Welcome, friends! Today we’re doing something a bit out of the norm. The bloggers of EdwardCheever.Wordpress.com and NeuroReverb.Wordpress.com have joined forces to have a special discussion about the future direction of the English Literary Canon. This post will go up on both sites, which we recommend you visit in the future. 🙂
Edward: “Alright, shifting out of the “We” business, let me get to the heart of the matter. This will be something of a conversational blog post in which Scott and I talk about the future of the English Canon. Now, to put things into perspective, we’ve already talked a bit about this. Modern inclusions into the Canon are growing thin and wane. Yes, you get your DeLillos and Pynchons in there, but two or three major Literary I-Just-Saw-Them-Mentioned-On-Double-Jeapordy authors since the 60s? Them is slim pickins’.
“The Canon is many things to may people. To some, it is the definitive list of “good and respectable” writing in the English language. To some, it is a list of the works which have had the broadest impact on culture. To others, it represents the jewels amongst the muck. To some, it represents the finest examples of wordcraft. To others, it is a list of the greatest stories ever told. To some, it is an arbitrary list created by elitists in the polished halls of expensive Universities. To others, it is a guideline for teachable materials. To still others, it’s that list of English reading homework that they never did exactly get around to, ‘You know… I was kinda busy that night, and…’
“No matter what your personal feelings about the Canon are, in practice it is the definition of “artistic merit” and “high culture.” So when works we feel need to be added to the Canon are pushed aside as rubbish, well it rubs some of us the wrong way. This hard-nosed, elitist and close-minded feel to the Canon has, along with various other factors, led to the disintegration of the relevance and vitality of the Canon, starting as early as the post World War II generation and before. That is why Scott and I think that the only way, the natural way, for this to change is for those in charge of the Canon (so to speak) to get over themselves and seriously consider the inclusion of excellent representatives of Genre Fiction. Take it away Scott!”
Scott: “Thanks Ed.
“The literary canon for the past century has had many representations of what people believe to be ‘Great Literature’, but what I’ve primarily seen in the canon are books that represent cultural ideas and beliefs of the day. If there’s one thing that has blossomed in the 21st century it is Genre Fiction. I think we have some biases in the literary world against anything sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or graphic novel related. However, the thinking is beginning to shift.
“Genres have become a large part of the literary market. Fiction has become an overall classification for the many different genres, as many of the books being published are a part of these genres. Without Genre fiction, we will miss out on a lot of the great literature that should be recognized.
“While content is of primary importance, medium can make a difference in the way a work is received. Graphic novels are beginning to deal with more than just the simple superheroics of the Biff-Boom-Pow! variety, and are beginning to deal with lasting issues. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi, deals with modern issues and has become a new medium for great works. I’m sure Ed has some Graphic Novels he’d like to talk about too.”
Edward: “Absolutely, Scott! But we’ll get around to Graphic Novels later, (we may even have to save it for a “Part 2” if this gets too long). Let’s start with what kicked off this discussion, my pick for our first Genre.”
“Fantasy is one of the oldest genres, with close ties to the English Canon going back throughout the history of English lit. Classic novels and poems like Beowulf, The Faerie Queen, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have made an indelible mark on the Canon. This is why it stumps me that starting around the turn of the century Fantasy has been relegated to the rubbish heap as far as the Canon is concerned. It is probably connected with the gritty realism of the Modernist and Postmodernist periods and the rise of suburban lit like that of my relative John Cheever. Either way, this gap has gone on too long, and it is already being closed by my first choice for Fantasy works of this last century to make it into the Canon.”
Edward’s Prediction for Canon Inclusion #1:
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
“Sorry I took the easiest one on the list, Scott. But I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say that no work of Fantasy in the past century is as immediately obvious in its inclusion to the English Canon as the monumental work of J.R.R. Tolkien. Even if we were judging by mere impact alone, we would have to include LotR, which is the father of the modern Fantasy genre and still remains the standard by which all other works in the field are judged. But impact is not at all the end of what Tolkien’s work offers. It is a work of terrific scope and impeccable writing skill. It is a story with character and implications that are as applicable to the human condition as anything in the Canon. What Tolkien accomplished is not some throwaway novelty of a fad, it is a work of art, and its why we’re having this conversation in the first place. Wouldn’t you agree Scott?”
Scott: “I’d agree. Fantasy is one of the oldest Genres and LotR definitely takes a prominent place in the new canon. Tolkien links the old fantasy to the new. It represents some of the timeless characteristics of great literature. Well Ed, I have to agree with your first choice. However, there is another book series which may become influential in the Canon. My choice for fantasy is a difficult one, as some of my favorites tend to stray into other territory. With the Fantasy genre in mind there is one pick that stands out to me:
Scott’s Prediction for Canon Inclusion #1:
The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan
“Though this series hasn’t gained as much literary fame as Tolkien, I believe that Jordan has been tremendously influential in the fantasy world. I believe you are a fellow fan of this series, just as I am of Tolkien. I balanced my first and second choice for this genre against two considerations: impact on literature versus reflection of society. I choose The Wheel of Time as my first consideration for the canon because of the tremendous impact it has had on much of the other literature in the field, just as Tolkien has. I believe Tolkien and Jordan are both excellent examples, but I’m curious as to your second choice. Do you think it’s more difficult to place a first or second choice in this genre?”
Edward: “The Wheel of Time is definitely a pick that plays a tune I’d dance to, my friend. But Robert Jordan has been criticized for many perceived flaws in his writing, whether it is his penchant for drawn out description scenes, his complex political plot-lines or his portrayals of women, he is a controversial figure.”
Scott: ”Indeed, Jordan may have some detractors; however, there aren’t many figures in the established canon that haven’t had their flaws pointed out.”
Edward: “I absolutely agree. And in my book, Jordan is a master of world building and characterization which cannot be adequately denied. Not only that, but though he is criticized for the ways he tackles certain topics such as gender roles, he has had the bravery to do so in a genre that for many years enforced old-fashioned viewpoints. Add on to that the fact that, as you’ve said, he has had a large impact on modern fantasy and I’d say that he is ripe for entry into the Canon.
“As for which choice is harder, well I’d say it’s probably the second pick. The Lord of the Rings and the Wheel of Time are easy choices, but it’s when you have to sort out the rest that things get complicated. For instance, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series was really tempting. Nevertheless, I still had little trouble choosing my number two for this category:
Edward’s Prediction for Canon Inclusion #2:
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
“Neil Gaiman is a name you won’t see the last of in this post of ours, and for a very good reason. Some authors put out one or two great works and that is all they are known for, and then there are some authors that put out work after work of absolute quality. Gaiman is fully one of the latter. What was hard about this choice wasn’t whether or not a Neil Gaiman work should be chosen, but rather which of his works I should choose. In the end, though, no matter how much I adored Neverwhere, the writing skill and the vision of so thoroughly mixing modern Americana with old world gods, all covering an interesting critique of American culture and themes of where the past and present meet and conflict… well, let’s just say it was a shoe-in.”
Scott: “The first time I read American Gods at your recommendation, I was thrown off somewhat by the style of the writing; however, as the book progressed I really began to appreciate the detail and subtly that went into making the characters. I am personally a huge fan of mythological tales especially those of the far north and Gaiman’s research was not lost on me.”
“For my second pick, I lean towards the reflection-of-society aspect of literature. This second series is not nearly as well know as my first choice (or either of Ed picks) but I consider the message as a look into not only American culture, but western thought:
Scott’s Prediction for Canon Inclusion #2:
The Soldier Son Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
“Robin Hobbs is better known for her Farseer books than for her most recent books. However, many of the summaries of this series don’t do it justice. Though the work appears more post-colonial, it represents a backlash of the “ideal” and well written commentary on western thought. But before I frighten people away with too much literary jargon, this series is an a excellent read for both critics and for fantasy enthusiasts.”
Edward: “I’m ashamed to admit it, but I am not familiar with Mrs. Hobbs’ work. Your recommendation intrigues me, though. I’ll have to check that one out.”
Scott: “That’s perfectly alright Ed, I hope you give it a look sometime. Hobbs’ work is still somewhat buried under a few of the larger names and we both know that it’s hard getting to all of them. Well Ed, I think that wraps up our predictions for the fantasy genre’s entries to the canon, but I know there are a few books that both of us would like to see in the canon that probably won’t make it in, our personal favorites besides the big ones.”
Edward: “That’s absolutely correct. Both Scott and I here are genre literature enthusiasts, as you no doubt can tell, but despite the occasional “fan-boy” tendencies we may both have, we are not deluding ourselves into thinking that all of our favorites will make it into the Canon. To that end, we’re including a sort of Honorable Mentions category…
Scott: “Wait a second, Ed. This is getting entirely too long for one post. How about we call it a night and continue next week?”
Edward: “Oh, wow, you’re right. Look at that clock!” *stares at clock his readers can’t see* “I agree. Let’s pick this back up again next week.”
Signing off for the night: Edward and Scott. See you next time.