Friday 5 October 2007

Literary Snobbery- Do you Read to Enjoy, or Read to Impress?

One thing I have always found annoying about literature, is the so called 'canon'.

Those sacred texts which get to sit on special shelves at Waterstones, the 'superior' works which are marked out from the common works which fill the rest of the store.

Annoying, not because there aren't works which rise above the norm.
But because of the bizarre way this elite set seems to have been decided.
And how this group is treated.

I have always held the view that there are really three canons.

The first canon, I call the pseudo-canon.

These are works which have had the merit of being read a lot over time. The thinking is, lots of people have read these books, therefore they are well written, cleverly put together, with something earth-shattering to say.

In fact, it isn't so.
Jane Austen, for example. Her books have sold a lot, I agree.
So have those of Jackie Collins and Barbara Cartland.
I wouldn't read either of those out of choice either, and as far as I see, the only difference between the works of the latter two ladies and Ms Austen, is about two hundred years.

Jane Austen is lightweight Mills and Boons drivel, but the presence of her novels in the canon, as with those of the Brontes, allows people to believe that they are educated intellectuals, because they have read a few 'classics'.

Well, if these are the only 'classics' you have read, I'm afraid it is a delusion.

Wordsworth too, is over rated. He is the best known poet of the nineteenth century, because he is the easiest- and the dullest.

Even Dickens, I have to say gets a slightly better press than he perhaps merits. I'm not saying he can't be witty sometimes, but excepting the loathsome Charles Kingsley (a rare example of an author I have given up on in disgust), few authors have such an intrusive authorial voice or such cardboard cut out characters.

And whilst his plots are well constructed, they have a habit of stretching coincidence and implausibility to levels which make the reader cringe.

I'll give him a Christmas Carol and one or two others, and I'll concede he is a GOOD author.
But not a GREAT one.

The second canon, is what I call the true canon.
These are the works which are accepted as greats, and in my opinion, deserve it.

Shakespeare stands out here. Not all of his comedies, many are tedious.
But King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Henry V, Merchant of Venice, Richard III to name but a few, these MUST count as masterpieces.

I often feel we waste Shakespeare by forcing him too young on underappreciative schoolkids.

He IS the greatest playwright ever, and people need to come to that discovery through free will.

Also hiding away in the true canon, are those works which many have heard of, but never read.
Spenser's Faerie Queene, almost certainly the greatest epic poem ever written in the English language, Milton's Paradise Lost, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, Blake.

And whilst the Bard reigns supreme amongst the dramatists, we should not forget Marlow.

And skulking at the edges of the true canon, when by rights he deserves a place at its heart, is John Dunne.

Lastly, we have what I see as the hidden canon.
These are works which put the false canon to shame, but are kept out by snobbery. Works which really do have something to say, are well written and unforgettable.

I always judge all literature by what I call the Aeneid test.

To me, Virgil was the man, as far as classical literature goes.
It annoys me when people place the Iliad above the Aeneid. If you've ever read both, there can be no question.
The Aeneid set the standard for all time, as far as I see it.

So what do I put in my hidden canon?
The works which I think show someone who actually IS well read, not just out to impress.
Well, I always did have Lord of the Rings there, but I think since the films, that has finally been accepted as the classic as it truly is.
It IS the best piece of literature ever written.
No doubt about it.

I think 1984 has always been accepted, and HG Wells is begrudgingly half accepted now as canon, though not nearly enough.

But in my hidden canon, I include CS Lewis' underappreciated Out of the Silent Planet and succeeding novels.
Huxley's Brave New World certainly belongs also. Scott Fitzgerald is definitely a classic author, certainly for the Great Gatsby if nothing else, and I'd also add Graham Greene.

And of modern dramatists?
If you are not mesmerised by an Arthur Miller play, you have no soul.

So there it is. I had to read Sense and Sensibility AND Pride and Prejudice for my degree, but I find the Conan the Barbarian stories as enlightening, and a lot more interesting.

The best reads are rarely the ones they televise.


Anonymous said...

So the writers you like are part of the 'true' canon and the others are 'psuedo'? There is, perhaps, a hint of snobbery in that.
Personally I would like to make use of an actual cannon against the entire canon.

Anonymous said...

I love Bryce Courtenay Books, he always brigs out a newy in December, just in time for my birthday..and so, with that, I buy myself a present every year :)
I like this post muchly, it makes the reader think :)

Anonymous said...

I must tell you I adore your reading your Blog.
The thing that would make it even more excellent would be to spare the comma when not necessary. Just a wee idiosyncrasy of mine as I read and process thousands and thousands of words a day and find these nasty things as distracting as one would find the telephone ringing in the middle of a romantic interlude.

Take all commas out then proof the text.
Add them only when necessary.

Dearest Crush, in content over form I agree but be merciful unto your readers.
I despise lol, :), --, and " " 's as well, only because all of this just slows one down and loses the cadence of the verse.
It is my hope that this does not sound cuntish. Or snobbish.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha ha, Crushed.
Aristophanes, Achebe, Antunes; Boccaccio, Byron, Borges, Brecht; Chaucer, Cervantes, Camus, Cortazar, Coetzee; Dante, Dickens, Diderot, Dostojewski, Doulatabadi, D├╝rrenmatt; . . .
Must stop.
The "Musts"? A canon? Whose canon?
Reading is joy! If you are lucky: A lifelong expedition; diving into the realm of letters. And when you are very lucky you'll have a problem when being asked which 1.000 books you wish to take with you on the notorious island.

Thanks for the adrenalin rush, mate. :)
The peace of the night.

Anonymous said...

I get what you mean with the snobbery and I really disagree with it myself. I for one think of one of the best books ever written is Wuthering Heights, I realise this falls into your psuedo category but I defy anyone to tell me it isn't a good story, I am obstinate and I LOVE it.

One of my all time favourite books is 'Coral Island' by R.M.Ballantyne, I've never seen it in any classical list but it is a very entertaining read.

I don't believe that stories are good just because they have age on their side, it's so much more that that. A good book (a good story) should transport you. Whether it's a Bronte or a Haddon. There shouldn't be set classics, it doesn't work like that. People like what they like, not what they are told to like.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, I don't think I've read many of the books you've listed. In fact, I've never even heard of the term 'canon' until today.

I read what I want, when I want. I've never read Pride and Prejudice, but I love the BBC series. Every time I watch it, I see more little things that make me laugh and quiver.

Anonymous said...

'I often feel we waste Shakespeare by forcing him too young on underappreciative schoolkids'.

Spot on C by I.

Shakespeare festivals for anyone under twenty are a complete waste of time, and also very boring spectacles.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I think I'm hardly well read at all! I've only read a few of Shakespeare's plays, and Brave New World.... (but now you've put up a reading list, I know what I'm missing... :-))

Anonymous said...

I know what I like! Jane Eyre. One of my favourite stories (and perhaps, if all goes well, I might even get to live it out... the happy bits, that is..)

Anonymous said...

Paul- Well, it IS the idea of a 'canon' I question. Because its usage tends to tell people which literature is great, rather than allowing them to discover it themselves.

I think that the canon is also used for pseudo-intellectual purposes, and some of the real greats get sidelined.

Cazzie- I'd love to say I read a lot, but I don't.
I read pehaps twenty books a year, the bulk of them non-fiction. There are a huge number of books on my shelves waiting to be read.

Peri- commas, I guess you either love or hate them.
Yes, I find lol annoying- especially in text messages, which is where I tend to see it.

I think I use the commas, in essence, because that's preety much how I talk.

Sean- I would agree, yes.
IBut the real point I think, is hoe mny great works are neglected in favour of works which I don't happen to resperct to the same level.

You mention Dante for example, who I didn't include her because I was focussing on ENGLISH writers, but yes, can be left out on a global perspective. Nor I would say, could Ariosto- I can read Orlando Furioso over and over, it is so visual.

Oestrebunny- I'm going to be honest and admit, I've not read Wuthering Heights- so I can't really judge it.
Coral Island, oddly enough, I can see from where I sit, I bought it mainly because Golding used it as a basis for Lord of the Flies, which is why I planned to read the original. It is on my 'to do' list.

Dumas has always been a favorte of mine- especially The Man in The Iron Mask and The Count of Monte Christo- the first, because it is really about Lois XIV, one of historys most fscinating figures, the second, because it really is such a powerful moral fable.

Phish- When I did my degree, the 'Canons of English Literature', was a compulsory module in four parts- the third part, the nineteenth century I found very tedious.

I actually specialised in Medieval Epic and Romance, especially Arthurian Literature.
When I do read non-fiction, its mainly the genre I call fantasy, but is often dismissed as 'Sword and sorcery'.

Scroblene- sadly, in our aim to foist Shakespeare on third years, most kids come to him through his poorest play, Midsummer Nights Dream.

I used to think he was over rated, until I got to study him properly, and then realised just how special his masterpieces are.
Merchant of Venice is SO clever a play, it is misunderstood even today, but trust me, that play must really have got audiences thinking in its day.
Othello, too.

Eve- Hmmm. So you are in love with a man with a mad woman hidden in his attic.
Read Huxley's Island- its a Utopian, rather than a dystopian novel, but I think you'd find Pala a comfortable place to live. It's not trumpeted so much, because of its pro-sex, pro-drugs message.

It's not really a reading list, though if you want me to suggest what is IN MY OPINION worth reading, I'm more than happy to.

Anonymous said...

Add to that a bitter, rude, passionately possessive man with a history of trouble but a heart that will open for you and you'll have hit the nail on the head, CBI ;-) (Oh, and a sense of humour too; many protagonists seem to lack that).
Hmm, aren't all the ones you count as 'canon' worth reading?

Anonymous said...

Who know that you were so well read? Wow! You blow me away with your knowledge.

"I often feel we waste Shakespeare by forcing him too young on underappreciative schoolkids."

I couldn't agree more.

I agree that there is literary snobbery as in everything. I have rarely found what is considered literature interesting, but Shakespeare stands alone without a doubt.

Anonymous said...

"And I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
Got my paper and I was free"

Indigo Girls, Closer to Fine

* * * * *

I've always been so moved by these lyrics, and your post made me think of them once again . . .

So many books touch me unexpectedly . . . ones considered classics and ones considered pulp . . .

A key book in my so-called "hidden canon," to the extent there are canons at all?

Stephen King's "The Stand" . . . a true classic . . . forget his popularity and his sales figures . . . this is one for the ages . . .

Anonymous said...

I have been roaring with laughter at the latest Philip Roth... pretentious awful, boring mad rubbish illness obsessed ...

Anonymous said...

Eve- It's hard for me to comment, since whilst I see the outlines of the frame, I don't really get the whole picture, but it's worth remembering that our own lives are often just as complex as those in novels, people's pasts can be just as rich, and the endings just as messy.

The greatest fictional Love stories have unhappy endings- because ultimately, it is as dangerous as it is all-consuming.

Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Troilus and Criseyde.

Of those, I like the last best- a powerful testament to the fickle nature of passion.

Alexys- I'm not that well read, really. I can read very quickly, so it enables me to read in an afternoon, what would take most people a lot longer.

My own view, is that with the advent of the modern novel in the eighteenth century, real literature suffered.
Reral literature should not be about the commonplace (in my opinion), it SHOULD expand your mind and deal with the great themes of existence.

I rate LOTR, because it marked a true return to Epic.

Oceanshaman- You see, I sometimes get quite moved by non-fiction works.
Several philosophers I have found impossible to put down- Nietzche being the obvious example, but also Tom Paine and oddly, St Thomas Aquinas.

Richard Dawkins 'Ancestors Tale', Stephen Hawkings 'Brief History of Time', Richard Brysons 'History of Everything' are all also Books I couldn't put down after purchasing.

Not read much Stephen King, he is a writer I do mean to tackle.

Mutley- Someone else told me that. Bit of a Prima Donna, is he?

Some authors do deteriorate as they age, others improve.
I guess on the one hand, you can't really write well, unless you really know life, yet once you lose your reason for writing, and it just becomes something you do, the soul goes out of it.

Anonymous said...

I read for enjoyment, escapism and to learn something new. Not exactly an idea person.

I did read many of those books on the "canon", pseudo or otherwise, many years ago and not because they were set on a course list. At university, in the Faculty of Pharmacy we studied Pharmacy only. So I came to them on my own.

I've always felt Jane Austen books were not especially great but the BBC and others have turned them into great television and film at times, with great actors and costuming etc. So they were good for something. Beside representing a slice of life of the times.

All that Dickens we read in school I only appreciated later on for he was a clever wordsmith and is wonderful when read aloud, on the radio for example.

The same with Shakespeare. I managed to survive all those plays we dissected in high school, without being totally turned off. The essays we had to write about the various characters in which we regurgitated stuff fed to us by the teachers. A mighty wordsmith indeed whom I came to appreciate later too.

I've never read Lord of the Rings and never been tempted to.

The question is what to read amongst all these books that are published every year. I tend to favour for well researched historical fiction, what there is of it but read about 100 books a year so venture into other fields, fiction and non.

So what do you think will be tomorrow's canon from this period?

Anonymous said...

Glad to be able to agree here. Many so called classics are bores and lesser sung authors are classic. Not unlike with Blogpower.

Anonymous said...

I have been enjoying the latest Halo novelisation... now what does that make me?

Anonymous said...

On this point, Crushed, I'll have to totally agree with you, in my hidden canon, you'll find "children's" books next to Tolstoy.

But respect Austen and the Bronte sisters, not for what you call drivel necessarily but for the literary doors they opened for women like Sylvia Plath, Annie Dillard, and even Rachel Carson--Women have complex thoughts? there was a time when this was marvelled upon.

Anonymous said...

jmb-I don't think we live in a great period for writing, for which I blame PC orinented prizes, and book deals. If people write to please publishers, it swamps the markets with crap that even when written well, stifles its message.

I enjoy Robert Jordan myself and hope he survives the test of time.

James- I would agree, in fact some of my favourite BPers are the underrated ones. Not sure whather I am rated as classic or bore in your analysis...

Mutley- Hey, I enjoy Conan the Barbarian, as I have said. If they did a novelisation of Lexx, I'm sure I'd buy that...

Helen- You se, I quite like the Narnia stories, though I really need to get a box set. Occasionally, I actually read my old Asterix comics, which I keep in a cupboard somewhere. I have the lot.
the satire is very clever, and like The Simpsons, some of it IS aimed at adults.

As for Woman writers, read the Lais of Marie de France..
Very liberated for the 12th C

Anonymous said...

When I was at uni I was told my views were quite conventional // reactionary etc bc I wasn't too much into thinking in a "PoMo" type of way...

one thing I was told I believed in was "the canon"... I said older literature is better than modern because a lot of the chaff has been tossed out of the good grain (so to speak) already...

I do thin there's something to be said for a group of works we know and accept are great works... that doesn't, however mean that noncanonical works are automatically crap

When I saw the headline to your piece I assumed you were talking about something slightly different: namely books bought merely for display "aren't I such an intellectual - LOOK! - I'm reading this e.g. Vickram Seth's A Suitable Boy as opposed to something truly grabbing and entertaining ... e.g. my forthcoming memoirs!!! haaha! had to get that plug in somewhere ;->...

Anonymous said...

PS I don't know WHY I assumed you were American... for some reason... I now totally apologize in contrition!!

Anonymous said...

Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Coupland, Graham Greene and George Orwell as mentioned. Surely some of these must count as classics, and must appeal to young readers more than some tedious adaptation of Shakespeare?

Anonymous said...

A friend eventually bought me a copy of Salman Rushdie's Midnight Children because I kept refusing to read it. I felt obliged to do so then - and to get to the end. It was the longest read of my life. Give me froth any day.

Anonymous said...

Gledwood- Yes, but there is some really tedious stuff in the canon. Sterne, for example. And Kingsley. Not to mention Philip Sidney...

I must admit, I display my bookcases so you see the more intellectual looking stuff first; Marx, Nietzche, Kant, etc.

The one in my bedroom has all the Fantasy stuff.

jrd- I guess so. There was quite a lot of good stuff written in the 20th C, though less in recent years I think.
I think maybe there needs to be battles of ideas raging for literature to flourish.

Liz- Ah yes, reading for obligation...
Can be a thourough pain. I have done it, and occasionally its been worth it.
Often not, though.