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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Hark! The canons are firing!

A few days ago, Will Duquette said this:

Of course, I've been touting the virtues of genre over "literary" fiction for years.


And I agree, entirely. All of the fancy literary tricks of "literary fiction", whatever that is, are late-comers to the game; what existed in the first place was story. Story speaks to something older, something wiser, about our species. Story is noble. Story puts us on the same footing as our earliest ancestors. Story has power. So give me story.

Lynn then follows up with this:

I don't know anything about modern "literary fiction"; I don't even know what people are talking about when they say "literary fiction" but it seems to me that the problem with today's artsy-fartsy academics in general, whether the subject is literature, music or visual art, is that they are trying to control history in a way that past masters never would have dreamed of. They want absolute control of what ends up in The Canon instead of just letting history follow its natural course.


And again, I agree.

Then there's this, written in a comment to this post:

What's different today is that so little of pop culture has any lasting value. It's aways been true that the bulk of pop culture was crap; today the crap to quality ratio grows higher by the minute. Can you imagine a musical (just to name one musical genre) as good as "West Side Story" or for that matter (closer to Dustbury) "Oklahoma" getting made today? Yet people, for good reason, still love those musicals. Will anyone be listening to Fifty Cent fourty years from now? Taste aside, it used to take real talent to be a musical star; talent today it's almost a hindrance. And visual art is no better-Rockwell, who in fact was a damn good illustrator, was another Picasso compared with the likes of a Thomas Kinkade.

Probably the only field where talent still equals stardom is in movie acting; in fact arguably there are fewer stars today who are as poor at their craft as, for example, Joan Crawford or Clark Gable.

I disagree with Lynn's comments about the literary canon-somebody has to decide what belongs and what doesn't. I hope it's somebody with taste and, yes, a little elitism in his heart. Otherwise Harold Robbins and Danielle Steele will be "taught" because that's what people like. Or Oprah (God bless her) will decide.


I couldn't possibly disagree more with this.

As a matter of historical perspective, the denizens of any particular epoch have never been particularly good at predicting what of their art is going to last and what's going to slide into obscurity. This is something that has always struck me: the pure capriciousness of it all. There are artists whose work is popular at the time of creation and pretty much stays popular forevermore (Dickens, Beethoven); there are artists whose work is tremendously popular at the time of creation but falls away into obscurity as time passes (Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Antonio Salieri); there are artists whose work isn't terribly well received at the time of creation but resurges later on (Bach, Mozart, Berlioz); there even are artists who are popular at the time of creation, and then fade for a bit, and then resurge again (witness the attention Raymond Chandler has received in recent years). And none of this is predictable.

The commenter above starts off with a colossal error: "What's different today is that so little of pop culture has any lasting value." The problem is easy to see: No one can possibly say this yet. The only way to judge what lasts is to wait and see what actually lasts. To say that nothing today has any lasting value is a mere statement of opinion, and nothing more.

Anyone can list specific artists that one doesn't like and say, "Will anyone be listening/reading/watching/admiring this in fifty years?" Yes, I've done it many a time myself -- it's too handy a rhetorical device. But even if it's inconceivable that readers fifty years hence will be perusing Danielle Steele, it's far less so that they might be reading King, Kay, Chabon, Oates, or...I could go on.

Too often it's tempting to romanticize the periods gone by -- especially the periods that are well within memory, which is what trips up movie buffs: there are plenty of folks around who remember going to the theater to see Casablanca and Singin' in the Rain in their first runs. But they probably don't remember going to see any of the many forgettable -- or just plain bad -- films that I used to see on AMC, back when I had cable. I'd see these movies and think, "My God, people used to see crap like this?" Yes, they did -- and some of those bad movies were hits. We tend to remember the hits and forget the misses -- but it takes time for us to forget the misses. Right now, the misses are too easily remembered. I will remember seeing Godzilla and I will be angry that it got made. But culture at large will not. That's important.

The way a canon is made isn't for some one person, or small group of persons, to sit in an enclave and declare what gets in and what does not. Canon-making is messy. Canon-making is ugly. Canon-making takes time. So who gets to make the Canon?

I do.

And so do you. And so does Lynn, and Will, and Alex Ross, and Kevin Drum, and PZ Myers, and Warren Ellis, and John Scalzi, and everyone else. A canon is made as individual readers/viewers/listeners choose the works that matter to them, advocate for those works, study them, and canonize them. Some works will be venerated by many, and some by a few; some will be venerated by many now but few later; some will be venerated by few now but many later; some will be venerated by few now and fewer still later until they're almost completely forgotten.

Nobody gets to decide what gets into the Canon and what gets left out.

Everybody does.

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