Contemporary Canon?

A question occasioned by the fact that only two people out of the dozen or so in my ACLA seminar today had read Disgrace: Can you think of any single work of fiction written in the last decade that one could reasonably expect nearly everyone in a room full of literature professors to have read? I would have said Disgrace, and I’d have been wrong.

7 thoughts on “Contemporary Canon?

  1. Well, is it possible that canons just take a long time to solidify? It would be interesting to see what academic lit types thought about now thoroughly canonized 20th century novels a decade after their publication.

    • Yeah, canons certainly do take a while to be worked out, and they generally get a lot firmer over time. That’s one of the reasons why every modernist has read Ulysses, but only a handful of contemporists (to coin a term) have read Disgrace. And canons certainly evolve over time; it was once the case that Walter Scott was absolutely canonical. Now, not so much.

      But I do think that new books get started on their way to a kind of canonicity pretty quickly. Witness the fact that the same four or five books are reviewed in every issue of the LRB, NYRB, New Yorker, TLS, and NYT Book Review, and that there’s probably 70%+ overlap in their year-end best-of lists. That doesn’t mean those are the books that we’ll still be reading decades from now, but it suggests to me that we’re pretty quick to settle on what’s important even as it’s first appearing.

      What surprised me about the low proportion of readership of Disgrace at my panel was that the book seems about as canonical as one can get in the absence of decades or centuries of settled opinion. It’s been out for ten years now; it caused the Booker committee to violate for the first time their informal rule that there should be no repeat winners; it’s been the subject of dozens or hundreds of academic treatments; it was a huge commercial success and was deeply controversial in South Africa. And it’s short – the kind of thing that you can pick up and read in a sitting if you really want to. I didn’t expect everyone to have read it, but it surprised me that so few had. And if only maybe 25% of the people working in the field have read the most canonical piece of contemporary fiction, it’s going to be hard to have informed generalist conversations about contemporary fiction as a whole, at least so long as you think that shared close readings are the basis for those kinds of discussions (and for the most part, we do).

      This problem is one of the stronger arguments for computational and statistical work I’m doing now. If we don’t read much in common, maybe we should consider the benefit of methods that aren’t predicated on shared close reading.

  2. Hi, just catching up on your blog and I couldn’t resist jumping in here.

    I agree with both of the previous comments–it takes a while for a canon to form. Actually, I think we’re talking about two different canons here: the academic, established canon of books in a particular field, and the more popular, commercial canon supported by highbrow book review platforms like TLS or The New Yorker.

    I think scholars of the contemporary often find themselves in a double bind when trying to suss out great new books. On the one hand, the only available indicators of contemporary greatness are non-academic (even if a certain number of professors also write those book reviews for TLS etc). On the other, they are asked as literary scholars to put together canonical lists, to craft syllabi and identify (and invest themselves in) works that will stand the test of time (i.e. that are emphatically not defined by their initial commercial fate).

    That pushes the choice back on questions of aesthetics, and I think contemporary fiction as a whole is a more fragmentary and complicated place than it was, say, fifty years ago. Perhaps this is why the most recent book that I would be confident most of the ‘contemporists’ have read is Beloved. Today it’s almost as if the field is split between postmodern fiction, “craft” fiction based on the workshop ethos, and (broadly construed here) fictions of alterity, from Junot Díaz to Morrison. Of course there are many overlaps, but still most scholars and grad students I can think of end up working in one of these categories or a even a sub-category when they say they’re working on contemporary lit.

    To top it off, I’m confident that some people haven’t read Disgrace because their job description is American fiction, and Coetzee is “foreign” to that structuring of the field. No wonder academics find it tricky to pick contemporary masterpieces when the literary marketplace is more vibrantly international than ever, but their expertise is “20th Century American Fiction”!

    • Hi Ed,

      Thanks for the comment – all very true. A couple of quick associated points:

      1. I think academic contemporists generally sidestep the problem of true contemporaneity by understanding their object as post-WWII literature and culture. There are occasional publications and classes on very recent fiction, but it’s perfectly respectable (and even expected) in the field not to have anything to say about work published in the most recent decade or so. That’s OK, I guess, and I understand why it happens (lead times for publication are a problem, plus who knows that the heck is going on with recent fiction?), but it also makes an account of emerging periodizations hard to give, and hence discourages what could be a major intellectual contribution.

      2. I suspect you’re right about Beloved, of course, but it’s a generation old at this point. You weren’t suggesting this, but is that really the closest we can come to a widely read contemporary novel?

      3. My only nit to pick with your post: I’m not a fan of the term “masterpiece”; the question is which books should benefit from our (necessarily) radically limited attention. These needn’t be “great” in anything like the traditional great-books sense (which I think “masterpiece” implies), just “important for us, now, doing what we do, to deal with in some way.” In other words, I don’t think canons are made up of masterpieces, though I admit that we might say otherwise simply by defining them as equivalent (which would at least give us a better understanding of “masterpiece,” provided we got “canon” right).

      • Hi Matthew,

        You’ve touched on a couple of things I’ve been wrestling with in my dissertation project…so here I go again.

        I agree that there are some pitfalls associated with the “extreme contemporary,” and publication lead time is one of the most daunting for scholars. But I actually believe this is one of the major challenges facing the humanities in an era when its relevance is questioned. These barriers to scholarly work on contemporary literature cause a number of problems: they serve to expand the gap between Literature and what people read for fun; they strengthen the wall between scholarly critics and contemporary writers (often working in the same buildings!); they create a distance that lends itself to abstraction and caution in the work that is done.

        Now abstraction and caution are not inherently bad, but they often manifest themselves in critical work that alienates rather than welcomes the interested generalist. And isn’t the whole point of the humanities to make us more interested generalists?

        As to masterpieces–when we talk about canons, the farther back we go the easier it is to elide the two terms, right? I think you’re right that it’s risky to call anything written in the past ten years a masterpiece, and that risk is wholly related to the canon. I think of the masterpiece as deeply embedded in that “great-books” logic you alluded to. Masterpieces are triumphs of form, of genre, of some definition of beauty; they are exemplars of literary structures (and canons) that are ultimately critical constructs (often constructed from the centerpiece/masterpiece outward).

        But I used the word because I often find myself troubled by the idea of only applying the standard of “importance” to contemporary novels. This smacks of the logic of critical reading, where the opacity and prolixity of a theorist’s work is immediately forgiven because of its “importance.” Shouldn’t we hold (at least) the primary texts to a higher standard? Or is the idea of aesthetic pleasure too remote, or individual, or contested, to serve? Can we study contemporary lit and still have fun? Here’s hoping.

  3. Hi Ed,

    Hmm … I agree with much of what you say in this post and the last one, but I suspect that you and I have slightly different conceptions of the critical project.

    I dislike the term masterpiece not because it’s hard to pick out contemporary masterpieces (thereby limiting the usefulness of the term for contemporists), but because the concept of masterpiece is an inescapably aestheticizing one. And I don’t think we’re in the business of aesthetic evaluation. Some people clearly are in that business, even within the academy, but it’s not what we should be doing as academic critics, any more than biologists should see their task as separating the pretty animals from the ugly ones. We try to understand how literature works, how it’s connected to the cultural situation from which it emerges, and how those things change over time. Aesthetic evaluation might be an incidental part of that work, but it’s not an end in itself; aesthetics are what we do when we lack compelling theorization, or on the way to it. (The story is different for creative writers and book reviewers, of course; they do valuable work, but it’s not ours).

    Is aesthetic pleasure to be encouraged, either in fiction or in criticism? Maybe, sometimes; I prefer to read pleasant things and clear-ish prose, but I’m also aware that pleasure and ease aren’t natural or neutral categories. I’m not arguing in favor of obscurantism, but I am saying that importance is the broader and more valuable (to me, for my ends) consideration, and I’m arguing (prescriptively) that this should be true for the field as a whole.

    A related point: I don’t think our goal is to cultivate or to appeal to interested generalists, again any more than that of physicists or economists should be to appeal to laypeople. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional crossover, and of course the field as a whole has to justify its existence to the wider community, but I don’t devalue physics because I can’t read Physical Review Letters. In fact I’m glad I can’t read PRL; if I could, I’d suspect they weren’t doing their job. There’s an important role for popularization, but it’s far more a journalistic and political project than a professional research one.

    Incidentally and separately, I don’t agree that contemporary fiction is more fragmented today than it was fifty years ago. The fifties were an especially unsettled time in the world of English-language literature, what with high modernism pretty definitively dead and pomo nowhere near established. But more to the point, we perceive past periods as (more) stable and (relatively) unitary precisely because we understand them in theoretically and historically articulated retrospect. In other words, we have a nice narrative in place to explain to ourselves the development of fiction and culture over past decades and centuries. But the head end of that narrative is always and necessarily messy (though sometimes more than others). I agree that it’s messier now than it was, say, twenty years ago, since I think we happen to be going through a moment of relative upheaval, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the necessary course of modernity/contemporaneity. (Which, true, you didn’t say; forgive my tangential rant.)

    Anyway, I don’t mean for any of this to be aggressively critical—I’m really enjoying the exchange, and I suspect we agree on far more of this stuff than we disagree. But it doesn’t surprise me that you’re working on a project at the intersection of popular and “serious” literature, nor that you’re more interested in the creative side of things than I am. I’m certainly interested in seeing how your project develops.

  4. Hi Matt,

    I’ve been thinking about your post for a while (and also been distracted by research and by life). I concur that we’re mostly in agreement, and I also find our points of dissent quite interesting to parse out. Apologies for another long-winded response here.

    I’d like to start with your statement that you don’t feel that we’re in the business of aesthetic evaluation, and that scientists aren’t separating the pretty animals from the ugly ones. I think at the most basic level this is a question about the philosophy of knowledge (and I am not a particularly well-read or adept philosopher, so I am doomed from the outset on this, but here goes). To me, aesthetics ultimately underpins the concept of knowledge via the construct of truth. In this (extremely broad) sense, we identify beauty with consistency, symmetry, rational causality—all of the assumptions about the universe which underlie the scientific method. We can see aesthetics peeping out behind the theorization of science in the ideals of elegance, efficiency, utility and unification.

    Now of course this is quite different from the way we were discussing aesthetics before, but I think there’s a lacuna here too often ignored in the humanities, particularly when we relate our work to that of science. As Thomas Kuhn argued, the scientific project is constantly challenged by incommensurability—the challenge of weighing theories, observations and even semantics without a common measurement or metric between them. In my experience a lot of literary criticism fails to cope with incommensurability in any sensible way. And that’s fine when a personal, discursive argument is made; there is a particular artistry to criticism as prose poem. Some works of criticism in that vein can completely change one’s perspective on the object of study, and that’s an impressive critical achievement.

    However, when literary criticism adopts the mantle of scientific inquiry, the vocabulary of technical progress, and the implicit claim of cumulative knowledge, the problem of incommensurability becomes more important. The biggest pitfall is evidentiary: how can we evaluate disparate personal experiences with a text? Most literary evidence is presented in the form of textual examples which are linked to other texts, other textual examples. But if fifty critics can read Ulysses and come up with fifty theories, each grounded in the analysis of its own examples, what does the scientific method have to do with sorting out who is “right” and who is “wrong?” Must we instead concede that all literary theories of a text are equally valid? I don’t think so, and I think you would agree. It comes down to what we mean by truth, and from there back to aesthetics. I think a lot of literary theory is ultimately an exercise in aesthetics, in constructing a beautiful intellectual system. But the beauty of literary criticism is usually not commensurable with other literary criticism, much less other fields. The beautiful intellectual systems of science are, usually, commensurable with one another (and the ugly “under construction” areas are zones of ongoing conflict).

    I think we’re both aware of the pitfalls of incommensurability in our work, and our efforts to bring in things like linguistics and material history are ways to bridge the gap. Of course, at some point I (and presumably you) will also make some literary argument about the texts and authors we’re dealing with. That argument might extend from scientific data, but it will inevitably also involve some kind of personal perception of reading, and the more we do of that the farther we will move from scientific falsifiability. If studies on reading and the brain continue to bear fruit, perhaps we will be able to talk about reading literature in commensurable terms. But not yet.

    This is a long way of getting into my thoughts on specialized academic language. From the basis outlined above, I think it worthwhile to consider my work in terms of aesthetic value (though as mentioned I am also striving for a little science). And scholarly work that is too arcane and blinkered to appeal to more than a handful of people is, I think, of less value than clear and approachable criticism. Physicists writing for Phyisical Review Letters could explain, if called upon, how their research affects our understanding of the world at large and could generally make compelling cases for why their work matters for all of us. Their specialized, “ugly” publications are quite useful (and thereby achieve utilitarian beauty); their work has potentially broad benefits beyond their immediate readership if they discover a new particle, prove string theory, etc. The causal chain is much more slippery with books. It’s hard to argue that my work on Pynchon will change the fundamental laws of literature because there are no such laws; there are schools of thought and perception. Since it is exponentially harder for a minute discovery in my academic field to percolate throughout the humanities than it is for a new observation to work its way through the natural sciences (at least I think this is so), I have to do that percolating myself, without the aid of general commensurability. I might as well educate and enhance the perceptive faculties of as many people as possible. I am not going to start writing children’s books or spam email about my work, but I feel obligated to present it as clearly and compellingly as I can, to the largest number of people who might derive some benefit from learning about it.

    Getting back to your response, the ideal of “importance,” I think, tends to put too much emphasis on incorporating authors and texts into the constructs of specialization instead of focusing on what makes them compelling in the first place (myriad variations on elegance, utility, efficiency and unification in literary context). Sometimes it seems like “important” texts are the slowest prey in the literary herd, providing the easiest means to exemplify our theories, while the most articulate, complex works of art keep slipping through our fingers. But I suspect that what you mean by importance is more or less what I mean by aesthetics anyway.

    You may well be right about the 1950s, particularly when considering literature in English in a global context. It was something of a casual example, though I do think the doors of publishing are now open to a much more diverse group of potential authors than they were then. In any case, I think we both agree that this is a particularly chaotic period in literary history. I see the comparison between this era and the invention of the printing press as a fair one in terms of the changes new technologies will wreak upon reading and writing.

    Well, I’ve certainly gone on here. I’m really enjoying thinking through some of these thoughts and convictions and sharing perspectives. I’m not against professionalism or specialization in literary studies, but I think there’s a lot of value in clarity and accessibility. What do you think?

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