“But what made the postmodern charter different was its willingness to discard the very idea of standards. Starting from the premise that aesthetics were just another social construct rather than a product of universal principles, postmodernist thinkers succeeded in toppling hierarchies and nullifying the literary canon. Indeed, they were so good at unearthing the socioeconomic considerations behind canon formation that even unapologetic highbrows had to wonder if they hadn’t been bamboozled by Arnoldian acolytes and eloquent ideologues.
…Not that there was a general consensus about books before postmodernism or the Internet came along. Tolstoy didn’t care for Shakespeare, Mark Twain loathed Jane Austen, Henry James turned up his nose at Poe, Evelyn Waugh thought Proust “mentally defective,” and Vladimir Nabokov disliked both Dostoevsky and Faulkner, not to mention Thomas Mann, André Malraux, and Saul Bellow. It’s not differences of opinion that should concern us; rather it’s the prevailing mood (I hesitate to call it the conventional wisdom) that literature is what anyone wants it to be.
…While there is nothing wrong (and perhaps something even right) in praising those whom previously we shunned, a law of diminishing returns kicks in once we stop making distinctions between the great and the good. It’s one thing to acknowledge the subjective factors of canon-building and another to obfuscate the aesthetic underpinnings of works created by human beings who invest time, skill, talent, and knowledge into making a novel or poem. What ardent defenders of merely good or commercial books find hard to credit is that those of us who stand by the canon (lacunae and all) feel just as ardently. Some books simply reflect a deeper understanding of the world, of history, of human relationships, of literature itself than do other books.
Moreover, those writers who feel the pressure of precursors and who successfully take poetry or prose in new directions deserve consideration beyond what we normally extend to writers who produce satisfactory work in various genres. Just because there is no objective list of Great Books does not mean there are no great books. I’m not suggesting that one can’t fully enjoy James Crumley, James Lee Burke, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, and Orson Scott Card, but I’m not sure one can love them in the way that one loves Shakespeare, Keats, Chekhov, and Joyce. One can be a fan of Agatha Christie, but one can’t really be a fan of George Eliot.
That said, we live amid a great sprawl of what passes for literature, a diffusion prophesied years ago by Houston Baker, a president of the Modern Language Association who declared that choosing between Virginia Woolf and Pearl Buck is “no different from choosing between a hoagie and a pizza.” And in this blur of the present, when every book, every critical evaluation, is almost immediately swept aside by another, there seems little of consequence. How different this is compared with the agitation felt by the Elizabethans, Romantics, and moderns who did their best to forge something new. Those first moderns who maintained that their works rivaled in significance, if not skill, those of the Greek and Latin masters started the ball rolling and, in effect, laid the foundations for the canon. But as I look around today I can’t help wondering if the ball hasn’t finally come to a stop. Whom do our poets and novelists seek to supplant, and what aesthetic or philosophical precepts ride on the attempt?
Although serious writers continue to work in the hope that time will forgive them for writing well, the prevailing mood welcomes fiction and poetry of every stripe, as long as the reading public champions it. And this I think is a huge mistake. Literature has never just been about the public (even when the public has embraced such canonical authors as Hugo, Dickens, and Tolstoy). Literature has always been a conversation among writers who borrow, build upon, and deviate from each other’s words. Forgetting this, we forget that aesthetics is not a social invention, that democracy is not an aesthetic category; and that the dismantling of hierarchies is tantamount to an erasure of history.”
Link now cataloged in our post “Why Literature is No Longer Art.” Along with the rest.
[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]