Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Boom Goes the Canon: Guilty Readers & Rebels

Recently, in preparation for a semester of teaching a book I actually enjoy, I started rereading Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture (get your copy here).  Along with rereading the actual book, I decided to read some online reviews.   This may not have been the most advisable action, as online reviews run the gamut from informative to obnoxious.  (I’m certainly guilty of the latter.)  Nevertheless, I thought a good way of assessing possible student response might be to read an array of comments about this, in my opinion, quality text.

As one might predict, there were lauds and gripes in equal measure.  Some, like me, see Ugresic’s text, and the titular essay, as a provocative critique of global culture post Iphone.  Others were less impressed.  One review really stood out to me.  The reviewer accused Ugresic of bowing  “before the antiquated notions of ‘the canon’ as singular artistic bar.”  This writer also claimed to come from the “fierce and determined world of DIY publishing and music, the snotty fist in the face of the old guard,” and, as a result, was predisposed to “have problems with the establish [sic] essayists and other monied professionals digging in and looking down their snots at the glorified amateur.”

That's a lot of snot!

That I quote directly from this writer without naming him has less to do with my fear that this person will somehow, from some shadowy DIY bunker, retaliate, shaking that snotty fist in my face, and more to do with me not really giving enough of a fuck about him to give him due credit.  Nothing personal, but his review is public on Goodreads, so even the less-than-savvy surfer can find it, should they be that curious.  Anyway, I am not here to debate the merits of the review (which is poor—did this guy even read the section on Emir Kustrica?).  What did interest me about this review is the idea of the canon.  Now that Mr. Indie has brought this up, and made Ugresic’s supposed (imagined) allegiance to it, a factor, I’d like to talk about it for a bit.

First, another anecdote:

Last weekend, I had brunch with my wife and some of her associates.  One of her friends said that she had dedicated her summer to reading the classics.  Knowing we like us some damn books, the young lady asked for some of our favorite classics.  My mind went blank for a bit while my wife picked Crime and Punishment.   Then she moved, logically, from Dostoevsky to Tolstoy, picking Anna Karenina for her next recommendation.  Soon Kurt Vonnegut’s name was mentioned. 

I responded the way I always do when someone asks for a book recommendation: “Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is my favorite book.”  Later, I mentioned Faulkner.  I realized that I felt more comfortable recommending The Sound and the Fury, as it is a canonized book and this woman was specifically requesting classics (note the lack of quotation marks around that word).  Of course, Bulgakov came immediately to mind, but I was somewhat hesitant to name his masterpiece, as it may not be considered a classic in the canonical sense.  Faulkner, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Hugo, Conrad… these are members of the canon.  Bulgakov?  Not so much.

This is not to say that Bulgakov lacks admirers.  (Check out The Master and Margarita’sfan page sometime.)  Still, one doesn’t see Bulgakov’s name on a lot of undergrad syllabi. 

Long ago, when I realized that my favorite books existed in this nebulous space between the canon and the so-called beach read, I decided to create a sub-canon of my own.  Bulgakov was included.  As was Vonnegut, a writer I love whose books are often dismissed by academics as light reading.  (By the way, that my wife went from the 19th Century Russians to Vonnegut makes me love her all the more.)  Others have made it in easily: Italo Calvino, Mina Loy, G. Cabrera Infante, Reinaldo Arenas, Nicanor Parra, Jose Donoso, Juan Rulfo, Roberto Bolaño, Daniil Kharms, Anna Akhmatova, Vladamir Mayakovsky, Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Charles Bukowski, Albert Cossery… oh, the list goes on and on!   Meanwhile, the actual canon’s roar continues to echo, bouncing from university walls to the desks of casual, guilty readers. 

The woman at brunch is one of these guilty readers, or so I’ve decided (what the hell do I know about her?).  I have met them before: the person who feels they are under-read in the classics department and must devote time to reading these timeless works.  How can I call myself a smart, educated, complete person if I have not made it through Moby-Dick

This has always struck me as bullshit.  There’s a wealth of great reading available outside of Herman Melville or Virginia Woolf (though a person could do worse).  It is this sense of inferiority that drives people toward, and all too often away from, the classics.  If they don't immediately connect or "get it," then they tend to reject literature altogether.  I could not harpoon the white whale.  I am a failure.  Better cozy up to Dish Network and accept that my intellect can only handle the Kardashians.


First, I am something of a relativist in the sense that, as I am trying to say above, there is no accounting for taste and, thus, life is too fucking short to wade through a book you are not enjoying simply because it is supposed to be a classic.  That being said, I can guiltlessly tell people that no, I have never read all of Ulysses and that, no, I don’t feel bad about it.  (To me, Ulysses is an important, fascinating book that I do not care for.  It is not, in my humble opinion, the finest example of literature in the English language, as many Best Of lists would have me believe.) I don’t feel bad about it because it is not one of my books, a book I have read and enjoyed; it is not one of the Best Books.  The Best Books, to define them in an abstract way, are the ones that resonate with a reader, that elevate life, that distract and amuse, that inform or opine, that piss you off, that make you happy/sad, that simply stick with you, goddamnit.  Ulysses is not that book for me.  Could Crime and Punishment be that book for you?  Well, you’ll never know if you don’t read it.

A bit on that before we continue.

While I am, as stated, something of a relativist, I do like to draw some lines between the beach read and the classic.  I am the sole arbiter of my own good taste, and, as such, I do proclaim that Nicholas Sparks can fuck off and that there is no finer poem in the English language than the original “Song of Myself.”  Do I occasionally traipse into the land of literary elitism?  Hell yeah.  Do I care?  Hell no.  While I will not judge you (at least not out loud) for reading the Twilight books, I will suggest that there are other, perhaps better, books to be read when you get done picking Team Edward or Jacob. 

Okay, so that being said, let’s hope that the guilty reader has not been too scared off by Moby-Dick and too seduced by the Cullens to give some other, seemingly intimidating book a shot. 

In this article, Gary Gutting questions this idea that there are good books (which are difficult to read) and bad ones (which are easy).  He questions what is meant by “enjoyment”: “ Sometimes […] we mean escape from the grubby difficulties of real life into a more enticing fictional world. But Jane Austen or Thomas Mann (or even Homer or Chaucer) can as effectively take us away from our daily cares as can Ken Follett or John Grisham.” Indeed.

Later, he writes:

“But why should we think that what is hard to read is not enjoyable?  Here there is a striking difference between the way we regard mental and physical activities.  Running marathons, climbing mountains and competing at high levels in tennis or basketball are very difficult things to do, but people get immense enjoyment from them.  Why should the intellectual work of reading ‘The Sound and the Fury’ or ‘Pale Fire’ be any less enjoyable?   If I take pleasure only in the ‘light fiction’ of mysteries, thrillers or romances, I am like someone who enjoys no physical activities more challenging than walking around the block or sitting in a rocking chair.  Vigorous intellectual activity is itself a primary source of pleasure—and pleasure of greater intensity and satisfaction than that available from what is merely ‘easy reading.’”

I could not agree more.  We have a tendency to view reading as a chore.  Subsequently, we read less.  When we do read, we opt for the easiest reads of all, fearing that anything too challenging will bore us or, worse, make us feel that sense of inferiority.  A goddamn shame, if you ask me.

Converse to the reaction of the guilty (soon to be former) reader, the rebel reader reads widely, though they mostly opt for edgy, anti-canonical books.  I’m thinking again of Ugresic’s reviewer, the DIY snot.  Though his reading list contains some classics, I wonder if he apologizes for reading Flaubert? 

I have met many reading rebels.  Some only read graphic novels, claiming to be post-literary, an odd term for a group of people who consistently champion the COMICS ARE ART! cause.  The rebel is, in a sense, worse than the guilty reader, as the rebel, in true hypocritical fashion, will preach that their revered books are important and worthy of a large audience, in a sense creating their own canon.  They too will look down their snotty noses at Twilight fans, only instead of suggesting one read Chaucer they will preach the word of Michel Houellebecq.  

I recently saw a summer reading campaign via blog that, when referring to another campaign, touted their list as being more interesting than the other, which contained mostly high school level classics.  While I agree with the blogger, I also find this attitude snarky, as the act of literary dick-measuring is pretentious as fuck.  I'm just glad people are reading something other than Facebook posts.  Sure, I love book culture and hope that smaller, less represented writers and publishers get some exposure, but I am not about to get all uppity about it.  

The rebel reader reminds me of the punk rock kids who only like what you have never heard of.  Nirvana?  The greatest band of 1990 and the worst of 1992.  Why?  Because someone else has heard of them.  Because they signed with a major label.  Because they sold out.  So they automatically suck now.  Man, you weren't there! 

Oh, isn’t it much easier to admit that you like intellectual prime rib and White Castles? 

A closing (ha!) note:

Henry Miller (speaking of pretentious pricks) wrote a book about the books in his life.  I have not read it, but if my spidey sense tingles correctly, Miller’s book is about his favorite reads, kind of an early version of Goodreads.  Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, though Miller surely sings the praises of Knut Hamsun et al. 

If I had to write a book along those lines, I would include The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy along with Bulgakov and Faulkner.  Talk about anti-canonical!  I include this book because it is the first book that I read and loved.  I was in high school and not much of a reader when a very strange member of the Christian Brothers assigned this book.  I think he felt we young boys, cut-off from the society of women and forced to wear ties, might relate to the extreme practices of military school.  Whatever his logic, it worked; I was hooked on this book.  It made me realize that books could be fun.  Maybe I ought to see what else was out there.  I went from there to Stephen King to Anne Rice to Kurt Vonnegut, and the rest is history.   While I don’t return to Conroy, I’ll always cherish that book.  It belongs on the same list as Faulkner.  That list being My List. 

Ta ta for now.