Nostradamus Goes to the Bookshop

My roommate has a subscription to New York Magazine. In last week's issue (June 4, 2007), following an article entitled "The Best Novels You've Never Read" and preceding one about talent emerging where no one is looking for it, is a one-pager called "The Future Canon." Obviously this piqued my interest a bit. The author, or reporter, or writer, or interviewer, or compiler, or whatever one is when one puts one of these things together apparently went about asking folks which contemporary novels and novelists would be taught in fifty years' time.

Let's pick this apart.

Horace, in the first century BC, writing about the veneration of the past, mockingly posited that one hundred years was the appropriate period a text should have to survive in order to pass the test of time. Pope, in the eighteenth century AD, followed suit. Johnson was aware of the standard, and likewise aware that Pope, like Horace, had scoffed at it. But quantification was all the rage in the later eighteenth, thanks very much Mr. Science, and as Trevor Ross notes in The Making of the English Literary Canon, that gave the number some measure of rhetorical if not practical force (274). Which is not to say Johnson gave it any credit.

I bring this up for no other reason than I found it interesting that fifty is the new hundred, at least according to this article. I quite wonder whether there would have been different answers for different periods. If Atonement, by Ian McEwan (fantastic book, by the way, and certainly very worth teaching), will still be taught in 2057, as Morris Dickstein of the Graduate Center asserts, will it have dropped out of favor by 2107? If the interviewer had said two hundred years instead of fifty, would James Shapiro at Columbia have given a name other than J. M. Coetzee's? (I've read Disgrace, but am otherwise unfamiliar.) My gut instinct tells me that these profs would have returned these titles and names regardless of time-frame. I suppose I can see the virtue in a half-century mark, though, as it doesn't seem unfathomably distant--rather like predicting the weather in a week as opposed to a month. There's timely and there's timeless, and the two can but don't have to overlap. It's easier to imagine what will be worth teaching to our grandchildren rather than our great-great-grandchildren, who rather than going to school and being taught literature will likely attend off-world mandatory education centers for maintained intellectual calibration in the name of the Supreme Galactic Imperator (a wholly owned subsidiary of Pharmapepsipetrolon Insurance Co.). But I seem to have digressed.

Fine, fine, let's call it fifty, then, and move on.

I have no way of knowing -- short of asking, which seems unlikely -- how many responses Lori Fradkin of New York Magazine received, and obviously the point of the article was to provide an array of texts rather than a scientifically conducted inquiry into academically-driven canon-formation, but if one did assume that she asked twelve people from twelve universities for exactly one response each, then THAT would be neat, because there's absolutely no consensus. I'd find the whole thing more convincing if five out of twelve had put their bets on the same book. Then fifty years from now we could look back and see who got it right, and if they got it right because they said they would. Let's start running the numbers on the self-fulfilling prophecy of canonicity! But as I said, that might have been the unheeded spirit of the article rather than its practical point, which is self-evidently to introduce a broader number of books to potential readers.

Another interesting thing at work here is the way the question is phrased. Ask what "canonical" means to an author in 1715 and you're approaching the problem from a very different angle than that taken by the article. Religious components aside, the "canon" for much of the eighteenth (to the extent the term was used at all, which is an open question) meant texts read, not texts taught. The first professorship in English Literature didn't come until 1828, though of course texts were "taught" before that. But Fradkin polled university-level profs, so that's what I'm sticking with. I wouldn't disagree that the "canon" now belongs more to academic than popular discourse, but you're asking a very different question when you ponder what will be taught in fifty years rather than what will be read. The argument here is, I guess, about what wouldn't be read without the advantage of being taught. Does Harry Potter need the academy's help to go the distance? What does it say about Andre Aciman (Diana Fuss of Princeton's choice) that he does? The teaching canon is about what those granted the authority to do so determine should be passed on and protected from Oblivion -- whether Oblivion wants it or not. And of course what Oblivion wants changes.

The important thing here is whether or not what of contemporary literature will be read and what will be taught in fifty years amount to the same thing. In fifty, maybe not; in one hundred, maybe. I don't quite know the period of independent discovery. What have I read from the 1940s and 50s that I didn't come by as the result of education? Going back another fifty or so, would I ever have "found" Conrad, Ford, or Joyce? Without the academy, would they have been there to be found?

Here, in case you are wondering, are some of the reasons presented supporting the selections:
  • According to Prof. Dickstein, "books largely survive because of the quality of their writing, and [Ian McEwan] writes beautifully." Now certainly I'd like to believe this is why books survive, and it has that lovely warm essentialist aesthetic feeling about it, but it seems to be an answer about reading rather than teaching. If beauty is all, or even most, of what it takes, then a beautifully written book wouldn't need people like me to shove it down anyone's throat by way of syllabus. And beauty remains problematically in the eye of the etc.
  • Diana Fuss offers (as with all the others, undoubtedly in oversimplifying extract courtesy of editorial mandate and/or spatial constraint) that Aciman's place in the future is guaranteed by his adeptness at capturing the nuances of human emotion. There's something pleasantly essentialist about this too--not that I think the nuances of human emotion are likely to change in fifty years (I very quietly don't think they've changed all that much in the last five thousand) , but Pope felt that enough had changed in manners if not in secret souls that Homer had to be substantially fiddled with to make him time-and-nation-appropriate. That's a much longer period than fifty years, but hey, in this age of half-hour news cycles and interwebbification, who knows.
  • Stephanie Li, of the University of Rochester, went the Wordsworthian route. She chose Colson Whitehead's Apex Hides the Hurt, which I've never heard of and which in any case was "not reviewed very well." It will be taught in fifty years, she thinks, because it will take that long for the academy to find it again. If not ahead of its time, the novel is certainly not in its time, so it'll simply have to wait. Wordsworth wrote as much about his own poetry at the close of the eighteenth. Except, of course, rather than having a misplaced sense of humor like Whitehead, Wordsworth had none at all.
  • Andre Aciman, the adept nuance-capturer, chose Austerlitz. Aciman's reasoning is perhaps the most relevant to my line of inquiry. The survival of this novel, he claims, is attached to a generic shift yet to be undergone by Holocaust memoirs. Fifty years will make historical documents out of the memoirs and alter their place in the generic hierarchy. "The high literature," Aciman writes, "will migrate to books like Austerlitz." I would have thought Austerlitz would migrate to high literature out of whatever category it currently occupies, but what we have here is a potential flaw in my perspective. Is it the texts that define the category, or the category that defines the texts? Austerlitz will have been around for fifty years--so in that respect it will have been around longer than however high literature is synchronically constituted. High literature would therefore of necessity have to come to Austerlitz. But of course, Austerlitz will have been around for fifty years outside a diachronic category of high literature. So of necessity it would have to enter that category.
  • The best answer, or at least the most honest, is given by NYU's own Dean Catharine Stimpson, who after naming Jhumpa Lahiri and offering some notes in praise thereof, concludes thus: "if anybody thinks they know how canons are going to be formed, they are guilty of hubris bordering on stupidity."
I rather think she would not have approved my dissertation proposal.

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