and Western empires assured Rome's doom, or any number of other causes of the decline, is the historical precedent, but Dark Ages is a specific metaphor. I regret if this still sounds snippy, but if you don't understand what I am saying nor why I said it, I'm not sure what explanation will be required. If you have further questions, I will answer them to the best of my ability.
posted by klangklangston at 12:22 PM on July 23, 2009


Well, right now I only have one question -- I'm not seeing where DaDaDaDave DID say "there were 1000 years where no one read Homer or Plato". I just did a search in this thread and couldn't find it, and I'd like to read what he said so I can understand your response in the proper context. Because where I seem to be getting hung up on is the context for your comments.

Just did a screensearch for his name, read his one post and couldn't find anywhere where he said that, so I'm stumped. Can you link to what you were responding to?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:37 PM on July 23, 2009


For the record, I understand WHAT you meant by "Petarch thought X and therefore he said Y", what I was just not understanding was WHY you specifically were introducing that point into the conversation as a whole. But reading that in context will probably sort that out.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:39 PM on July 23, 2009


"People in the West stopped reading Homer and Plato for a thousand years or so, then the texts were reintroduced and people read them again."
posted by klangklangston at 12:56 PM on July 23, 2009


Ah, thank you. *reads*

Okay, after reading that, I'm still inclined to agree with DaDaDaDave's general point. True, stating that "people stopped reading Homer for 1000 years" was a flip way of putting it -- but taken strictly, I think I'm still inclined to read with him. Yes, Homer and Plato falling out of fashion did coincide with the Dark Ages -- but in the larger context of history, it wasn't just that Homer and Plato fell out of fashion, as if the whole of the world suddenly went through a chick-lit phase instead. It was more that learning in general was de-emphasized as a whole. I would argue that in naming names specifically, Petrarch was taking more of a poetic view of affairs.

And that's what I'm responding more to -- what sounds like your hanging on to one or two single books alone from the Canon, rather than the general idea of a Canon. I agree that a familiarity with books from the Canon is helpful in the sense of building a shared understanding of society. But it's not like any one single book is the keystone of society as a whole, and that removing one single book is going to collapse the entire house of cards. As society changes and evolves, single individual books can be emphasized, de-emphasized, wax and wane, cycle up and down in relevance, or have the justification for their inclusion change dramatically. So it's okay for a given individual to either dislike, or not read, a random book or two from the Canon and still be okay with a general familiarity with Western Canon as a whole. My world will not grind to a halt because simply because I DID happen to read Plato but NOT the Iliad, for instance.

In short: as I understand it, DaDaDaDave was saying that the Canon was a keen idea, but that we could all get away with one or two books dropping off the list now and then, or dropping off and then coming back, without it resulting in a Mad-Max breakdown of Society. And I'm inclined to agree. What you say about specific parts of the Canon falling out of favor resulting in a lapse in learning is noted; but I'd still attribute that to being a symptom of the de-emphasis of learning in general, rather than it being a cause of lapse in learning. In other words -- I'd say now that "the Dark Ages didn't start because people stopped reading Homer; rather, people stopped reading Homer because it was the Dark Ages, and no one was reading anything in general."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:19 PM on July 23, 2009


An appropriate snippet from a one-star review of Dante on amazon.com:

Since Star Wars, this book is most definately dated.
posted by Bookhouse at 5:40 PM on July 24, 2009


« Older Allan Milburn MP has just published a report [pdf]...  |  What if we condensed the UK in... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments