The canon as home?

Hilary Plum
January 28, 2012
Comments 2

Tim Parks has a new post on the New York Review of Books blog (discovered via) making an argument for the role of the literary canon—”not an argument for staying at home, but for having a home from which to set out.” He discusses his observations as a teacher of translation, and how because his students’ reading lists elsewhere now

range far and wide chronologically and geographically, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Ernest Hemingway, the Tale of Genji to Jorge Luis Borges, it is hard to imagine how a strong sense of context can be built up around any of the individual works. Or rather, the only relevant context is the human race, planet Earth, post 5000 BCE, circa.

He also teaches creative writing, and continues:

[My creative writing students] too have taken courses in world literature, or at least post-colonial literature. They are familiar with the big international names—Kundera, Pamuk, Eco, Vargas Llosa, Roth, Murakami; they know who won the Nobel, the Man Booker International Prize, the IMPAC, the Pulitzer. Exciting as it is, none of this reading is particularly useful to them. Pamuk, for example, may offer a strong sense of place, but it is one increasingly addressed to those outside Turkey, rather than to the Turkish themselves; is the young English writer to talk about England to a foreign audience? Roth in contrast, deeply engaged in an American world, invites the young writer into the now ubiquitous second life that most citizens of the world have as passive observers of American culture, a world that often has little or nothing to do with daily experience elsewhere. In Europe today, one reads less and less about the immediate society one lives in. Assisting young writers as they struggle to find a voice that feels like their own, a style that might imbue what they write with a sense of necessity and urgency, I am reminded of what a literary canon is, or was, and what purpose it served.

For most of us, the set of behaviors we call personality, or self, forms initially in a family of three, four, or five individuals, then develops as it is exposed to the larger worlds of school and, in our teens perhaps, our town, our country. The richness of our individual personalities is a measure of the complexity of the relations that sustain us. A word spoken at home or school can be dense with nuance and shared knowledge in a way unlikely to occur in a casual exchange at rail station or airport, however fascinating and attractive an exotic traveling companion may be. This is not an argument for staying at home, but for having a home from which to set out.

One of the functions of a canon or a national tradition has been to provide a familiar group of texts, stretching from past to present, constitutive of one’s own community and within which a writer could establish his position, signalling his similarity and difference from authors around and before him. Nuance is more telling than absolute novelty; the more the similarities, the more what difference there is will count. Hence, it might be more useful for a young English writer to be building up a knowledge of, say, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, Anthony Powell, Barbara Pym, along with the writers they drew on and the later generation they inspired, than to be mixing Chinua Achebe with Primo Levi. This is not of course a reflection on the stature of these writers—it’s simply an observation that many of my students have read so disparately that they have little awareness of a body of texts tackling their own culture and within which they can place their writing.

It’s interesting to read this from where we sit, in America: Americans certainly don’t seem to be reading “too much” world literature (enormously less literature is translated into English than out, and translations make up a very small percentage of our book market here—3% is the usual figure—considerably less than in Europe and elsewhere); the usual argument is that Americans are too thoroughly immersed in their own culture, and read nothing from or know next to nothing about other cultures. But as Parks observes about Philip Roth, American culture is exported vigorously (hegemonically?) everywhere, and wandering the halls of the Frankfurt Book Fair, as I used to do annually, one can continually pick up catalogs from leading world publishers and discover that weirdly one has already read (or deliberately chosen not to read) half the books featured, no matter the language: all the major American authors are smiling out from the frontlist, even batches of younger writers, Dave Eggers, Nicole Krauss, you name it; we live in a publishing world where it’s not uncommon for an even just fairly successful American novel to be able to say it’s “translated into 17 languages.” And one thinks: 17?!

Parks touches on this situation, worrying that

Perhaps the problem is… a slow weakening of our sense of being inside a society with related and competing visions of the world to which we make our own urgent narrative contributions; this being replaced by the author who takes courses to learn how to create a product with universal appeal, something that can float in the world mix, rather than feed into the immediate experience of people in his own culture.

A real concern. As too is, as he says, the problem of “context” when one works with & reads literature in translation—translators, publishers, and readers must continually grapple with what it means, what happens, when a work is removed from its context and transplanted into a new language. I hesitate at aspects of Parks essay—couldn’t one argue that to some degree literary theory provides ways of reading that can contextualize disparate works? And also I have my customary grumble that he uses examples from students’ work, which (though perhaps he had their permission; or perhaps he did change all the details) always seems pretty questionable. But I’m interested in this portrait of the canon elsewhere, showing as it does the heavy, even overbearing, influence of American works.

And so if this isn’t the “canon problem” we Americans have, what one do we have? Or should we duck the “problem” by replacing the whole idea of the “canon” with something else? Once in graduate school I found myself apologizing shamefaced to a professor for not having read the obviously canonical work he brought up in relation to a critical essay I’d written. I feel as though I’ve read only in these small clusters, I said, and haven’t read properly, haven’t read the contemporary canon, somehow I missed most of it—or something like this, but I did use the word canon. He waved the apology away, saying, there is no canon now, we’re all reading in these little galaxies, no one can read everything and we’re beginning to have fewer and fewer works in common with each other. I often think of this conversation: it does seem true that while robust communities can and do develop galaxy by galaxy, they may start to have fewer ways to speak to each other, to read one another’s work, even within American literature. How do we balance our sense of home with the need to travel?

This past month I’ve been reading a few works in the so-called contemporary canon that I was surprised and embarrassed to find I’d made it through all these degrees and past age 30 without reading. There’s a dutifulness to this but my god it’s been worth it. The first was Blood Meridian. A novel that bears immense and sickening ideas about America and American literature and I’d be poorer without them. (And Parks’ essay makes me wonder too, how it would fare in translation—would another language preserve the pulse of the Bible that thrums through McCarthy’s prose?) And now I’m reading Rosmarie Waldrop’s Driven to Abstraction—Rosmarie Waldrop should be in every canon, I want to say: she is in some, but every time I read her, I think, absurdly: everyone should be reading this! This too is a work that is profoundly American, about America and its past and current wars, and is amazing and wise. I’m also reading some essays by David Foster Wallace, whom I admit I’ve never really read (it is hard to admit this). I just finished his “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction,” and I feel as though I’ve come to see some aspects of American literature in a new light, and have been moved and energized by his arguments about the ubiquity of irony and what might be born in its wake. So in the past month, my home in American literature has changed, and yet I know it better. Hmm.

2 thoughts on “The canon as home?

  1. Canons, like genres, can be useful as guides to reading, but where Parks goes off the rails is in assuming that nationalistic canons are more useful than other sorts. When researching or translating a particular writer, a national canon might make sense, but it’s limiting when looking at any writer who was an eclectic reader — what could a scholar make of Virginia Woolf if that scholar only read English literature? Parks is hardly talking about canons at all, really; he seems to be advocating a strictly nationalist approach to literature. That’s foolish. Odd, too, that he advocates dropping Chinua Achebe. Perhaps he should read Achebe’s book The Education of a British-Protected Child.

    A much more interesting approach to this sort of thing can be found in Chimamanda Adichie’s beautiful TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”.

    • Hi Matthew, and thank you for this note. I share the doubts you express here… I was most interested in Parks’ thoughts as a sort of snapshot from elsewhere, an issue that doesn’t exist in contemporary America (that young people might be reading too much world literature, in too scattershot a fashion–rather we are not reading much world literature at all), but one which, through the dominance of English-language publishing, we might be contributing to forcefully abroad. (There is a cannon/canon joke to be made in here somewhere.) And as you say with the example of Woolf, the seeming borders are all porous and already indefensible (even the Bible, after all, is a work in translation).

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