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.


Caryn Caldwell said...

That's exactly how I feel - and I'm a former English teacher and graduated with honors in English. If I'm going to spend my precious off time immersing myself in a story - whether I'm reading or writing - I want it to be one I enjoy. Some books are so painfully depressing. Sadness is not synonymous with reality. There's as much joy in life as there is pain, so why is the pain celebrated more than the joy?

mistress of chaos said...

In my masters classes last summer I am sure that I offended many, but I insisted that music is not worthy of writing if it is not to be shared. The entire point of communication (I lump music and literature and art together in this) is that someone sends a message and someone else receives it. I was sick and tired of listening to so called "modern" compositions that felt pointless to me. Yes, I understand that one persons' "noise" is another's inspiration. Yet, if one is writing or composing anything, there needs to be an intended audience. If the composition is just about form, it loses its magical ability to communicate and because something less than an etude and more of a meaningless exercise in vanity.