an edited canon?

16 Jul

One of my favorite book ‘zines, The Second Pass, recently published an article called “Fired from the Canon” with a list of the ten books that, in retrospect, really don’t deserve a spot in our canon of literature. The idea of a canon has always bothered me a little bit. I understand in theory recognizing those pieces of literature that represent the “greatest works of artistic merit.” But then what does it say about me that I just didn’t enjoy some of these works that supposedly signified some of the best literature of our time. Obviously what’s included in the canon is forever debatable — everyone and their mother has their opinion on “the best” — and academic associations, publishers, universities have been not only him-hawing over what deserves to be in the canon but whether such a thing is even a relevant measure of literary legitimacy. What was relevant and groundbreaking 50 years ago may now be just considered…well…bad writing.

The Second Pass pinpoints the problem of a canon: it would take a lifetime to get through the books any of the canon guides suggest. Where they’re supposed to be a pointed arrow in the direction of a quality aesthetic, instead the debate rages that the collection doesn’t take into account literature created by minorities or women, that it is a who’s who of dead white men. Nevertheless, the argument of whether the canon should be reworked to include a better representation of our population is nothing compared to the argument that some of the literature isn’t that good in the first place.

The Second Pass’ list includes these ten:

  • White Noise by Don DeLillo
  • Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  • The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos
  • Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

 Now granted I haven’t read everything on this list, but there are quite a few I’ve read or made the attempt to read. “White Noise” may have been the most painful experience I had in college (in the classroom anyway), and that was part of a post-modern literature class, where pain was the name of the game. The same is true of Absalom, Absalom in high school, and even a Tale of Two Cities. Both of these books to me signal the trend of “canonists” (is that what we’re calling them?) to include the entire body of work by a single great author without the acknowledgment that maybe not everything they wrote meets the same high bar. I struggled mightly to even get through the first 100 pages of The Corrections, even though several people raved to me about it. I feel so justified that I just couldn’t get into the story or the writing by the fact that it’s included on this list. I’m reserving judgement on The Road until I can actually read it, mostly because my dad loved this book and he isn’t what I would characterize as a “risky reader.” His tastes skew strongly to mysteries/crime and “dick lit” like the Bourne series.

As far as the rest of them go, none of which I’ve read, I’m sure there are a fair number of fans that would back up each of their appearances on canon guides. But I for one will approach lightly; I love classic literature, and I respect the inclusion of most of the pieces that have been canonized, but when there’s so much great fiction currently being published, making room in my self-guided literary education for the things I never read in school is a sacrifice. I’d rather pick up a copy of The Brief, Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao or Little Bee than slog through a book from centuries ago that I can’t relate to, because some omiscent academic says I should.

I don’t know what I would include or exclude from the canon, but I’m curious? Are there any books on that list that you would argue against their exclusion? Or did they miss any that you would throw out as well?

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One Response to “an edited canon?”

  1. DD August 27, 2009 at 2:55 pm #

    I fire Anna Karenina! And Lord of the Flies (although I don’t know if that’s quite in the cannon, I’m just going by typical HS required reading). By proxy I’ve also been asked to add The Tin Drum. Can I simultaneously hope that no Toni Morrison qualifies as part of the cannon (she’s not male, white OR dead!) and vote it off in case it ever reaches that point? You may not know this about me, but I HATE her. 🙂

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