Monday 31 December 2012

Orson Scott Card on the literary canon


Below I have posted an almost perfect little essay by Orson Scott Card which almost perfectly expresses my own views on the literary canon - this essay is 'rescued' from a longer and diverse 'review's everything' article on Card's web pages:

I came upon Card a good while ago (more than seven years?) via an essay on Tolkien in a collection called Meditations on Middle Earth.

Having tracked down his web pages, I discovered Card was a lifelong and devout Mormon (from an old LDS family) - and I have since read many of his essays for the Mormon Times and in a book called A Storyteller in Zion

(I think it is likely that this was my first engagement with Mormonism; which led onto several years of research and a tremendous amount of book and internet reading.) 

I would now regard Card as one of my favourites among modern commentators - for sound sense, insight and humour. 

Yet I have only read one of his novels, Seventh Son and was not able to complete that series, nor Ender's Game - there was something sickening to me about the way that violence and cruelty was portrayed which put me off the fiction. This is not a criticism of Card, because I am hyper-sensitive to such matters. But it does mean that my enjoyment of Card is almost entirely for aspects of his output which he and most people would regard as peripheral.  


Excerpt from:

Local Services, Ethel M, and the Real Canon
By Orson Scott Card

I recently took one of the Great Courses on the Western Literary Canon. For those who aren't literature students, the "literary canon" is not book-launching artillery. Or maybe it is. The "canon" refers to a term from religion -- it means that something (or someone) is officially certified. So a person who is declared a saint is "canonized," and also the official scripture is said to be "in the canon."

Extending this to literature, the "canon" means the works that the academic community regards as essential for any educated person to be familiar with.

The trouble is that what academia considers to be the "canon" has become absurd.


Once, there were works that everybody knew because education followed similar paths. When grammar-school students all had to struggle through translating Caesar's account of his Gallic Wars from Latin into English, and then reading Cicero, Virgil, and others in the original, naturally all educated people recognized famous Latin tag lines.

It was a mark of education, not that you had memorized "Veni, vidi, vici," but that you actually understood that it meant "I came, I saw, I conquered," and that it was a clever but perfectly natural and understandable way of delivering the message.

But educated people also read books which they selected themselves. There was no English literature department in any university in the 1800s; it was still controversial to have an English department at Oxford, for instance, when Tolkien helped design the course of study for English students.


After all, why in the world would you need a university to teach you how to read the literature of your own language? So English students were required to learn Old English and Middle English, so they could study great works that were written in versions of English that we no longer speak.

Who in the world would need a teacher to explain Dickens or Austen, Poe or Twain? They're perfectly clear to modern readers. And the only reason you'd need an English teacher to explain Hawthorne is because he's such an unbearably bad writer that you'd rather not read his books yourself.

So the "canon" consisted of books that readers, critics, and writers came to love and respect and pass from hand to hand. Professors didn't tell you that you had to read Dickens -- you simply had to in order to be part of the culture of your time, rather the way that if you haven't read any Harry Potter books you're viewed with pity by anybody who actually reads for pleasure.

Nobody declared Harry Potter to be "officially good" literature. Rowling's books were selected by volunteers. And that's how it used to be.


Jane Austen, for instance, was merely one of many popular writers when her novels first appeared. But she quickly became a favorite among other writers, in part because she developed techniques that nobody else was using, which eventually evolved into the third-person-limited viewpoint that absolutely dominates popular literature today.

And Austen's books were memorable, so that people passed them from hand to hand and from generation from generation. There was no academic support for this, but her books remained in print perpetually because it was always profitable to publish them. They found readers because readers loved them and wanted other people to share the powerful and pleasurable experience of reading them.

That's how, for a time, the canon grew. A combination of joy and admiration, along with the prestige of the person who gave, lent, or recommended the book to you, gave life to the literary canon.


And then they started teaching contemporary literature in the universities, and the whole process was kidnapped by idiots.

Gone was the "love and joy" portion of canon formation. In fact, the more popular a book was, the more despised it became among academics. Why? Because academia swallowed the entire bunkum of Modernism, which sneered at "middle-class" values and thought of "high" literature as something deliberately put out of the reach of the common rabble.


The result was pretentious twaddle like James Joyce's Ulysses, which can only be understood with the magic decoder ring which Joyce thoughtfully provided to friends, and which they passed on to the professors.

By declaring Ulysses to be the greatest work of literature of the 20th century, academics attempted to guarantee their continuing employment. If you can't be an educated person without reading and pretending to understand, care about, and admire Ulysses, then you must obviously take college classes from English professors.

But the whole scheme has backfired, because when we finish learning how to read and understand Ulysses, most of us realize that it's twaddle. Whatever insights into the human condition James Joyce had to offer were trivial compared to the labor of receiving them.


And it's not just James Joyce. Students of literature spend endless labor learning to read work after work of modern and post-modern literature, and then learn the precious and silly vocabulary of deconstruction and the patronizing talking-down of multiculturalism, and in the end, what have they done?

They've opened Al Capone's vault and found it empty, and their English professors stand there like Geraldo Rivera, desperately trying to explain that it's still very important to have opened the vault, even though nothing of value was in it.


The result is that enrollment in English departments has plummeted. It used to be that a major in English was good preparation for a career in law or business, because you learned the roots and bones of English so you could write -- no, communicate -- with clarity and grace.

Now, you learn to write with obscurity and hypocritical pretension, and without independent thought. You come out of English programs knowing nothing of grammar and incapable of writing well, with your head stuffed full of literature that nobody cares about.

I mean really -- do you take Stephen Dedalus or Leopold Bloom into your heart and life?

OK, maybe a few hundred academics do. But it's nothing like the way millions of people have embraced Harry Potter. Or, for that matter, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Pip, David Copperfield, Jo and Meg and Beth and Amy, Elizabeth and Jane Bennett and Darcy and Bingley, Scarlett and Rhett and Melanie and Ashley, Judah Ben-Hur, Frodo and Gollum and Sam, Paul Muad-dib, Hari Selden, Sherlock Holmes, Douglas Spaulding, Tarzan, Conan, Robinson Crusoe, Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister, and animals named Buck and Flicka and Bambi and Lassie.

Maybe you didn't know some of these names, or the works they came from, but I'll bet you knew a lot of them, and not just those whose names are in the titles.


So while academics and critics (people who live by impressing others with their erudition and elitism) almost universally declare Ulysses to be the greatest work of the 20th century, volunteer readers - people who love literature for the joy of it - repeatedly declare that The Lord of the Rings is the greatest work.

Some of us think that only William Shakespeare and Jane Austen rival J.R.R. Tolkien for brilliance of talent and magnitude of achievement.

Here's the lovely thing: Eventually, the literary canon bends to the popular one. Academics almost universally sneered at Lord of the Rings when it first appeared -- even though the author was the very academic who had rescued Beowulf from oblivion and made it that absolutely essential root of English-literature studies.

They hated LOTR because anybody could read it, without help. They declared it to be shallow and worthless and badly written.


But in fact those epithets applied far more aptly to many if not most of the works they taught as "great" contemporary literature. The Man Booker Prize is usually given to pretentious ephemera whose writing only thinly disguises the emptiness beneath it, but the slightly-more-popular prizes rarely do any better.

And anyone who says Tolkien's writing is less than brilliant simply does not understand language or writing. The Old-English-style poetry of almost every word Tom Bombadil says is a delight to those who recognize it, and Shakespeare and Hardy are the only writers I know who rival Tolkien for his ability to contrast heroic, courtly, common, and coarse language in the same work, the same chapter, the same scene.

Nobody in all of English literature is a better master of English prose than J.R.R. Tolkien.

Take this passage from Lord of the Rings:

"And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness."

Even if you haven't read the book and have no idea of what this moment actually means, that is simply gorgeous, fluid prose. Who has written about the power of language more beautifully than this, exemplifying what he describes?


The people are better judges of great storytelling and, yes, even great writing, than the academics. In the long run, the fads of the volunteer readers are more likely to identify great and lasting works of literature than the fads of the academics.

I'm not talking about bestsellers. There are genres whose best sellers become bestsellers simply because there are so many readers who seek out that genre for their entertainment.

But is anyone still passing along the works of Irving Wallace as must-reads? His work was popular in its time, but its time has passed; it does not take away from its meaning as a marker of culture, but it will never enter the popular canon.

But writers like Dickens and Twain -- and, in the long run, Austen and Alcott and Mitchell and Tolkien and Lewis and Bradbury -- force their way into the academic canon. How? Because while the professors of one generation might sneer at their work, there will come a generation of professors who became readers precisely because of the love and joy and admiration they got from these writers.

They remain perpetually dissatisfied with academic rules and theories that do not make room for works that these professors still love. And eventually, they create new rules and theories that welcome the beloved works, while eventually shrinking and eventually displacing entirely the once-admired works that were never beloved by volunteer readers.


However, there's another process at work in canon-formation: The Rescue.

Moby-Dick sank like a rock when it first appeared, but it was rescued by mature readers who realized that it was not just a great literary achievement but also a delightful, witty, mean, hard-hitting, powerfully told, memorable story.

Beowulf was a rescue, after all. Even Shakespeare, after years of eclipse, was rescued by a wiser generation. Often great works are pushed "down" into children's literature -- where science fiction and fantasy and women's fiction are often sneeringly placed by academics and critics too stupid to see past their prejudices -- only to be rescued by later generations.

After all, it was as a child that I was first given Alcott, Austen, Mitchell, Bradbury, Dickens, Defoe, and Twain; I was given them by people who loved both me and those books, and they were great and memorable gifts that have stayed with me my whole life.


We, not the professors, are the creators of the real canon. Let's take conscious control of the thing. As they lose their students, let's gain readers for the books we love.

Then, when the professors wise up and start teaching from our canon, they'll get their students back.

We will have saved them.

Aren't we nice?



dearieme said...

Dickens is absurdly over-rated, Shakespeare sadly under-rated.

I have probably told you that a School Inspector once nearly took a swipe at the young me when I opined to him that Lit Crit was just chaps who can't write wittering about chaps who can. Harsh, I admit, but pretty close to the truth.

Wm Jas said...

Dearieme, how can Shakespeare -- universally recognized as the greatest writer in the history of the known universe -- possibly be "under-rated"?

Samson said...

Agreed that Dickens is overrated as a writer - his concepts and themes are great but the prose itself is often deathly dull... So that, for instance, A Christmas Carol often makes for a better film than a book.

dearieme said...

Wm - because he's even better than that.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - I find I can't enjoy Dickens either - but I recognize that he has been accorded the accolade of greatness by the general reader - presumably for his vivid characters and situations.

Lit Crit has been, for the past forty years or so, chaps and chapesses who can't write wittering about chaps and chapesses who can't write either.

dearieme said...

"Lit Crit has been, for the past forty years or so, chaps and chapesses who can't write wittering about chaps and chapesses who can't write either."

There's progress for you.

Imnobody said...

Great essay. I have thought this way for decades. As Orson Scott Card says, "Eventually, the literary canon bends to the popular one".

Don Quixote was a bestseller despised by the learned ones and the books that were considered worthy in this time are not published to day. Stendhal's or Shakespeare's works were despised in their time by the writers and cultured people.

The ultimate judge about the canon is the people but not the people of today but the people of every age. This is why it takes time to know whether a book will remain in the canon. Only posterity has the ultimate say.