There Is No Literary Canon
Do we really need anyone to tell us what to read and what not?
Literary canon is one of the most stubbornly elusive and poorly defined ideas that needlessly occupy the thoughts and imagination of those identifying as members of the book-reading community. In terms of absurdity, it’s on a par with taking a wild guess at what new kinky sex game will find its way into the newest installment of the Grey saga.
It’s also the single most contentious issue present in the literary world these days — and rightly so — with ferocious battles erupting every now and then in defense or against it, with whole legions of its loyal advocates and no less committed detractors clashing repeatedly and engaging in verbal skirmishes nearly on a daily basis on various book blogs, book-related podcasts, and op-eds printed in traditional newspapers, and with heated disputes raging over the divisive question: Which group is grossly underrepresented and which one is unjustly overrepresented there?
It’s the single most contentious issue present in the literary world these days.
It’s a remarkably insoluble problem. But that’s how the situation presents itself right now, for, as of yet, no one has come up with one unanimously accepted, comprehensive list of titles and authors that may form the backbone of that currently both loved and loathed mythical canon.
However, I can’t help but find the struggle over securing the best position on the list for this or that distinguished author flawed at the very core of it.
Time and again, I reach that conclusion as I listen to the passionate arguments bouncing back and forth amid all the interested parties, like a hail of tennis balls being spat out by a tennis ball machine, with each one of those parties being armed to the belletristic teeth with various proofs and reasons why we should immediately honor the particular person by elevating them to the literary pantheon for their superb work and for making the voice of this or that community finally heard.
And even though the effort is often laudable — and the rationale behind it nothing but splendid and noble — this strategy is also inherently wrong and misdirected, like an attempt to fan the flames of love of books in one’s child by forcing it to stay home and finish a book while all its friends are out having fun and playing pranks on one’s neighbors.
And even though the effort is often laudable this strategy is also inherently wrong and misdirected.
But why is this game plan wrong? Because instead of wasting time squabbling and feuding and trading barbs at affordable prices over negligible nuances, instead of moving the individual names up and down that imaginary list or trying to squeeze a new one in there, instead of trying to reach a compromise over which social group should be included in it and which should be bid goodbye and evicted for good, we ought to be doing our utmost to bring the very idea of creating such an oppressive monstrosity as a literary canon crashing down — once and for all.
Yes, it ought to be overthrown. It should be shed as a yoke of cultural tyranny, as yet another tool of enforcing the will of a comparably elusive, narrow group of critics on the broad public — in this case, on the reading part of the general public.
And, believe me, when brought down and shattered to pieces, it wouldn’t be sorely missed — if at all. Its demise wouldn’t be met with the mourning worthy of an incalculable loss by most of the book-reading society, but rather with a prolonged sigh of relief and contentment. And it would be heaved by all those suddenly freed from the unbearable burden of guilt — weighing them down, lingering on their shoulders — induced by their failing to conform to this bookish standard foisted on them from above.
Believe me, when brought down and shattered to pieces, it wouldn’t be sorely missed — if at all.
Instead of going to great lengths to play the game the best we can on the enemy’s turf and with him dictating the rules — especially if the odds are against us, the humble readers — we must emphatically reject the idea of taking part in that competition altogether. We must defy it, boycott it, if needed, for otherwise we’ll behave very much like the representative of a vanquished and occupied nation who overzealously mimics the fashion and customs of their conquerors in the vain hope of being declared one of them — their equal.
Times have changed — and that’s an undeniable fact, no matter how banal it may sound.
Almost all companies have fully recognized by now the rising importance of the grassroots movements and the reversal of the traditional flow of decision-making which, instead of trickling down from above, now moves upwards, that is, from the bottom up.
We must emphatically reject the idea of taking part in that competition altogether.
Thus, probably for the first time in history, corporations and their noisy marketing departments have to pipe down and listen — or at least pretend to be listening — to the voices of their customers rather than arbitrarily tell them what to do and what to buy this season. They have to react adequately and adapt to the conditions changing diametrically every few tweets. It’s a corporate version of the Wild West where the jittery businesses have to draw a new plan from their holsters before clients shoot them in the back or surprise them not so much with tar and feathers as with yet another abrupt change of their buying habits. From their point of view, the situation has grown impossibly volatile, but from ours for once we have our say in the matters affecting us directly.
Even politicians bend over backward — which is not that hard if we consider their, in most cases, rather vestigial spines — to catch up with this new trend and to pass themselves off as the best listeners, tirelessly listening to the grievances and demands of their base, since the development of the sense of hearing in human beings.
It’s democracy in all its glory, with the people — and not the privileged ones — taking matters into their own hands. And along with the decline and fall of the old system, we’ll be seeing the inevitable demise of the relics of the past epoch and the attributes of the former ruling class.
The advent of social media, allowing politicians to communicate directly and without limitations with their supporters, allowing them to get the message out not filtered through traditional modes of communication, has greatly diminished the role of various press secretaries and other intermediaries, which is most visible in the case of the youngest and most tech-savvy crop of lawmakers. Garrulous salesmen also appear to be somewhat dated nowadays when clients take the initiative and decide on a product after having made a little bit of research themselves.
They have to react adequately and adapt to the conditions changing diametrically every few tweets.
And to such a category of stale relics indubitably belongs the concept of a literary canon as a codified set of book titles that have been selected and approved by the privileged few.
From this perspective, the days of a literary canon as we know it seem to be numbered, like the expiration date of dairy products. It makes the situation of various tastemakers and rulemakers and other critics — who habitually occupied the comfortable top tiers of the power structures of old — insanely precarious, if not downright endangered, because simple questions arise: Why should I be listening to them at all? Who are they to dictate what I should be reading in the confines of my own house?
If this drastic shift in the balance of power — of tectonic proportions unseen in recent history — affects every single sphere of our lives from the corporate world right up to the very top of the political food chain, why shouldn’t it have an impact on the cultural one as well?
If we’re living in the reality where an idea can spread through the layers of society — with the aid of the internet — faster than a gossip in the vicinity of a water cooler, and where whole governments can be toppled by the movements initiated by a few dedicated activists with access to social media, then why should we still cling to the outdated models of power relations and obey our old masters in this cultural variation on serfdom?
From this perspective, the days of a literary canon as we know it seem to be numbered.
And let’s not be fooled by the so-called dialogue taking place, every now and then, between the members of the decision-making caste of critics and those who merely want to enrich the literary canon by adding to it a handful of worthy names. It’s all part of a power play, it’s all part of the same deathless game of influences, where the ruling side cedes ground to its opponents here and there, or pretends to do it — preferably in the least relevant places, most likely by sacrificing its least valuable assets — to satisfy the demands of the most insurgent groups, to appease them, and, ultimately, to preserve the remaining part of the existing hierarchy in a slightly reduced but otherwise nearly intact condition. “Do you want to insert more writers belonging to this or that group into the canon? That’s fine. We’ll give you one or two slots to fill. Put in there anyone you want but then go home, good people, go home and let us be.”
Besides, it’s hardly a secret that such lists of canonical works circulating in the media are, more often than not, biased and unapologetically Anglo- and Americentric, with the rest of world literature being either treated in a blatantly patronizing manner or dismissed completely. And while only a small number of foreign literary figures can consider themselves lucky to have secured a spot on those lists, at the same time the most mediocre and second-rate English-speaking novelists easily make the cut.
For this reason, either we make the effort indispensable to compose an exhaustive catalog of the finest authors coming from every single country or there’s no use bothering ourselves with such lists following the set of deliberately vague and unspecified criteria of admission. Because, as of now, it’s nothing short of a farce, a consummate embarrassment in the eyes of the rapidly changing and shifting modern world in which nations — until recently overlooked or blatantly ignored — are demanding to be heard and treated equally.
And if we’re still unable so much as to draft a proposal of the literary canon satisfying all and including all those who are worthy of such an honor, perhaps it’s high time to abolish it and dispose of that flawed and bankrupt concept entirely.
If you can’t beat your opponent at the game in which he is also a referee and gatekeeper all rolled into one, then the only wise move is not to play at all.
For then it’s no longer a matter of tireless fighting and infighting and being busy clawing one another’s eyes out over who should make the list and be rewarded with a prominent spot on it, but rather it’s all about the indefensibility of such a list. If you can’t beat your opponent at the game in which he, and not an impartial third party, is also a referee and gatekeeper all rolled into one, then the only wise move is not to play at all — for you won’t be able to win it, even if you do your best — or to dispense with the very game in question. Only then will we attain lasting and genuine fairness.
But wouldn’t it lay the foundation for a nascent state of cultural anarchy, for a literary vacuum, and for a void that could be maddeningly hard to fill? The remedy for it is a simple one: Everyone should compile their own personal canon and cherish it and cultivate it privately, without trying to force it on their fellow readers and without succumbing too readily to the influence and judgment of others. Such an attitude has a name: It’s called individualism, as opposed to the mindless following the antiquated norms and dogmas implemented by the long-dead people or by the ones being out of step (or two of those) with current reality.
Perhaps, paraphrasing the words uttered by the child character in the first Matrix movie, we should look suspiciously at those itching to impose the failed concept of a literary canon on us and whisper: “There’s no canon.”
For there’s no need for it at all.
Thank you for reading.
Copyright © 2019 by F. R. Foksal
F. R. Foksal is a Polish author writing in English, his second language. His short story collection, Hour Between Late Night and Early Morning, is available at Amazon. He believes that writing about literature doesn’t have to be boring and that books still stand a chance in today’s high-definition reality.