What constitutes great literature, or capital-L Literature? Is the idea of a “canon” of “great books” false, or is it valid? Who is to judge what is worthy of inclusion in this “canon”?
Definitions in the American Heritage Dictionary include “a basis for judgement, standard, criterion”, and “an authoritative list, as of the works of an author”. But isn’t this ultimately subjective? Who is to say what should go in and what should not?
Literature is clearly more than just the written word, more than just books. The truly great Literature is both of its time and transcends its time, and also transcends cultural barriers. It remains relevant to generations and cultures beyond those of the authors that wrote it. As Ezra Pound said, Literature is news that stays news.
People from one or two more radical schools of thought, or collectively the “School of Resentment” – who, it would seem are basically butthurt lefties hung up on imposing “political correctness” on us all – are quick to dismiss or tear down the “straight white Christian male” element in Literature, having us believe that their work has a narrow view of the world and accuses it of being racist, sexist and homophobic. However, they are quick to forget that these writers were a product of their time, that in a lot of cases they were holding up mirrors to the society that produced them and even observing with a critical eye; furthermore they were actually the more enlightened minds of their time. More pertinently, not all of the great writers were men – Mary Shelley, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters come to mind, and George Eliot was a woman who wrote under a man’s name and she was certainly not the only one. Not all of the great writers were straight – E.M Forster, W.H. Auden, Oscar Wilde, Sappho, Gustave Flaubert, D.H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman and W. Somerset Maugham were either gay or bisexual. (Rumour has it that Christopher Marlowe also was, and some have even suggested William Shakespeare was too, though there is no reliable evidence to support this contention). Not all of the great writers were white either – Sun Tzu, Confucius, Siddharta Gautama Buddha, Mohandas Gandhi the Mahatma (and even if they weren’t all writers, strictly speaking, they were all great authors by virtue of the words they came out with). Furthermore, it’s ironic that many of these straight white males from Europe and the Americas so maligned and even accused of anti-Semitism by aforesaid butthurt lefties had their spiritual and moral outlook influenced by a book that was written by Jews and worship a God who took human form as a Jew. Even more interestingly, there are stories which have come to us from the Far East and other traditions, stories which at the bare bones are not dissimilar to the ones in our own culture, or at least contain themes which are universal.
I’m sure that some six hundred years on we can relate to the characters portrayed in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – the archetypal strong, silent hero in the Knight and his flashy, ostentatious Squire, the lovable rogue Monk, the grotty, scabby, drunken Cook, the hopelessly corrupt Summoner and his boyfriend the lying, greedy, hypocritical extortionist Pardoner, the unscrupulous but oafish Miller, the social-climbing Prioress and of course the decent, honest, hardworking Ploughman and the true ambassador for the Lord in the Parson. In each of these characters we see not only archetypal characters in literature, theatre, cinema and music but also people in real life who have frequently featured in real life in one manifestation or another time and time again over the centuries. Even if the language has altered dramatically there are themes and characters which are timeless, and once you can bridge the gap between medieval English and modern English (or whatever language you and yours may speak) The Canterbury Tales are very easy to understand and appreciate.
In contrast, we have James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was written much more recently and is considered a literary classic – why? I personally found the book a little dry, not to mention a little bit full of itself, a little ostentatious, and overall difficult to read. The characters were less than engaging too. I can’t help but harbour the conviction that he deliberately wrote it as a joke to confound scholars, critics and readers. People are still bashing their heads against this brick wall hoping to break through and find the prize inside, and whether they think they have found it or really haven’t but are pretending to, or have found that it’s bullshit anyway I can still imagine Joyce laughing. And the fact that he still has people reading this book, embarking on this literary wild goose chase hoping to find the Holy Grail, nearly ninety years after it was published – that takes genius. I realise there will be people who disagree with what I say, and so the controversy also continues almost a century on so the immortality of the book and indeed of James Joyce himself is assured. Whether it actually deserves a place in the canon, well, again with the controversy. I guess bullshit is a perpetual part of society and the cultural lexicon too, even when it is not actually relevant.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert has all the trappings of being of its era, or close enough to it (it was first serialised then adapted as a novel in the 1850s, whereas it is set around the 1830s or ‘40s). However, there are themes in it that are still just as relevant today – adultery, forbidden love, existential angst and ennui, social status – and some that are even more relevant now than then, such as the evils of consumerism and materialism, especially on credit. Therefore it is worthy of its place in any great literary canon. Madame Bovary is reportedly the result of Flaubert caving into peer pressure to drive a stake through the heart of Romanticism, which apparently didn’t feel right for Flaubert who was still a Romanticist even as the literary world had moved on. If so, it is ironic that it should be his most famous and enduring work.
If this story is true then one would be able to compare it to A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In both cases we have men who wanted to be noted for something else. Tolkien as an academic, linguist and literary critic (!) who actually resented the cultural relevance the Rings books were gaining. Milne was already a novelist, poet and playwright determined to write what he pleased and refused to be confined to one genre, so Fate and the public pigeonholed him as a children’s author, and much to his disgust and annoyance the bear of “very little brain” and his mates had more or less eclipsed everything else he had created previously. Indeed, these men would probably be turning in their graves now that Lord of the Rings and Winnie the Pooh are both multi-million-dollar franchises, and the latter thanks to Disney no less.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley demonstrated a great degree of foresight and painted a vivid and perhaps even prophetic dystopian picture, and this statement still stands even if you strip away the science fiction exterior. When we do we are presented with a world ruled with the Pleasure Principle, manifested in consumerism and sex and infinite distractions, and the consumption of mind-altering substances is prevalent in the world portrayed too. Indeed, it is more relevant today than what it was when it was written 80 years ago. Therefore, if you believe there should be a Literary Canon, then this too would have to be included.
According to George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History at Brown University:
“Belonging to the canon confers status, social, political, economic, aesthetic, none of which can easily be extricated from the others. Belonging to the canon is a guarantee of quality, and that guarantee of high aesthetic quality serves as a promise, a contract, that announces to the viewer, "Here is something to be enjoyed as an aesthetic object. Complex, difficult, privileged, the object before you has been winnowed by the sensitive few and the not-so-sensitive many, and it will repay your attention. You will receive pleasure; at least you're supposed to, and if you don't, well, perhaps there's something off with your apparatus." Such an announcement of status by the poem, painting, or building, sonata, or dance that has appeared ensconced within a canon serves a powerful separating purpose: it immediately stands forth, different, better, to be valued, loved, enjoyed. It is the wheat winnowed from the chaff, the rare survivor, and it has all the privileges of such survival… It also means that to read these privileged works is a privilege and a sign of privilege. It is also a sign that one has been canonized oneself -- beatified by the experience of being introduced to beauty, admitted to the ranks of those of the inner circle who are acquainted with the canon and can judge what belongs and does not.” (Landow, 2010, online)
So we are ourselves beatified and privileged upon reading these works – so outside of this class, by reading canonical works we can actually choose to be privileged and beatified? Of course, this is provided one actually ascribes to the idea of a canon of great books to begin with. Of course, this in itself is subject to debate, the validity of the idea of a canon of great books, let alone which books belong in there and which do not.
Landow, George P., Professor of English and Art History, Brown University, “The Literary Canon” from The Victorian Web: Literature, History and Culture in the Age of Victoria [Online].
Available: http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/canon/litcan.html [June 18, 2011].
Stockton, Kathryn B., Associate Professor of English, University of Utah, “Canon: Dictionary Definitions” from The Victorian Web: Literature, History and Culture in the Age of Victoria [Online].
Available: http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/canon/defcan.html [June 18, 2011].