Recently, a friend of mine and I were debating the necessity of literary canons. If I followed his argument correctly, what he saw as a slide in the intellectual quality of contemporary literature was related to a lack of common literary standards. To rectify this problem, and fully aware of the difficulties that go along with one, he suggested that we might need to reestablish the literary canon, which for some very good reasons has been abandoned, at least ostensibly, by many literary scholars. I agreed with him to a degree. But I think the importance of a literary canon is that it is as much something to dissent from and rebel against as it is to agree upon. The books that make up a literary canon are essential more for the discussions they provoke about literary standards—which books are great, which ones aren’t, and why—than for actually establishing those standards.
The problem today, at least in academic circles where you would think these kinds of issues would really matter, is the willful avoidance by literary scholars, as a profession, of proposing a canon that might be construed as the canon, but avoidance is hardly a solution to the problem. There are legitimate reasons for being suspicious of a literary canon. Historically, in European and U.S. literature at least, and under the guise of purely aesthetic reasons, canons have excluded female, queer, working class, and non-white writers from the pantheon of “literature.” Granted, a few “minority” writers were allowed into the canon, but their inclusion reminds me of Theodor Adorno’s pithy statement: “In the end, glorification of splendid underdogs is nothing other than glorification of the splendid system that makes them so.” In other words, defenders of the canon could claim, by the inclusion of these few “outside” writers that it was gender, class, and color blind. All one had to do was be good enough to be in the canon, and one would be included, regardless. Yet it was the supposedly neutral criteria of the canon that excluded these writers in the first place. They are “splendid underdogs” because it’s what the canon made them.
There’s no way around it: canons by their very nature are exclusive. But there is no reason that their aesthetic criteria need automatically exclude all who are not straight white males nor that the criteria shouldn’t be understood as provisional, open to debate and revision. Currently, however, there is only a “kind of” canon in place, the shadow of the juggernaut from my youth that dominated what and how people talked about literature until the tide of critical theory—steeped mostly in feminism, Marxism, and post-structuralism—surged onto the shores of the U. S. from Europe, the street action of the Sixties’ counterculture, as Herbert Blau noted, sublimated into intellectual discourse, and eroded the foundation of the literary canon so that it apparently collapsed of its own rot.
Unfortunately, that shadow canon is so elusive that its contours change depending on what people want them to be, whether in favor of or opposed to them; the shadow exists only in the periphery where it is glimpsed but never really seen. These amorphous standards—here they are! no, they’re over here! who cares?—lead to debates that can quickly devolve into something less productive, as was the case when Helen Vendler and Rita Dove publicly battled over Dove’s selections for The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Both seemed to be making assumptions about literature, rendering those assumptions invisible as they took them up, creating an atmosphere conducive to the reification of standards that was part of the problem with canons in the first place, a process that, ironically, a canon might retard by turning assumptions into contentions.
I propose that literary scholars and practitioners look to the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound Poll, which, every ten years, surveys over 1,000 critics and directors—people who really care about movies, as Roger Ebert once put it—to pick what they feel are the 100 best films ever made. It’s not a perfect list—none of these lists ever will be, which is the point—but it stirs lots of discussion and gives those thinking about film, in whatever capacity, a cinematic “north” by which to determine where they are in the world of film. It’s not that there aren’t lists vaguely similar to this for literature: the Modern Library 100 Best Novels list comes immediately to mind, but it was determined by the Modern Library editorial board, consisting of ten people and so when it was unveiled, it was easily dismissed by the majority of people who really care about literature as perhaps it should have been.
Still, if the Modern Language Association, whose members teach literature and writing in college—and who, like it or not, write much of our literature and extended criticism about it—did their own poll, it would have some consequence, and then the real conversations about literary standards could take place. Not arguments about straw men, but discussions about the standards that literature professionals, as a field, deem important. We could then have a firmer ground from which to found conversations about why we think works should be (or have been) included in the canon as well as what it means to stray from the canon so radically that without context it seems nonsensical, as when my friend told me about how ridiculous he thought it was when Ron Silliman declared “a poem that was basically a double M the best poem of the year.” Right now, such declarations have nothing to moor them; they just twist aimlessly in the wind. A canon would at least give them and everything we’re writing and saying, canonical or not, the sense of direction that seems to be missing in the literary world right now. With that, you scholars and creative writers, let loose your canons!