Monday, February 9, 2009

The canon?

After reading this article from The Bachelor, I feel that the question, “Where Did All the Great Books Go?” can only be answered with, “They have been here, and will be here.” Colloquium is a forum for discussion of great works of literature, both old and new. To say that the list, “… devolves into authors with hardly a shred of historical significance” (The Bachelor 5) is presumptuous. Going from these well-known authors to these up and coming ones is only natural. Not only have these men of the past given us wonderful works to ponder and read, but these new voices must be heard. We students do not determine the canon, but we try and put our trust in our professors to choose works that will help us become better people and make us think, for that is our mission. It is naïve to think that only dead white men are worthy of praise. These authors, Gubar, Walcott, Nabokov, Szymborska, and Murakami are praise-worthy and great writers not because of awards, but of the heart and understanding they have put into their books, poems, stories, etc. Diversification of the canon is key to bringing greater exposure of ideas, backgrounds, and lives to the world stage. We are becoming so much more connected every day and arguing that these writers are not worthy of note is rather short-sighted. Because of these authors, I feel that my life has been and will be enriched by exposure to their writings. Many people will never hear of these authors but they must still be remembered for perhaps one day they will be read around the world, and all it takes is one person to distribute their name. Who determines what makes a classic? If it pulls at me and brings me joy, then let these names be brought forth and my ignorance of them be dashed on the rocks. The canon is a living thing and not to stay stagnant through time.


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  2. This piece presents the view of the relativist literary critic. “Who determines a classic?” he asks; “If it pulls at my heart and brings me joy, then let [it] be brought forth and my ignorance be dashed on the rocks.” According to this author there is no set definition of what makes a piece of literature classic, let alone ‘good’. He continues, saying “Authors are praise-worthy and great not because of awards, but of the heart and understanding they have put into their books, poems, stories, etc.” This is an interesting point, but one that I believe is fundamentally contradictory to the concept of a literary canon.
    It is probably true that to many authors, James Joyce excluded, awards and public acclaim are generally regarded as worthless. Writing, as any form of art, is primarily a mode of expression for the author’s thoughts and emotions. To the author of this piece, all writing which has been infused with the artist’s heart and understanding should always be regarded as praise-worthy, even great. Yet he goes on to state that the beauty of literature loses its presence as it ages, and becomes eventually stagnant. “Going from these well-known authors to these up and coming [authors] is only natural”, he says. As I interpret this, it seems to say that essentially there comes a time when the viewer of literary art must admit that he has been viewing the same beauty for long enough, and must take up an exploration to find new beauties in writing. At these times, in order to stay up-to-date his personal canon must change. If beauty in writing is thus fleeting and not classifiable as a pertinent quality of canonization, what aspects of writing are?
    According to this author the true beauty of good literature, above all else, is cultural relevance: “New voices,” he claims, “[which bring greater exposure of ideas, backgrounds, and lives] must be heard.” Consistent with the relativist concept of beauty in art, it matters little whether these voices are generally regarded as good and meaningful; as fillers of the void of cultural irrelevance left by the fleeting texts of old, they should be studied because they are new and will presumably be more positively applicable than bygone texts written by bygone artists. As this author says, “Our professors’ [choosing of new works], [we must trust] to help us become better people.” Here I do tend to agree, as I still trust the doctorate degrees of my professors. However, the continuance of this worship of modern writing can become a concept tortured with abuse to imply that, ‘Old ideas, because of their cultural irrelevance, are no longer worth reading. They do not contain heart and understanding; they cannot make us think; and therefore, they cannot make us better people.’ The author of this piece of course does not say this, yet his romanticism of modern writing essentially implies this continuance. Cultural relevance as a valid quality of canonization is therefore flawed as well.
    I hold that there is more to ‘classic’ or ‘canon-quality’ literature than artists’ application of heart and understanding and cultural relevance. Lasting beauty exists in literature just as it exists in other forms of art. Great works of literary art are those which best display the most artistic qualities of writing: use of creative technique, balance between intended meaning and allowance for interpretation, creation of novel ideas or concepts whose application spans generations, and others. A canon is not just a collection of all the literature that has ever been given “heart and understanding”. Rather, it is a collection of the best of it. Cultural or personal relevance might be an important factor to some degree, but there is more to canon-quality literature than mere newness. I believe that relativism in literary criticism misses this important aspect of literature.