Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Boom Goes the Canon

Over at the Conversational Reading blog thing, Scott Esposito posted this article, a reprint from the mid 1980s of an interview with Harold Bloom, literary critic extraordinaire. Or so say some. Ignoring the usual accusations launched against Mr. Bloom—sexism, racism—he’s made an important contribution to American literary discourse in the 20th Century. And he mentored Camile Paglia.

But (and it’s a big ass but), I have some problems with the guy. I read the above article and laughed a few times, sighed with displeasure at others. I realize what my problem with Bloom (and, by extension, academia) is: the goddamn canon. I understand the need for a list of important works that define western culture, or all cultures for that matter, but the canon has always struck me as impenetrable when it ought to be malleable, elitist when it ought to be inclusive, and really, when you think about it, so subjective its foundations might crumble at the slightest sneeze. It serves a purpose, perhaps, and maybe those seeking literary scholarship need a foundation, but the dark side of the canon comes from the steadfast belief that all else outside of it might not be worth as much, or any, attention.

Let me state again: Bloom’s no dummy. He’s kind of a prick at times, sure. Yes, he slammed pop fiction and said some not so nice things about J.K. Rowling and dismissed Doris Lessing as a 3rd rate SciFi writer (and I have to agree there) and even in the above article he called Sylvia Plath’s work bad (again, I don’t disagree completely) but the reasons for his dissing of these more popular writers somewhat upsets me, in theory at least. Scores of school girls will continue to idolize Plath out of proportion, and plenty of Brits will read and reread Lessing and Anthony Powell and other bores, so I guess it matters very little. Anyway, my problem with these writers is not that they are “bad,” whatever that means, but that I simply do not respond to their work. I don’t think Bloom would admit the same. To Bloom, literature is either bad or good, or maybe mediocre. There is the canon and then there is all else.

When I was an undergraduate, I came to a point where the survey courses ended and the magic began. In other words, I started reading literature outside of the survey scope. I love Byron, Shelley and the romantics; I think Twain is fantastic. Faulkner? There’s no better. And the list goes on. But, guess what: there’s another list. I call it the sub-canon. Who populates the sub-canon? For me, it’s the writers who are respected, discussed, read and reread, yet somehow are not in the big canon. For many, they are excluded because they are not old enough. You have to be dead (and white and male) to be in the canon. For others, their crime is that they are not European or North American. Where do writers like Cesar Vallejo, Roque Dalton, Ruben Dario, Nicanor Parra, and Octavio Paz fit in? All of these writers are considered masters in Latin America, but few would be found on the lists the typical canon obsessive writes. Maybe Paz, as he won the Nobel, and was, technically, North American (Mexico is part of North America last time I checked), but even then there’s a slightly insulting aspect to the idea that only after a bunch of Europeans decide you are worthy is your work to be seen as valid.

Maybe I am too hard on Bloom, et al. I am sure he has nice things to say about Borges, who was famously snubbed by the Nobel folks. Still, the concept of the canon troubles me. The writers I list among my favorites are largely members of the sub-canon, those writers deemed “literary” though often excluded from academia. I’m thinking of people like Italo Calvino, Robert Desnos, Mina Loy, Anna Akhmatova, Yehuda Amichai, Julio Cortazar, Joyce Mansour, or even more recent interests such as Roberto Bolaño, Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Horacio Castellanos Moya, or Paul Muldoon. I read these writers more than Shakespeare or Whitman, which is not to dis Bill or Walt. I just don’t see why some less dead or more foreign writers can’t be squeezed in.

The problem stems from the idea that these revered figures are irreplaceable. First off, no one is looking to replace them. Second, fuck what the people say; when Bloom says that Seamus Heaney is not W.B. Yeats, I want to kick Harold’s octogenarian ass. No, Heaney is no Yeats, nor would he really want to be, if he had any sense. And Heaney has certainly proven himself to the tune of winning the Nobel, publishing some of the most read (and truly great) contemporary poetry, and, basically, staying around in the ongoing discourse. We’ll be reading Famous Seamus for quite a few years to come. So while he is not Yeats, he clearly doesn’t need to be. The very statement is idiotic. I can say that Seamus Heaney is not W.B. Yeats, but neither of them is Ciaran Carson. Also, Harold Bloom is not Kenneth Burke. And Wallace Steven was not Walt Whitman. And you know what? I could give a damn. All of those people are fantastic. Let’s move on from the canonical concerns and just read some good books, okay?

Looking back at the interview, it’s more the fault of the one asking inane questions then Bloom’s. Then again, he didn’t have to answer.