Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Misfiring Canons

In the fast-changing world of newspapers its amazing that anyone would commit to a two year programme of articles, but that's what the Guardian/Observer has done. Having realised the popular linkbait of their 100 Best Novels feature a few years ago, the redoubtable Robert McCrum announced a weekly canon-forming exercise on the "best novels in English" since time began. Everyone  (myself included) likes a list but I have to say there feels something a little dispiriting about  this latest piece of canon forming. Beginning as far back as the 17th century's "Pilgrim's Progress" I wonder what more can be said about pre-twentieth century fiction? And, here, more than anywhere, the restricting of the list to novels (rather than fiction) and those written in English seems a depressing ordinance.                                                                                                    

McCrum can be an engaging columnist but I find him a depressing taste maker; his opinions are well telegraphed, predictably and repeatedly shown. I'm sure he won't be writing all hundred essays, but the real interesting bit will be when they get to scything through the 20th century. There's a sense, to my mind, that in schools and universities that our great literature is being fossilised to some extent. Hearing that Lawrence is neglected for instance, either because he's too difficult or doesn't fit a particular political viewpoint, should depress more than just heirs of Leavis; yet I don't read much sensible commentary on the key trends of post-sixties literature. Partly, its because our writers are mostly so long-lived these days - a Roth, or the lately departed Heaney can be a major writer across four or five decades; we seem far less willing to shake off the venerable than in the past (and perhaps rightly so, as late flowerings like "American Pastoral" prove); partly it is the role of literature in our culture - as one of several competing art forms - often only really encountered when attached to a movie tie-in or TV serialisation. The "brand" of literature is such that even little remembered characters like Burroughs' John Carter can get a remake; and the infantilisation of so much of our popular culture means that children's books and children's authors like Rowling and Pullman are not only the most famous writers of the day, but the most frequently encountered in the comments pages. There's also the sense of the global writer - or "world literature" - a kind of literature without borders that in its search for enduring travelogues and big stories loses something of the distinctiveness you might once have found in Narayan's India or Bellow's Chicago. (I'll come back to this - there's a great essay on it in the latest N+1)

So though there's nothing wrong with the Guardian's literary pass notes series there's a sense that its more about creating sticky content than anything more. There was a time, in the eighties, when the cultural discussion felt defiantly counter-cultural; taking in Russian films, African novels, Brazilian music alongside beats, bohemes, and avant-gardists. Discussions on whether "Emma" is a better novel than "Pride and Prejudice" are surely meant for Facebook not the books pages of the Guardian. Yet, the idea of any kind of alternate canon is one that is steadfastly opposed: whether its in our veneration of prize winning novels, our literary festival culture, or review pages that rarely find room for new names.

I actually think - and occasionally articulate on this blog - that there are some burning questions around contemporary or 20th century literature that are still ripe for consideration: the blurring of avant garde and mainstreams; the role of less commercially successful formats such as the short story or novella; and the way that we consider the ideas of modernism and post-modernism in literature now we are far beyond their historical window. "Pilgrim's Progress" may well be one of the formative texts; but surely should be looked at as the end of a tradition that includes Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" and Milton's "Paradise Lost" rather than a precursor novel? The canon before the 20th century is pretty fixed - though publishers and readers might investigate more minor works by prolific authors like Defoe; yet the 20th century canon seems increasingly relevant to how we think about our contemporary work. Surely we need to be considering the role of books written in the 60s, 70s and 80s and what has lasted, what reads dated? The contemporary imagination requires us to sift and resift the canon; yet I can well see that there's a resistance to this, because it would make us think more hyper-critically of the books being published nowadays; and the commentariat (of which, I have to say, this blog forms a tiny part) that informs the critical framing.

I shall return to the Guardian's series with a mixture of weariness and occasional piqued interest; I'm sure. Lists are fun, after all; but if I want a canon, I'll list my own.

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