Cannon fodder: food for thought

Last week, Sam Sacks wrote in The New Yorker on criticizing the classics and how the canon is selected in today’s world. Contrasting the current, primarily American, state of the canon with that of the past, when the gatekeepers of the ivory tower and the salon determined not just which books were classics but the very definition of the concept, he argues that the classics are now determined by democratic and pragmatic tastes:

What makes a classic today is cultural significance. Authors are anointed not because they are great (although many of them are) but because they are important.

In other words, the current criteria for classics are more a matter of sociology than of aesthetics. That’s why prose-toilers like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are securely fixed in the canon while masters such as Frank O’Connor and Eudora Welty could easily be left out. “1984” and “Brave New World” are embedded in the weave of language and history, but what does Welty have going for her apart from stylistic perfection? Henry Miller survives—and will continue to survive—because the country once found him shocking enough to censor. (Likewise, D. H. Lawrence might very well be a footnote if not for “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”) There’s better prose in the average issue of Consumer Reports than in most Upton Sinclair novels, but “The Jungle” triggered actual legislative reform and will therefore last as long as the United States does.

I hardly consider myself a literary critic, so it’s hardly surprising I wouldn’t feel the same kind of “freedom” or “exhilarat[ion]” Sacks attributes to today’s critics, who can have at many of these classics, spitting into the Grand Canyon (to paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates) because, as it turns out, much of the Grand Canyon isn’t all that grand.* Still, I spend, I think, a fair amount of time doing just that. Great truth and beauty, such as they are, are what move me, but my curious nature draws me as well to the works of “cultural significance,” the important in addition to the great—not to mention the so-called great (since that’s what so many of these “classics” turn out to be). And while I rarely take any joy in savaging such works, or even savage them at all, I find it interesting and even a little bit important to explore the good and the bad, whenever there is any of either to be found. And I may just turn out to be halfway decent at doing it, too.

Even before reading Sacks’s piece (which is, I should say, one of the few written about the idea of “classics” that didn’t make me roll my eyes a single time), I had planned on writing this week about one such work: Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk. Admittedly, Švejk is hardly a part of the canon the way Orwell and Huxley are; I doubt many American high school English classes assign it. But it’s well-known enough to be the namesake of a popular house blend at my local coffee shop, where quotes from the novel sometimes appear on a blackboard, and has enough cult status to have been recommended to me by a “real-life human.”

Švejk is the story of a Czech soldier swept up by the currents of the First World War, fighting for an empire that systemically oppresses his own people. A note at the end of my Penguin Classics edition explains that it was “one of the most famous and widely-read novels published after the First World War,” and that Hašek died before he could complete it. It’s possible that some of my criticisms would have been mooted by a less abrupt ending, but we have what we have.

*This should not be taken as any slight on the actual Grand Canyon, which I have not yet seen, and my experience thus far of natural wonders suggests it really is that grand.

6 comments to Cannon fodder: food for thought

  • I was not so happy with that piece – eye-rolling at a minimum – which seemed historically uninformed in both directions. It would have been nice if Sacks had said what he meant by “canon.” He obviously had something specific in mind, since Eudora Welty, who is in print and widely read and taught, is not in it.

    The idea that there was a time when critics “regulated” the “process” of the canon is a fantasy based perhaps on taking Eliot and Leavis at their own estimations. I would think the history of Shakespeare would be sufficient to demonstrate this.

    You could always have at the classics. Have at them!

  • “I doubt many American high school English classes assign it. But it’s well-known enough to be the namesake of a popular house blend at my local coffee shop, where quotes from the novel sometimes appear on a blackboard, and has enough cult status to have been recommended to me by a “real-life human.””

    Why would you read a Czech book in high school English classes? In my high school Portuguese classes, we read Portuguese literature. I have nothing against Švejk, it’s on my To Read List, but it’d would be strange, I think, if English teachers, free to choose from the rich English-language literature, assigned it to their students.

  • Tom—Yeah, I was discounting the historical bits in my assessment. I also know less about the history than I do about the current situation, and I think he’s about right about the “cultural significance” issue.

    Miguel—You know, I actually almost wrote an aside about that, but then I thought it would be too boring. It really depends on the school and the class. When I was in high school I studied only English-language literature, with one year devoted exclusively to American literature. But my sister, in a different program at the same school a little over ten years later, took “world literature” classes (though Czech would probably still be getting a bit niche for that). My boyfriend, who went to a private prep school that structured its literature classes in a really cool way, also studied things from all over, including Stanislav Lem, so getting closer.

    Anyway, in general I agree with you!

  • Regarding cultural significance, I would again argue a position a lot closer to less emphasis on cultural significance than in the distant past than more. The shift in tastes a century ago towards conceptual innovation has not receded.

    This is all easier to see in visual art, or in poetry. The high status of John Ashbery and Anne Carson is due to their cultural significance?

    I just caught this horror:

    “A look through the Classics section of bookstores—in America or any of the Western democracies—bears out de Tocqueville’s instincts.”

    No, no, no. Nonsense. I have done this. Not in France, not in Germany.

    I will stop. That piece is not to be read with any care.

  • Your canon is too high-brow. (Though I can’t speak about classics sections in other Western democracies—do American bookstores even have classics sections?) I’m thinking about what people read in high school. It’s all The Lord of the Flies—blah but with a moral.

    Of course that’s not to say that’s what Sacks was thinking about. I stand behind the part I quoted, and partly because I don’t think your average person has even heard of Anne Carson, much less would call her a classic.

  • Wallace Stevens, then? Elizabeth Bishop? W.C.W. & Marianne Moore? This is why switching to the non-populist field of poetry makes the whole apparatus collapse. In American poetry, they are canon, easy. (Whenever Sacks says “democratic” he means “populist”).

    Sacks attracted a good comment – “Sam Sacks doesn’t seem to get the distinction between the canon and the curriculum.” If he meant that, he should have dropped the word “canon,” and then he should have looked at what was in the actual curriculum, say an anthology of short stories aimed at high school students, where he almost certainly would have found “The Worn Path” by Eudora Welty.

    Sorry, but the use of Eudora Welty as an example is a complete mystery.

    The curriculum question is a good one, though. All sorts of extra-literary, politicized, and merely faddish trends affect what books get shoved on those poor, bored students. In my school, I now see that we could only read books with no sexual content whatsoever – an abridged Great Expectations, A Separate Peace, Huckleberry Finn, the highly influential Death Be Not Proud. Highly influential on me, I mean, since it inspired a lifelong neurotic hypochondria about brain tumors.

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