Friday, October 28, 2011

The Problem with the Canon

So I've been thinking a lot about literary fiction lately. It shouldn't be a surprise, I guess, what with my Master's degree in English Literature and all. I guess the surprise comes from my writing genre fiction after having studied literary fiction for that many years. The thing is, I don't want to write literary fiction because I don't think people like to read it.

That's no big insult to the millions of novel readers who keep the publishing industry in business. On the contrary, I don't think the people buying romances and thrillers and young adult novels are less intelligent or less educated than those who buy and read literary fiction -- I think they just like the other stuff better. And I don't blame them. I'm going off that old premise (from my theory class many years ago) that literature is meant to delight and instruct. And I'm further insisting that literature which does not delight cannot possibly instruct.

So here's the problem I see with the canon: it is no longer delightful. Honestly. Maybe it used to be. It seems like, before the rise of the novel, and even during its early romantic period, it was possible to write delightful, entertaining poetry and prose and still find a place in the hallowed halls of revered literary giants. Not that I always found joy in "Paradise Lost," but with the right instruction...anyway, then the novel came along, with the realists and the modernists and the post-modernists and, honestly, it seems like a lot of writers, whether out of snobbery or just fear of selling out, decided to dispense with the time-honored tradition of making their writing delightful altogether.

Take James Joyce, for example. I read every word of Ulysses when I was an undergrad. Every word. I'm lucky I didn't commit suicide at some point during that semester, too. Had I possessed health insurance, I probably would have started on Prozac to help me cope with the mess my life had become just from reading that book.

This is not a tirade against Joyce, however, or any writer in particular, although he does make an easy target, doesn't he? It's just that he's a good example of how many literary writers, in my opinion, try so hard to write something worthy of the canon that they forget what I think is the entire point of writing: so somebody -- hopefully lots of somebodies -- will read their work.

Now I'm sure there must be a balance. We don't all have to write about vampires just because vampires are popular. But can we not, as a collective group of writers, include some happiness in what we write about? some comedy, some good endings, some hope?

I'll be the first to admit that I don't read much literary fiction anymore these days, so I'm not an expert on contemporary trends. But I'm guessing, from having spent more than a decade (as a student and a teacher) in academia, that the canon is not going to be adopting J.K. Rowling's works anytime soon.

And that's too bad, because I don't think we're doing our students or ourselves any favors by creating two mutually exclusive circles of writers and works of fiction. Just because a book sells millions of copies doesn't mean it has no literary value. And just because everyone in the novel battles against and fails to overcome their own particular neuroses doesn't mean we should force freshmen everywhere to read it and write essays on it.

I'm not renouncing my education, and I still love teaching literature (even though I haven't and probably won't for some time, given the four young children and all), but when I grab a precious hour or two here and there throughout the week, I'm definitely going to use it to write something delightful. Chances are, it won't be literary.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


*Disclaimer* This is not the entry I submitted for Round 7 of NPRs Three Minute Fiction contest. 
This post is the entry that didn't even pass my personal screeners: Fiona Ostler, who blogs at, and my husband, who doesn't blog unless it involves a yearly physical or flu shot. As a prelude to the story, however, I must quote "Leda and the Swan" by W.B. Yeats.

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Spurred on by that fascinating and masterful poem, and possessed of the knowledge that the ancient Leda had a sister named Althaea, I wrote (and then discarded) the following piece of flash fiction for the NPR contest:

The last time I saw Leda, she was perched on top of her trunk, waiting for the 11:15 train to Troy. She wore a white, organdy dress with a full skirt that fluttered a little in the wind. I thought she might at least stand on the platform next to her luggage, like any normal person would do, but then, Leda never could keep her feet on the ground. She was that kind.

She was only my kid sister, but after she left, life lost all its good colors. Oh, I kept going. I had plenty to do until the end of the tourist season. Even after the busses stopped for the winter, I still had next year's merchandise to order and the holidays ahead of me. But sometime after New Year's, I looked up to find all the greens turned to celery, all the reds to mauve, and everything else to just plain white. Then it was a lot harder to get out of bed in the mornings.

"I'm restless," she'd said. "I've been here too long." And, "Everyone knows. I can see it in their eyes." She could have come up with a better excuse -- something original for once -- or told the truth. Because I knew the truth, and that's what kept me from going after her in the first place. Women like her can't put down roots, even with family; it's not in them to stay still. Especially not for Leda; not after what happened.

I thought back to the day I had met her at the train station when she got into town. She'd thrown her arms around me like we were still fifteen, sleeping in the same bed and playing guessing games in the dark, even though we hadn't spoken in years. She had the kind of charm that endeared her to everyone she met, and even though I knew what she was doing, it still worked. Plus, she was the most beautiful creature imaginable, and I'm not speaking out of jealousy. Not even a little. I took her to my house and put her up in the second bedroom.

The first few months, she helped me in the store. The customers all raved about her, and I saw business pick up a little, too. But too soon, the pains came, as I knew they would. Her legs ached from standing all day long. Her feet got swollen and tender. She began to battle a strange lethargy I'd seen before but never could explain. And I thought maybe it was time for her to go.

"I'm not leaving, Althaea," she'd said. "Not this time. I can stand it."

"Good," I'd said. "I've finally got you with me. I'm not letting you go."
But in the end, how could I hold her down? She wasn't mine anymore; she never had been. The bonds of sisterhood only stretch so far, and Leda had known divinity.

When she started to show, she packed her trunk and begged me to buy her a ticket.

"Where?" I'd asked.

"Anywhere but here."

I had a friend in Michigan, a midwife who could take her in and help her when her time came, so I called to ask her a favor, and she said to send Leda on up.

"What's in Troy?" she'd said, a frown etched into her forehead.

"You will be, soon. Besides, what does it matter? It's not here."

It didn't take much convincing. A few days later, she'd climbed onto the train and waved at me through the window until the sun's rays struck the glass and whited out her face.

She wrote me from Troy, after the babies were born. She barely mentioned the boy, but the girl...

'She's the most beautiful girl in the world -- more lovely, even, than me. I've named her Helen.' And that was the last I ever heard from my baby sister.