Thursday, May 30, 2013

Another shot from the Canon

A couple years ago on Type M, we seemed to engage in the genre-fiction-vs-mainstream-works debate, and the ensuing threads of literary-canon discussion wound endlessly.

Well, as the sultan of the spoken word, Arnold Schwarzenegger, once said, "I'm back." And thanks to a fascinating post in the May 23 edition of the New Yorker, so too is our canon thread.

"Canon Fodder: Denouncing the Classics" is thought provoking on many levels. Several questions author Sam Sacks raises:

Once you're in (John Milton is his example) can you be asked to leave?

Does T. S. Eliot's definition of a classic -- “maturity of mind, maturity of manners, maturity of language, and perfection of the common style” -- hold up?

And how about this statement: "A look through the Classics section of bookstores -- in America or any of the Western democracies [shows] ...the offerings are wide-ranging, tilting toward diversity and inclusion. But, more to the point, artistic brilliance is no longer the most important determining factor. What makes a classic today is cultural significance. Authors are anointed not because they are great (although many of them are) but because they are important. In other words, the current criteria for classics are more a matter of sociology than of aesthetics."

The latter is a bold statement. Is this true? I'm not sure, but I do know that as the chair of an independent-school English department, I strive to offer students literary examples that expose them to cultures and peoples they may not otherwise experience. And I know I'm certainly not alone in this goal among academicians: Many high schools have revised curricula, changing traditional "British Literature" to "world literature." Are all of these global works canonical? I taught Children of the Street, by Kwei Quartey, this winter. It (and some YouTube videos) offered a glimpse into life on Ghana streets that my students -- unless they seek it -- will never see. Children of the Street was a nice story and a pretty good mystery. The sentences are not going to be mistaken with E.B. White's or George Orwell's or even (our own) James Lee Burke's. But, for my students, was the experience of reading (and hopefully learning) about people who live lives unlike their own important? Among the fundamental attributes and skills students will need in the next 10 or 20 years are empathy and cultural awareness. Pixar has its designers take French lessons in order to better understand the French culture.

In the early 1990s, while in grad school, in El Paso, Texas, I attended a book discussion by a world-renowned literary critic. Asked about the canon, he said, in effect, that it is dominated by dead white males because most others have not been allowed to write long enough to produce works that withstand the test of time. Short sighted? I can't imagine an American literature survey without Toni Morrison and August Wilson.

The New Yorker article raises more questions than I have answers to, and, for me, that's what literary criticism and literature in general is all about. I'm curious to see what others think of the article.     


1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

John, I subscribe to the New Yorker and I'm going to read the article at once. I don't know enough to comment on the merits of canons past and present.