Reputation and Canon

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.

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2 thoughts on “Reputation and Canon

  1. What’s most interesting, methinks, is the sheer weight of all the “forgotten” bestsellers. While we look at canonical works of every place and time to deem its nature, we could instead be looking at a completely different list, atthe boks that people of that place and time actually bought, in massive numbers. The things the masses responded to. In 100 years, will they let “Underworld” speak for us instead of “The Davinci Code” , just because the former is a better book?

  2. That’s a good point, Jake. My wife and I were having this conversation not all that long ago. In some cases, historically, we only have certain writings because they were so popular and widespread, in others we’re left wondering about a specific text that had been mentioned elsewhere as a great work, but no longer remains for us to read. The question is: will our future selves be interested in what writers read, or what people read (the latter being a much smaller subclass)?

    Regardless of the quality of his writing, Dan Brown has been extremely effective in getting his work out there and having it read by a large group of people who enjoy it. That is one marker of success that cannot be disputed. Now for our future selves who are concerned with the better constructed novel, or the best written collection of poetry with true insights into the nature of mankind, there are authors they no doubt will gravitate toward.

    A part of me wonders as well whether it’s any of our business what future generations will be reading. Of course we’d like it to be our work, appealing to some greater narcissistic element in our natures, but good writing or not, these people will be different from ourselves with different likes, dislikes, current trends in what’s popular, etc. In 100-200 years our own poetics may be on the sideline and thought an interesting, but alas, failed experiment.

    By the time the future comes around it will be “their” literature and no longer ours.

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