Slouching Towards Barnes and Noble

Speaking of Chris, he also has a post up–off of a post by Michael Berube in Crooked Timber–in response to some people who need literature to keep score:

And plus, every time a person reads it, a nut gets its wings. After finishing the novel, I recalled an entertaining post Michael Bérubé wrote at Crooked Timber, with one of his trademark post titles dropping coy references to hip and current musical groups so that the young people will find it relevant. The post discussed the usual bleatings by Conservative Academics that the Literary Canon is being eroded by the relentless inclusion of writers who have the temerity to be not-white, or not-male, or not-dead-since-before-the-bleaters-were-born, or some combination of the three. It’s an old argument, an evergreen, and yet no matter how many times the argument is made it never gets any more justifiable. Or for that matter more interesting.

I have not yet read Things Fall Apart. I just started Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (I picked The Normal Heart up at random right before I left the country.) I have read The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, unfortunately. And I’m sure we read that Yeats poem at least once; I remember three famous lines from that unit, probably because I’ve seen them quoted hundreds of times since. Oh, and we read The Waste Land. I probably reread it around the time that Chris did. (Now, see what I just did there? Clearly, I’ve been hitting the Pat Barker way too hard.)

I suspect that Things Fall Apart never got onto any of my syllabi because of my staggered education; it was probably lost somewhere between diploma and equivalency track.

Everything Chris has to say about “the canon” is right: it is nonsense to write about literature as though there is a set number of Elect writers. Like Samuel Johnson says (and is quoted in Barney’s Version, by Mordecai Richler):

So the young author, panting after fame,
And the long honours of a lasting name,
Intrusts his happiness to human kind,
More false, more cruel than the seas or wind!
Toil on, dull crowd! in ecstasies he cries,
For wealth or title, perishable prize;
While I those transitory blessings scorn,
Secure of praise from ages yet unborn.
This thought once form’d, all counsel comes too late,
He flies to press, and hurries on his fate;
Swiftly he sees the imagined laurels spread,
And feels the unfading wreath surround his head.
Warn’d by another’s fate, vain youth be wise,
Those dreams were Settle’s[1] once, and Ogilby’s![2]

Or, hey, there’s always:

Those are pearls that were his eyes.
‘Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?’
But
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

Canonical, ironical….

But I’d also like to point out that the Great Books fallacy isn’t just about a belief that certain authors should be treated as interlopers. Achebe–like Shakespeare–is an author who is used to teach students to read in a mature way. What’s a protagonist? What’s an unreliable narrator? What makes for a gripping narrative? What’s this writer trying to say? Why am I turning the pages? His book is meant to teach students that books are useful and interesting, that reading can be enjoyable, and that they can become conscious readers. It’s being used as a lure for literature. If he’s being attacked on the grounds that writers like Jane Austen are by definition more responsible poster models, then he’s also being attacked because his book might create a wider audience for reading.

The gatekeepers aren’t worried that students will read lousier books and suffer from degenerate standards. Those books have protagonists and narratives too, for one thing, and Achebe can’t be confused with Koontz. I can’t see why any high-schooler or college freshman would have a harder time learning about imagery from Beloved, or writing about foreshadowing in The House of the Spirits. No, they’re worried that Achebe will be too good: that his book will fascinate young people, that they will read it and then seek out more books like it, and then read those books and think about them, and then seek out other books and think about them, and so on. The fear is that all these new additions will, if allowed to proliferate unchecked, create an entire class of experienced, demanding, discriminating readers. And that their affection for books might not owe much to that poem about the falconer.

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21 Responses

  1. ilyka
    ilyka January 1, 2008 at 12:19 am |

    The fear is that all these new additions will, if allowed to proliferate unchecked, create an entire class of experienced, demanding, discriminating readers.

    Well, that’s an outrage! Who then will buy the novels of Jonathan Safran Foer, huh? Whither the Brooklynite author class? Answer me that! Hmpf!

  2. piny
    piny January 1, 2008 at 12:35 am |

    Oh, so all the cool kids are hating on Foer now? Whatever happened to hating on Dave Eggers? Or Tom Wolfe? Why don’t you hate William Styron that much, Ilyka?

  3. ilyka
    ilyka January 1, 2008 at 4:48 am |

    Aw, hating on Eggers is so 2004.

    I’m only picking on Foer because I threw Everything Is Illuminated across the room about halfway through trying to read it. If you can do magical realism, great; if you can’t, please don’t, and please ask someone who hates you to tell you whether you can or you can’t, because those who love you will say you can, only they’ll be wrong about it. Narrators aren’t the only creatures prone to unreliability.

    Anyway, it’s going into the stack of books to donate somewhere just as soon as I get to cleaning out my shelves and closets for the new year. So, April.

  4. Angiportus
    Angiportus January 1, 2008 at 9:41 am |

    I thought the only way to find out if you could handle certain types of lit is to try them. I sure wouldn’t let anyone else tell me what I could do, however they felt about me.
    My nonfiction backlog is so immense, I may never get around to reading any fiction, magical or otherwise, before I croak.

  5. Joyful Alternative
    Joyful Alternative January 1, 2008 at 11:50 am |

    piny, I hate William Styron. But I’m not a cool kid.

  6. kate
    kate January 1, 2008 at 2:27 pm |

    Where do you folks find out what is new in lit? I’m really curious as I don’t hang with literary types, so my reading is a lonely enterprise.

    Also, I agree with Angi, my curiosity about the real world keeps me engrossed in non-fiction so much that my good intentions to dive into the world of lit, new or old is nothing but that; good intentions.

  7. Tapetum
    Tapetum January 1, 2008 at 3:08 pm |

    Angiportus, you’re half-right. First, you try it – i.e. write a piece in the style you want to do. Then you give it to someone who hates you (or at least doesn’t like you), and ask them if it works, because your friends will lie to you.

  8. kat
    kat January 1, 2008 at 5:45 pm |

    one of the commenters hit it on the head (about lit in general, if not this particular case)

    Yeah yeah, I know, smart estrogen is bad enough. Brown smart estrogen? Incomprehensible horror.

  9. Mandolin
    Mandolin January 1, 2008 at 6:29 pm |

    Angiportus, you’re half-right. First, you try it – i.e. write a piece in the style you want to do. Then you give it to someone who hates you (or at least doesn’t like you), and ask them if it works, because your friends will lie to you.

    Or, alternately, if you’re a working writer, you probably have a number of writing acquaintances who neither love nor hate you and whose role in your life is to read stuff you intuitively know isn’t working and try to point out why.

  10. Orodemniades
    Orodemniades January 1, 2008 at 6:45 pm |

    Besides, how do you find the good stuff? I stick to genre and The Classics because so much of the new fiction is utter shite.

    I blame Oprah.

  11. Jill
    Jill January 1, 2008 at 8:04 pm | *

    Oh, so all the cool kids are hating on Foer now? Whatever happened to hating on Dave Eggers? Or Tom Wolfe? Why don’t you hate William Styron that much, Ilyka?

    The one thing that will make you hate Dave Eggers even more is taking a college creative writing class circa 2003, wherein every single person in the class is attempting to do “the Eggers voice.” It is thoroughly insufferable. That said, Dave Eggers the person is actually a pretty decent guy, and gives a lot back to his community and whatnot. I’m far more in favor of hating on Tom Wolfe, and all the Bright Young White Dudes who live in Brooklyn (even if I do buy all their books and secretly think their black-rimmed glasses are teh hotness).

  12. Jill
    Jill January 1, 2008 at 8:05 pm | *

    Anyway, it’s going into the stack of books to donate somewhere just as soon as I get to cleaning out my shelves and closets for the new year. So, April.

    You know, we should organize a Feminist Blogger Book Exchange. We could all list the titles we own and no longer want, and do a collective swap. Any takers? I know someone out there wants my copy of Introduction to Tort Law…

  13. Rebecca
    Rebecca January 1, 2008 at 10:12 pm |

    *sigh of relief* I’m so glad I’m not the only person who hated ‘Everything is illuminated’. I try not to throw books, anymore though. I beaned a college roomate with ‘Moby Dick’ and broke a window with ‘Beloved’. Don’t ask what happened to ‘Angela’s Ashes’, because it wasn’t pretty. Now I just leave them close to the litter box and try to piss off my cats. :)

    I have this onery streak that’s about a mile wide, so when someone tells me I ‘have’ to read/see/watch/do something, I dig in my heels, turn around, do the hokey pokey and find something the exact opposite. Which means I’ve read some really odd British fantasy (which is repetitive, since all brit fantasy is odd) and some truly amazing small press stuff no one’s ever heard of.

  14. Natalia
    Natalia January 2, 2008 at 9:43 am |

    I like Dave Eggers. Tom Wolfe I’ve hated ever since that monstrosity I Boinked Charlotte Simmons (hur hur) was suddenly placed on that shelf of “authoritative volumes on college life.” Damn, Donna Tartt’s Secret History was helluva a lot more authoritative than that, and it was about a clutch of verifiably insane misfits studying Ancient Greek!!! Of course, Tartt didn’t go around calling young women “sluts,” so no authority for her.

    I’ve realized that the trick to enjoying, and learning from, modern literature and all its different facets and niches and wonderful voices – is to ignore about 99% of “authoritative voices” on the subject.

    I find Susanna Clarke brilliant, for example – in spite of fairy tales being blacklisted as “not serious literaturrrr, harrrrrumph.”

    Achebe is definitely on my list of writer to catch up with. I also recommend Olga Grushin to anyone reading this. Because I am not an authoritative voice, and can get away with it!!!

  15. Josh Jasper
    Josh Jasper January 2, 2008 at 1:23 pm |

    Natalia, I recommend Catherynne M. Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales, In The Night Garden and it’s sequel, The Orphans Tales: In The Cities Of Coin And Spice.

    The first book won the Tiptree Award at lat year’s Wiscon.

    Actually, I recommend it to all feministe readers.

  16. Magniloquence
    Magniloquence January 2, 2008 at 6:37 pm |

    I have this onery streak that’s about a mile wide, so when someone tells me I ‘have’ to read/see/watch/do something, I dig in my heels, turn around, do the hokey pokey and find something the exact opposite. Which means I’ve read some really odd British fantasy (which is repetitive, since all brit fantasy is odd) and some truly amazing small press stuff no one’s ever heard of.

    Same here. I refused to read anything Tolkein for years for just that reason. I don’t mind if friends who know my taste do it, but I cannot stand being told to do/see/watch/read something because it’s Hot/Trendy/Classic/A Part Of Your Heritage, Dammit.

    … that, and I’m a bit of a dud, artistically. I draw, paint, sew, scrapbook, and write well, when I’m inspired… but I’m rarely inspired, and have little patience for the arts in general. Literature definitely falls in that category for me… I can do the litcrit dance just fine, and enjoy it in a classroom setting, but I just don’t get that deep personal glow from it that others do. My fun books (science fiction and fantasy, often of the low kind) and research books make me smile and try to tell every person I meet about them; Great Literature (and poetry of pretty much any sort beyond limericks) tends to make me nod and offer critiques of its technical proficiency, then fall asleep.

  17. Alana
    Alana January 3, 2008 at 8:11 pm |

    Piny, like all but the most reactionary of academics, I’m all for the addition of Eliza Haywood and Olaudah Equiano to the canon. But I don’t think your characterization of the other side – that, gosh, they’re just terrified kids will like Achebe on his merits – is at all fair or on base. You seem to take for granted that your opponents are arguing in bad faith, and I’d like to know why. Seriously, point to one seamy old traditionalist in an English department you have reason to believe is opposed to the creation of “an entire class of experienced, demanding, discriminating readers,” if you can.

  18. Daisy
    Daisy January 4, 2008 at 12:58 pm |

    Natalia, that wasn’t TW’s fault, if a buncha conservative guys thought Charlotte Simmons was “authoritative”… it does not in any way detract from what he did in his youth. Further, I thought the class divisions described in that book were scathingly accurate.

    I didn’t know Wolfe was persona non grata these days, but then (see thread about old ladies), everyone already knows how unhip I am. ;)

  19. A.W.
    A.W. January 4, 2008 at 7:09 pm |

    “Besides, how do you find the good stuff? I stick to genre and The Classics because so much of the new fiction is utter shite.”

    I find quite a few of the Classics to be ‘utter shite’, ie, I don’t usually find them enjoyable. Tastes vary, I like Chaucer but I think Dickens had a bad habit of squashing more information onto a single page than was needed. Doesn’t mean someone else will agree with me.

    To find a good book for you, open a book (any book, that’s the beauty of the method!) to the first page, read three pages inward, then open to the middle and read three pages. If you like the subject, characters, style and turn of phrase at the beginning, see if you continue to like it in the middle. If you do, then you’ve found a book, congratulations. If it doesn’t engage you, do not read it. Works well for me. Well, it would if I’d quit trying to reread Tolkien.

    I would’ve been exstatic, if, in school, they’d had a selection of literature to choose from. They didn’t, so I ended up reading a good three-fourths of the material thrice, once on my own and twice for school (Why? Because it’s mandatory to follow along in class both times the books were on the itinerary, unfortunately), that lovely institution that couldn’t remember what it assigned its students for the different grade levels. There’s untold amounts of very good reading material that’s getting ignored in favor of authors that’re in every library and bookstore I’ve ever been in. If people want to find ‘Classics’ certainly no one is hiding them, but the other writings need a boost-up so they’re not being swamped by Dickens & Chaucer.

  20. Feministe » Book Question
    Feministe » Book Question January 4, 2008 at 7:18 pm |

    [...] was a comment on the Barnes and Noble thread about where one would go to find new books: Where do you folks find [...]

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