Philip Marchand, over at The Afterword, has put together some thoughts on what it is to be a canonical author. Somerset Maugham has taken some hits over the years as a writer who’s drifted out of range of the literary periscope, but it seems this may be changing. Marchand also discusses the enduring qualities of some of Hemingway’s works, as well as Joyce and the other modernists. You can read the whole article here. If you’re into excerpts, see below.
In literary life, it appears, you pays your money and you takes your choice. You can have your villa on the French Riviera and your swimming pool and your chauffeur-driven limousine, as Maugham did, or you can have the reverence of the literati. You can thrill the masses, or you can have professors write critical tomes about your work. Apparently, you can’t have both. It’s not an easy dilemma to resolve — villas and swimming pools are delightful, but posthumous fame depends on academics assigning essays to students on your use of imagery, time schemes and unreliable narrators, long after your body has grown cold. Without the approval of academe, you might as well be a Nobel Prize winner like Pearl Buck or a historical novelist like Canada’s own Thomas B. Costain. In their lifetimes these authors were bestsellers, but now their books gather dust on the shelves of used bookstores across the land.
In recent decades, that approval has seemed somewhat fickle. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto in the late 1960s, the canon of great 20th-century novellists in English seemed indisputable. You read Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster. They were the Modernists. You could read Maugham, a decidedly non-Modernist writer, if you wanted, but you were wasting your time.