The Chronicle Review

What We Lose if We Lose the Canon

Artwork and photography by Doug Beube

January 05, 2015

Paris. February 26, 1635. The Abbé François de Boisrobert stands before the newly minted Académie française and denounces Homer as a base street poet who eked out a living by declaiming his verses to the mob. Boisrobert’s impassioned speech was perhaps the first skirmish in la querelle des anciens et des modernes, whereby one group of writers sought to differentiate themselves from those who paid undue deference to the Greek and Latin poets. But the ancients couldn’t be dislodged so easily. When the corpus of Western literature consisted largely of two dozen writers who had set the standard for plays, essays, verse, and satires, it was no simple matter to consign them to the past, especially when the past was still present.

The historical sense, as we know it, was not yet fully developed. Herodotus and Thucydides, to be sure, had written histories, but the idea of the past as an area of fruitful study by which modern men could improve upon the work of their predecessors was by no means the received wisdom. As Steven Shapin put it in his capably succinct The Scientific Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 1996), "the idea of linear, cumulative intellectual progress was still novel and not widely accepted."

  • How We Read ...

    "Surface," "distance," and related approaches to reading reflect more grounded, if less culturally and politically ambitious, goals for criticism.

But once scientists and philosophers began to question accepted models of the cosmos, relying more and more on empirical observation—urged on by such works as Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning (1605) and Robert Boyle’s The Sceptical Chymist (1661)—progress in the arts became a reality as well. The point was not so much to denigrate ancient wisdom and art as to put them in perspective in order to encourage modern writers to strive for similar excellence. Too much veneration for Homer, Pindar, and the Greek playwrights; for Seneca, Cicero, Virgil, and Ovid would only compel modern poets to emulate them.

Although Boisrobert’s opinions were heresy to many, they were undoubtedly heroic to those who thought the ancients needed to be updated. Surely, they could not have said everything there was to say. What did the ancients know of firearms, printing, or the nautical compass? Nor was it just the anxiety of influence or even the idea of progress that drove our first moderns; it was something less tangible, a discernible shift in expectations, in the way that writers regarded themselves. Perhaps Donne’s "First Anniversary" (1621), lamenting a world "all in pieces, all coherence gone, / All just supply, and all Relation," managed to identify it:

For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.

And if you’re a phoenix and a poet to boot, just how much obeisance is due the ancients? Had they, in truth, achieved perfection—in which case, imitation was the only recourse—or could a modern-day writer express himself in ways the ancients could never have envisioned? Although most writers around Donne’s time were not inclined to dispute Aristotle’s Poetics, they could question whether the unities of time and space, which limited the action in plays, or the rules of decorum, which dictated subject matter, had to be observed quite so rigorously.

As literary quarrels go, this was a particularly good one, because it wasn’t really about technique but about the quality of ideas, about the relationship between knowledge and innovation, and not least about the value of originality. Before the 18th century, no self-respecting man of letters (who, after all, had been weaned on the ancients) would have thought to dismiss the authors who had formed his education. The past wasn’t something to surpass or circumvent, but to adapt and make relevant.

On the other hand, once the present began to seem divorced from the past, modern writers felt they knew more than had their ancestors, and to distinguish themselves from both the ancients and their own contemporaries, they had to write works unbeholden to previous efforts. In Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition (1759), we find the notion that "the first ancients had no merit in being originals; they could not be imitators. Modern writers have a choice to make and therefore have a merit in their power."

What that power entails has been on the minds of writers ever since. From the Augustans to the Romantics and on through the Victorians and modernists, writers have grappled with precursors and established standards. A few decades ago the modernists themselves became precursors when a loose confederation of critics and philosophers decided that modernism consisted of work that was too oblique and too self-consciously "high art" while remaining at the same time innocent of its own socio-semiotic implications. But what made the postmodern charter different was its willingness to discard the very idea of standards. Starting from the premise that aesthetics were just another social construct rather than a product of universal principles, postmodernist thinkers succeeded in toppling hierarchies and nullifying the literary canon. Indeed, they were so good at unearthing the socioeconomic considerations behind canon formation that even unapologetic highbrows had to wonder if they hadn’t been bamboozled by Arnoldian acolytes and eloquent ideologues.

That heretofore inviolable ideal of art, as expostulated by Walter Pater and John Ruskin, by T.S. Eliot and Lionel Trilling, by the New Criticism, was shunted aside; and those emblematic qualities of modernist works—obliqueness, lyricism, dissonance, ambiguity—were relegated to a hubristic past. Although many former canonical authors continue to be taught in universities, so are many popular, commercial, and genre writers. As long as a writer accumulates sufficient readers and a decent press, respect surely follows. Any reason that George R.R. Martin shouldn’t have parity with William Faulkner? Is Maya Angelou really less important than Emily Dickinson?

The liberal allocation of excellence, a byproduct of the culture wars of the 70s and 80s, is an old story by now, exemplified by the self-esteem movement in public schools, the blurring of distinctions between high and low, and the inclusion of formerly disenfranchised poets and writers into the syllabus. And, truth be told, life became easier without a canon. Many readers probably felt guilty if they couldn’t see the point of Ulysses (Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence being notable exceptions), and many writers probably felt inadequate about producing work that was not canon-worthy. But once the canon was removed, Donne’s phoenix was free to rise unfettered by pieties and paradigms and every reader could become a person with unimpeachable taste.

Now add to the mix an Internet that enables every autodidact with a bad teacher to address the world and pretty soon the world begins to tilt. The razing of aesthetic standards combined with the reallocation of cultural consensus in the form of blogs and Amazon reviews must surely affect the books we write. Almost 70 years ago, Erich Auerbach proposed that a nation’s literature depends in large part on the nature of the reading public. So what happens when that reading public becomes for the first time truly public, not only in the sense that every reader can finally be heard but that his or her voice is hardly less valid than those stemming from our cultural or educational institutions?

Not that there was a general consensus about books before postmodernism or the Internet came along. Tolstoy didn’t care for Shakespeare, Mark Twain loathed Jane Austen, Henry James turned up his nose at Poe, Evelyn Waugh thought Proust "mentally defective," and Vladimir Nabokov disliked both Dostoevsky and Faulkner, not to mention Thomas Mann, André Malraux, and Saul Bellow. It’s not differences of opinion that should concern us; rather it’s the prevailing mood (I hesitate to call it the conventional wisdom) that literature is what anyone wants it to be.

On the other hand, we wouldn’t want to define it too narrowly. What, for example, are we to do with William James’s admission that "As a rule reading fiction is as hard to me as trying to hit a target by hurling feathers at it. I need resistance to celebrate!"? It’s a tough audience that dismisses Laurence Sterne, Balzac, Stendhal, Hawthorne, and Williams James’s own brother. Still, we know what James meant. There’s not much at stake in a novel by Nora Roberts or Clive Cussler. The reason people enjoy such books is the same reason that other people cannot celebrate them: They don’t make us think.

I can speak only for the person who brushes my teeth, but what I want from literature, at least some of the time, is what Lionel Trilling christened "the aesthetic effect of intellectual cogency": passages of verse and prose whose combinations of thought and language, of form and content, are so seamlessly integrated that the pleasure one derives from understanding the text is almost physiological in nature.

Which doesn’t mean that one can’t savor or esteem what William James found less than challenging. To state the obvious: There’s a place for P.G. Wodehouse and James Thurber, for Eric Ambler and Ross Thomas, for any number of thriller or science-fiction writers. There are times when only The Big Sleep will do, or Stephen Becker’s The Chinese Bandit, or ______(you fill in the blank). Anyway, most writers don’t aspire to the type of intellectual cogency that impressed Trilling, nor should they; and, unless sluggishly inept or gloriously inane, their books shouldn’t trouble us.

While there is nothing wrong (and perhaps something even right) in praising those whom previously we shunned, a law of diminishing returns kicks in once we stop making distinctions between the great and the good. It’s one thing to acknowledge the subjective factors of canon-building and another to obfuscate the aesthetic underpinnings of works created by human beings who invest time, skill, talent, and knowledge into making a novel or poem. What ardent defenders of merely good or commercial books find hard to credit is that those of us who stand by the canon (lacunae and all) feel just as ardently. Some books simply reflect a deeper understanding of the world, of history, of human relationships, of literature itself than do other books.

Moreover, those writers who feel the pressure of precursors and who successfully take poetry or prose in new directions deserve consideration beyond what we normally extend to writers who produce satisfactory work in various genres. Just because there is no objective list of Great Books does not mean there are no great books. I’m not suggesting that one can’t fully enjoy James Crumley, James Lee Burke, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, and Orson Scott Card, but I’m not sure one can love them in the way that one loves Shakespeare, Keats, Chekhov, and Joyce. One can be a fan of Agatha Christie, but one can’t really be a fan of George Eliot.

That said, we live amid a great sprawl of what passes for literature, a diffusion prophesied years ago by Houston Baker, a president of the Modern Language Association who declared that choosing between Virginia Woolf and Pearl Buck is "no different from choosing between a hoagie and a pizza." And in this blur of the present, when every book, every critical evaluation, is almost immediately swept aside by another, there seems little of consequence. How different this is compared with the agitation felt by the Elizabethans, Romantics, and moderns who did their best to forge something new. Those first moderns who maintained that their works rivaled in significance, if not skill, those of the Greek and Latin masters started the ball rolling and, in effect, laid the foundations for the canon. But as I look around today I can’t help wondering if the ball hasn’t finally come to a stop. Whom do our poets and novelists seek to supplant, and what aesthetic or philosophical precepts ride on the attempt?

Although serious writers continue to work in the hope that time will forgive them for writing well, the prevailing mood welcomes fiction and poetry of every stripe, as long as the reading public champions it. And this I think is a huge mistake. Literature has never just been about the public (even when the public has embraced such canonical authors as Hugo, Dickens, and Tolstoy). Literature has always been a conversation among writers who borrow, build upon, and deviate from each other’s words. Forgetting this, we forget that aesthetics is not a social invention, that democracy is not an aesthetic category; and that the dismantling of hierarchies is tantamount to an erasure of history.

Arthur Krystal’s latest book is Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic (Oxford University Press, 2011).