The Literary Canon and I

The literary canon and the canonical writers: What is it? and who are they? Who shapes the canon? And what are the standards these architects of the literary canon, itself a crumbling monument built on the shifting sands of time and taste, use to judge the texts they canonize? I do not profess to know any definitive answers that will satisfy those who question the validity of this monument.

All that can be said is that academics and critics as well as published authors themselves no doubt have had a say in what texts should comprise the canon, itself heavily Western, male, European, and American, although all of this has been changing and will continue to change as the literary heritage of most non-Western countries (along with that of the female sex, African Americans, homosexuals, and immigrants) will continue to be studied and brought into the fold of European and American university literature departments, inviting a fresh look at works of literature previously unread and even unheard of. This can also be said of present and future works written by any author anywhere in the world. The canon is, as all things, something inherently subject to change, decay, death, and rebirth.

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All of this is mere background to the questions that have now found their way into my mind. In the first few pages of a forthcoming work of fiction I recently copyedited called B & Me, the narrator, himself the author of the book, J. C. Hallman, states that his friend told him that you don’t have to read all the works by the canonical writers, only the works that are in the canon itself. This is an interesting take on the canon, something I’ve never really thought about until now.

As English majors, as writers, even as English professors, we seem to be unconsciously indoctrinated with an uncritical acceptance of the authors and works that have been canonized. At least this is the way I feel. I do not believe I ever questioned why the authors (and their specific works) who are in the canon are in it because I was too busy falling in love with literature, with these authors and their language, their stories, their characters, and their poetry. And I am not going to begin to question it now either. My concern here is the story of my own relationship with these canonical writers and their texts, not just those that are considered canonical, but all their published works.

The questions that have surfaced for me are “Do I have to read all the works of an author in the canon?” and “Do I have to read all the authors in the canon?” Yes, it is sad that these seemingly inane questions have begun to burden me today and that’s why I’m blogging about them, as an act of direct address rather than avoidance. I know I should be concerned with bigger, more important, and even relatively more valid questions, and I am, but questions such as these are part of who I have become thanks to my years as an English major and a Philosophy minor as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student of English literature.

I am by my own admission an intellectual, a scholar. This is a consequence of having been an English major, being a writer, and a former English professor. This is a result of my inherent hunger for knowledge and for peace, for my (perhaps misguided) belief that literature, along with studies in art, philosophy, and religion, and my own creativity as a poet and essayist, will lead me to the answers, to the truth about myself, humanity, nature, the cosmos, and God, that I relentlessly seek.

But I digress. The simple, factual answer to my questions is the same: “No, I do not.” But the reality is not so easy. For I have already read the entire works of multiple authors who are in the canon, and question whether or not it was worth it. What do I really have to show for it? How much more knowledge, if any, have I gained from having read every last word by Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Oscar Wilde? I cannot say I have an answer because I don’t.

For me, it all comes down to who I am as a human being, my idiosyncrasies. As a former English major, a former professor, and a writer I have been triply cursed along the way because there is a strange feeling of guilt that haunts me when I question the illogical need in me to read the canonical texts, as well as all the texts by the canonical authors, telling me I am a failure and have not done my duty as a former English major, a former English professor, and a writer (in order to be properly granted this title). I think it can be easily understood that I hold myself to very high standards. Further, I think it has become apparent (at least to me it has) that the work of a lover of literature and a writer, especially one that is scholarly and creative in his writing, seems to never be done.

But a question remains: Where did this guilt come from? No doubt from my own self, from my own fear of being a failure, of calling myself well-read and a writer, but not being able to say I have completed the mission I have unconsciously set for myself (in the reading of literary texts), which will never be finished, as a seeker of truth, knowledge, and peace in the discovery of the self and the world that we are all born to be.

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