A friend of mine once told me he had read all of the books in Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century.
“Even Finnegans Wake?” I asked him.
“Yep. I couldn’t really get into that one though. Except once when I read it drunk ... then it strangely made sense.”
Those of us who were not English majors often turn to “best of” lists, anthologies, and awards in our quest for “great literature.” But aesthetics is a foggy business, swayed, often as not, by some faddish trope or movement. Consider that in 1929, the year Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms was published, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to Julia Peterkin for Scarlet Sister Mary, and the fallibility of literary critics becomes apparent.
Awards like the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize were created to generate excitement (and exert influence) over contemporary literature. But with thousands of horses in the running, does anyone have enough taste (or enough time) to put money on a winner? Check back in a few decades, and a lot of the dust has settled. (The 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Patrick White. Anyone read him lately?) This is where the lists and anthologies begin to come into play. Every anthology of literature tends to be just like every other, except for the last fifty years. There jockeying for position is still pretty fierce, with different academic camps and literary doyens promoting their own favored authors. The literary public, meanwhile, in mysterious and little-understood ways, continue to read certain authors while abandoning others. Thus Somerset Maugham, once thought to be literary royalty, now appears to be sailing on a course for oblivion, while Colette (see this issue's essay) still has a healthy readership and (god help us) Ayn Rand’s novels continue to fly off the press.
Then after another hundred years or so, through some hermetic process of literary distillation, the whole thing crystallizes, and you have a fairly commonly agreed upon short list of writers representing their country and time. And there it is—behold The Canon! Venerated by English teachers and their pupils everywhere.
Solid as it is, though, even The Canon may have certain malleable properties. Maybe it’s just me, but people don’t seem to be reading as much Tacitus and Xenophon as they used to... Still, one can be pretty sure that blue chip stocks like Homer and Shakespeare will be read for another thousand years or so—even if I do find Right Ho, Jeeves wittier than Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Which brings up the point that canons, helpful as they are, tend to be rigid, restrictive instruments. Outside of the classroom they are perhaps, like The Chicago Manual of Style, best avoided. Here in the adventuresome and freewheeling pages of Whistling Shade, at least, you are free to delve into a story or poem with an easy mind, not caring whether the author was listed anywhere or shortlisted for anything; you can kick back and simply enjoy the vicarious experience of reading something our editors thought you might like. And it will still (probably) make more sense than Finnegans Wake.
- Joel Van Valin