Monday, May 05, 2008

Question mah authoritah!

Isn't it maddening when people think their pastors or other theologians are more qualified than actual biologists to pronounce on questions of biology? Or dismiss the opinions of geologists on the age of the Earth? On the other hand, we atheists tell everyone to question authority, and aren't they doing just that? After all, who do these scientists think they are? They have some nerve thinking their fancy-pantsy "Ph.D."s and research papers make their opinions better than your pastor's!

The answer is, of course, that you can question scientific conclusions -- science invites you to do so. Scientific works typically explain (perhaps in general terms) how the evidence works and what kind of experiments were done as well as what conclusions were drawn. The reader is naturally encouraged to think about whether the evidence is convincing for any given point, and to come up with other possible experiments and research directions that could potentially refine or challenge current ideas. But that's not the same thing as choosing whichever "authority" is saying what you want to hear and "questioning" all the others. You're using your own brain when you asses which authority is most likely to have the correct answer to a given question.

But what if we're talking about an authority with a Ph.D. in Art or Literature? Or a work that has stood the test of time? To what degree does it make sense for a lay person to question?

I think part of the confusion for Americans lies in a tendency to see value in terms of popularity, and especially in dollars. The grand classics aren't taken for granted as grand. They have to prove themselves over and over. People scoff at the hallowed halls of academia, thinking "Silly eggheads -- if you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" I've joked that an American is someone who goes to an art museum, heads straight for the abstract expressionism, finds the weirdest-looking painting and says "Ha! My dog can paint better than that!" Then goes home and settles into the layzee-boy with a contented sigh to watch some American Idol.

I know that sounds horribly negative, but the truth is that I'm including myself in this portrait. Just take a look at my post on art museums and The Da Vinci Code. Of course, in my case, I'm more likely to go home and relax with a copy of The New Yorker than American Idol or other television (which makes the above story that much more ironic, or perhaps just more pathetic). Still, while I don't think that a given work which is popular (or made money) is necessarily better than a given obscure work (it's a good indicator, but it's not 100%), I also don't think that the top few thousand most influential works that make up the canon of western literature are the best few thousand works produced by western culture over the same time period.

I hesitate to admit to this opinion because I'm coming dangerously close to wearing ignorance as a badge of honor, and we all know where that leads (exhibit A: Mr. President). So allow me to explain my reasoning a bit:

First of all, there's the fickle hand of fate. How many poems over the centuries have been composed by people who didn't have the paper to write them down, hence were forgotten after a few generations? How many notebooks of manuscripts have been thrown away without ever getting near a publisher? How many have had small print runs but never fell into influential enough hands to find a wide audience? How many works have been written and published in obscure dialects so that very few people could grasp the beauty of the text? I would be willing to bet that among these lost works there were many that the human race is far poorer for having never known. But, in the immortal words of Virginia Woolf: "accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them." The world won't find and diffuse every work that could potentially broaden the human spirit. It can't; it's not possible.

(Now I know you're going "Chanson, didn't you say you didn't like Virginia Woolf? Isn't that the whole point of this essay -- making excuses for that earlier fiasco?" Au contraire, I like her ideas. Of course I totally cribbed that quote from another student's essay.)

Similarly, since people can only read so many books in a lifetime, the right recommendation at the right time can start the snowball rolling which will grant immortality and superstar status to a work that's not necessarily that much better than its fellows. The more people read it, the more people talk about it, the more people read it, the more people talk about it, ad infinitum. And once a work attains a certain stature, it becomes hard to criticize it because if you say "Guys, this one really isn't that great because of X-Y-Z," you'll be branded as "the dummy who just doesn't get it." And to get this ball rolling, a work can be lucky enough to be created in the right place at the right time. For example, I have a sneaking suspicion that some works in the canon of American Literature have gotten a bit of a leg up in this game, riding on a highly influential culture that wants to have a proud literary tradition to hold up. Sure, a work chosen at random from the literary canon has a lot higher probability of being great than a randomly chosen obscure work. But no work should be a sacred cow that you have no business analyzing with your own brain.

And that brings me to my second point: the human factor. One can argue that a scientific or mathematical principle would be true whether humans discover it or not. But with literature, half of the equation is the reader's reaction. Literary quality -- the effectiveness of a work -- is highly subjective. Even simple questions like "What are the strengths and weaknesses of this piece? Is it great? Or okay? Or crap?" don't necessarily have a canonical right answer.

And this leads us to the deadliest question of all: When a classic work doesn't work for you, is it the work? Or just you? How to decide???

25 comments:

mxracer652 said...

I always just assume it's me. While I can appreciate the work as "yeah, I can understand why people like it", I typically cannot get why it is considered so great.

I absolutely do not consider art-lit critics/professionals as authorities on anything, because art-lit is so subjective. Same thing with food/drink.

Maybe it's the engineer in me?

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MXRacer652!!!

Personally, I wouldn't be too dismissive of art/lit critics and professionals (like professors) because they've spent a whole lot more time analyzing a given work and generally know more about the context -- which is quite relevant for understanding and appreciating the work. So I absolutely wouldn't say to such a professional "any random person is as qualified as you are to pronounce on this work" (especially with works from a different culture and time period). At the same time -- looking at this from a math/sci/engineering perspective (like you) I'd say that there's clearly more subjectivity coming into play.

erlybird said...

Well...I don't have a Ph.D....but I do have a MAHSTUH'S in AHHT HISTUHRY...so I am am expert, I guess. I, for one wish the Leaning tower of Pisa would fall over already...it would be far more interesting and maybe THEN people who travel all the way there to get a picture of themselves "holding" the damn thing up would actually go LOOK at the funerary in back of the cathedral which is the coolest thing there anyway.

As far as literature goes...it's like food, you know? Some people will wait for the next DaVinci Code before they read ANYTHING as if those "books" that are actually written by "authors" are a bit too too...if you know what I mean. It's like when choosing somewhere to eat...some people think, "Hmmmm...Applebees or The Cheesecake Factory?" and they don't even CONSIDER going to a REAL restaurant as if to even try it would be a bit too too if you know what I mean.

I may have had fun reading The Da Vinci code...I don't know...I wouldn't go near it simply because the list of books I know to be actually WORTH my time is so long that to put The DaVinci Code at the front of the line is akin to sacrilege. Like the Fly in A Bug's Life says..."I only have [x amount of time] to live and I ain't gonna waste it here!" And I won't apologize for the attitude either. People talk about "escaping" with a book...well how about a GOOD book then?

Nah...too hard...they would rather just order the Bloomin' Onion and the Potatoe Skins and and have a few laughs.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey ErlyBrd!!!

We have a math professor visiting us, and we were all chatting last night about literature (the discussion was spawned by talking about the selections from Nonbelieving Literati). By crazy coincidence he brought up The DaVinci Code and asked my opinion of it. As I said in my discussion of it (linked above), I don't think it should be dismissed as though anyone could write something like that. I read it partially out of curiosity as to what the fuss is about, and partially for my own sneaky reason that maybe I'll admit to later.

Overall: I think The DaVinci Code is far from being great literature and doesn't have a lot to say about the human condition (except on a meta-level).

However, the main assumption I'm trying to question with this post is that there are the two poles ("popular" = "dumb people like it" vs. "classic/canonical" = "smart people like it"). Because, really, a lot of works recognized as Great today were very popular and accessible in their day. So there may well be works that are very popular and accessible today which really do have some substance to them and will stand the test of time (if our species doesn't go extinct in the near future...). And one advantage of a work that's accessible today is that you don't need to take a history class to understand the cultural context to appreciate the work. So while I don't want to dismiss the experts, I also don't want to dismiss as dummies those people who prefer modern, accessible works.

The Exterminator said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Exterminator said...

I think one should always read/view/listen critically. To everything. A so-called classic -- one that has stood the legendary "test of time" -- is definitely entitled to being judged by only the highest standards.

Still, a few points:
(1) Personal taste is not a criterion. Example: In the field of classical music, I can't stomach Brahms. So I'll always avoid going to a concert in which a long Brahms piece is featured. I do, however, understand why Brahms is considered to be in the pantheon of composers. And, if it came to it, I could probably make a reasonable argument why he should stay there. But I, personally, don't enjoy his music. Second example: I find Hemingway unreadable, pretentiously simple. Do I still admit that he's a great writer? Yup. Do I admire how well he does what he does? Yup. But I won't read his works because I don't like them; they don't "speak" to me. But they are classics, so screw my taste.

On the other hand, in my lifetime, I've probably read about 50 Perry Mason novels by Erle Stanley Gardner. I loved them as a kid and I still love them now. Are they classics? No way. As literature, they suck. Even as well-written mysteries, they're somewhere near the bottom of the list. Just because I like them doesn't make them "classics." I enjoy a Sausage McMuffin every now and then, but it ain't gourmet cooking.

Cultured people learn how to distinguish between their own tastes and that elusive quality of classic-ness.

(2) The idea of "classic" changes over time, but it has been accelerated by nonsense in the media and overkill in the culture. In children's lit, for example: Grimm's fairy tales are classics. Maybe Dr. Seuss's works are classics. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series? Not yet. Let's wait another twenty-five or fifty years.

(3) For a work to be dubbed a classic, it must meet a number of criteria beyond Oprah's say-so. The most basic of these criteria are: recognition by the public, eventual acceptance by those who "understand" the art form, and a place in history.

The Sinister Porpoise said...

The New Yorker? Give me Scientific American, American Heritage, or even Discover any day.

Rebecca said...

A while ago I read something by Orson Scott Card that I think applies here. He writes that the books being read by the general populace - the "popular" books - are a better gauge of good writing than books that are critically acclaimed. The popular books have good stories and characters, which engage the average reader, whereas a lot of critically praised but less popular books are all style and no subtance.

A couple of excerpts:

"That's why we don't buy those literary novels. The critics think this means the masses are "illiterate," but the opposite is true: The popular audience is literate, and insists that it will only read books by writers who are also literate."

"Oh, well. However long it takes, eventually even "in-group" critics like Myers come to realize just how bad our "best" writing is. That's still a long way from noticing how good the best of our "bad" writing can be -- it will take another generation for that to happen."

If you want to read it, scroll all the way to the bottom since it's the last item on the page. Read from the last star down. The web address is: http://hatrack.com/osc/reviews/everything/2007-11-11.shtml

However, I also know that the more I learn about a subject - pretty much any subject - the more I know how little I know, and knew. I was always baffled by the criteria used to judge art until I took a class that had a little about art analysis. I still don't get a lot of art, but I have a much better idea of how it's judged and, more importantly, WHY it's judged that way. I think the experts do know a lot more about it, and their opinions are completely valid and should be valued. I also think that people shouldn't worry so much about agreeing or disagreeing with the "experts." I'm not going to think you're an idiot if you love Thomas Kincaid. You like it - that's fine. If it makes you happy, hang it in your house, experts be damned - you didn't buy it so people would think you were cool. Hopefully.

I love what Exterminator says about knowing the difference between "good" and personal taste - that's something I'm always trying to explain when people don't understand why I think a movie is good but don't really enjoy it. I majored in theatre, but a night of Shakespeare is NOT my idea of fun, and I love the movie Bring It On. I also like Beckett and O'Neill. Before college I didn't really like straight plays, but I loved just about any musical. Now I have a great appreciation for plays, and I have really stringent criteria for musicals.

You like what you like, and you shouldn't have to apologize or make excuses for that. However, the more you know...(cue NBC tones)

MoJo said...

mxracer652 said:

I always just assume it's me.

Same here, sort of because of what the exterminator said, which is personal taste != good/bad.

Mozart's my personal bugaboo :cheeky grin: because I'm more a baroque kinda gal. (Insert obligatory baroque joke here.)

Rebecca said:

I majored in theatre, but a night of Shakespeare is NOT my idea of fun, and I love the movie Bring It On.

I majored in English and oooh, you and I share an unpopular opinion re Shakespeare (although I ripped him off shamelessly for my own book).

I will say this: I like Shakespeare once I reformat the work into prose and read it that way. It's my ADD or something that doesn't allow me to "get it" when it's in iambic pentameter.

I liked The DaVinci Code, but it made my tangential mind chase a bunch of other rabbit trails that led me places I hadn't gone before. That's always a plus.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey guys!!!

Actually the story of my fondness for The New Yorker is kind of a funny illustration of my snobbish anti-elitism:

Just before my husband and I became involved (romantically), I learned that he was an avid fan of The New Yorker and that he'd been a subscriber -- saving and stacking them up -- since he was a teenager back in France. Of course I mocked him for this because everybody knows that people only read The New Yorker to show off how snooty and highbrow they are. Then when we moved in together and I got to partake of his subscription, I was totally addicted after a month or so. So I concluded that my earlier prejudice was basically just wrong and stupid.

I don't want to say that it was horrible of me to have held an unfounded assumption based on common wisdom and my friends' attitudes. I think it's impossible to avoid that sort of thing entirely. But I've learned not to take myself too seriously and to be open to the possibility that I'm wrong -- especially on questions like that one where I knew I hadn't thought about it very hard.

À propos, speaking of comparing the classics to modern writing sensibilities, one of the most hilarious articles I've ever read in The New Yorker was on just this subject. The abstract is here,and I really wish they'd posted the whole thing because I'd love for you guys to read it.

The article is a review of a new series of abridged versions of the classics, talking about how these works are "by conventional contemporary standards of good editing and critical judgment, improved." Gopnik's imaginary letter from the modern editor to Herman Melville -- suggesting they move a bunch of the whaling stuff to a separate "reader's guide" because Melville's "research slip is showing" -- is to ROTFL!!! I agree with Gopnik's conclusion: "The real lesson of the compact editions is not that vandals shouldn’t be let loose on masterpieces but that masterpieces are inherently a little loony." A lot of what makes certain works masterpieces would never make it past a modern editor. (Also, Gopnik's whole end bit about the director's commentary of a James Bond film was too funny!!!)

It's my own personal aesthetic that a work should be accessible to the ordinary reading public of the culture that produced the work. Perversely, this is almost a moral belief for me as much as a question of taste: that a work should be challenging because the ideas in it are challenging and the story is original. But to me it's part of the writer's job to reach out to the reader and make an effort to convince the reader to dig in. A writer shouldn't be aloofly saying "if you're smart enough to figure out the secret code I wrote my book in, then we can be friends, but I'm not going to spell anything out for you."

I understand intellectually that I'm not being entirely fair here. I know a lot of frills that I personally would dismiss as distracting obscurantism really are fascinating and meaningful for a large portion of the audience (as well as being technically difficult for the writer). So I have to watch out for my own bias when it comes to the Exterminator's point about my taste vs. objective criticism.

On the other end of the spectrum, I despise stories that are a simplistic rehash of standard formulas even more than I despise obscurantism. (Picky, aren't I?) So I'm a little leery of the fact that a lot of publishers and critics require works to follow modern stylistic sensibilities (as in Gopnik's article I mentioned). It leaves less opportunity for original and unusual stories to find an audience.

MoJo said...

CL said: A writer shouldn't be aloofly saying "if you're smart enough to figure out the secret code I wrote my book in, then we can be friends, but I'm not going to spell anything out for you."

I agree, in so far as I like my little in-jokes. If you (The Random Reader) get it, you and I (The Random Author) can share a little chuckle together. If not, it won't hurt you.

CL said: I know a lot of frills that I personally would dismiss as distracting obscurantism really are fascinating and meaningful for a large portion of the audience (as well as being technically difficult for the writer).

I think the hardest thing one has to learn as an author who starts putting her work out there for critique is that, even amongst reviewers, tastes are different and reading goals are different. No matter how well crafted your work is, SOMEONE is not going to like it, some of it, or have issues somewhere.

CL said: On the other end of the spectrum, I despise stories that are a simplistic rehash of standard formulas even more than I despise obscurantism.

Hey! I like my tropes, tyvm. You leave my tropes alone! :grin:

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MoJo!!!

See? Critics can't even agree on what qualities a work should be shooting for. This ties in with my point about subjectivity -- a work's effectiveness depends in large part on what you want the work to do.

Aerin said...

Did you hear about the twenty first century author who submitted a copy of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (I think just changed the title) to all the major publishing houses and it was rejected?

chanson - this is actually very postmodern (IMO). The questioning of the classics, what makes something a classic, etc. I think your point (in other posts and here sort of) about consensus applies here. I know consensus is a scientific concept, but information, tastes, societies can change. And writing that one society/culture might find distasteful, innately se_xist, ra_cist, abusive, etc. another might still believe it's of worth. It's the process that the change happens, where different works are respected as part of the canon (or not) that is interesting (to my mind).

So - I think one person's "gut" feeling about a work is important and valid. The historical and social context may also be important to really appreciating the work as well.

I'll give an example - I like William Faulkner - I think his novels are stunning. In my book club, the discussion leader doesn't care for his work (or Toni Morrison's). She can appreciate their craft, and why other people like their writing, but we disagree. She likes other books that I'm not as interested in or respect...

I think it's good that you (and others) are keeping an open mind about it. Because, we might not have all the information about why a work was groundbreaking. But it might also be that a work doesn't stand the test of time. There's the difference.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Aerin!!!

I don't think consensus is a scientific concept. It can be applied to any sort of human decision-making. One big difference, though, between science and the humanities is that in science there's consensus on the ground rules of how questions are answered. As for what makes a work or art or literature great (or even good), there's not really a consensus on how to decide...

Holly said...

I don't assume it's just me when I dislike a book others consider great; I feel justified in believing that I have well-educated taste and valid reasons for liking what I like and hating what I hate. I also believe that it doesn't matter. I HATE Faulkner, and I think that I have valid reasons for hating him, but I feel no need to proselytize my hatred. I HATE Henry James, and I think I have valid reasons for hating him, but really talking about why I hate him would require me to read more of him, and life is too short for that. I LOVE A Room of One's Own and a lot of Woolf's other works. Like so many people, I consider Jane Austen one of the finest writers ever to produce a book, and one point on which I strongly disagree with Woolf is that she says Charlotte Bronte was a greater genius than Austen.

What I really hate--more than Faulkner and Henry James--is when my students (Yes, I'm an English professor, with a PhD in literature and a slew of other degrees as well) assume that whether or not they "like" a work is the main thing I'm concerned with when I assign a book in a course, and they then write papers telling me why they do or don't like something. Aside from meaning that their papers are really boring, it's also irrelevant to literary studies today. Of course I hope that they'll like something on the syllabus; of course I hope the entire semester won't consist of onerous, unpleasant reading. I'm always glad when a student says, in class, about a work I assigned, "I loved this!"

But I don't want them to say that in a paper. Literary studies these days aren't about reading the classics and figuring out why they're good; they're about reading all different kinds of text and figuring out what work they do, what the narratives (I am a traditionalist: I like narrative) reveal about a society's concerns and obsessions. So you might very well read The DaVinci Code in a lit class on popular literature, with the goal of figuring out why that book spoke so strongly to a particular audience at a particular time. My colleagues who teach children's literature regularly teach Harry Potter.

And when books cease to do meaningful work, people cease to read them, even if they retain their status as "classics." Oh good god, the horror of an undergrad general survey class where I read The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spencer! THAT was and still is considered a classic, but it's so obscure and weird that hardly any one but Renaissance scholars reads it now. I sincerely hope the average undergrad isn't subjected to it like I was.

My specialty is nonfiction literature, and I'm always being told that books I love to read and teach aren't really "literature;" they aren't "art." One of my favorite books EVER, for instance, is a memoir of World War II called With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge. Sledge wasn't a writer who went to war; he was Marine who had experiences he wanted to write about. He's not Tim O'Brien, a much more talented writer, and With the Old Breed isn't "artistic" and "writerly" in the same way as O'Brien's The Things They Carried, another of my favorite books. But WTOB is amazingly powerful in its content and it's certainly not a badly written book; if I had to assign it a grade on the basis of its prose, I'd give it a B+ (which is no small thing, I say, having read scads of dreadful student essays). And I feel that the work it does in terms of explaining combat to people who will never have to deal with combat is incredibly important, and I'm glad that Ken Burns' documentary on WWII brought Sledge's book to the attention of a very wide audience.

Sorry for hijacking your comments here, Chanson, but this is a topic I've thought a lot about.

Holly said...

p.s. Something I should have said earlier: several decades ago, there was a challenge to the canon within literary studies. People with PhDs in literature said, "Why are we always reading these old dead white guys? Why aren't we reading controversial works? Why aren't we reading contemporary works? Why aren't we reading works by women and people of color? Because a lot of this old famous shit bores the hell out of me." The whole business was referred to as the canon wars or the canon debates, and it's generally agreed, in literature departments, that the canon lost. Which is why literature curriculae are no longer dedicated to reading the classics and getting students to understand why they're classics, and why there's room for me to teach works like With the Old Breed or everything by David Sedaris (another of my favorites) in my classes.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Holly!!!

There's certainly no reason to apologize -- it's fantastic to get some perspective on this from an actual lit professor!! That's fascinating that you teach people to analyze texts in this way. (This is the exact reason I'm planning to read Stephenie Meyer's Twilight -- to understand what work it does, what it reveals about the Mormon psyche. ;^) )

To be honest, I had kind of thought that that sort of analysis was for the historians, and I'd imagined that an undergraduate lit course was more about literature appreciation. Of course, I never got past the general-ed 100-level courses in the humanities, and even that was something like fifteen years ago.

I'd heard vague rumors about the "canon wars" (as you can probably guess from this post), but I don't know any of the details. If you have some old war stories and battle wounds to tell us about, I'd love to hear it!!! :D

Aerin said...

I would hope that there would be a mixture of the canon (dead white guys) and newer authors.

And other formerly ignored authors that were actually quite skillful (like Jane Austen). I thought I read that during the 19th century, many considered her to merely be a "romance" fluff author, which she isn't.

But some of the canon is important, Herman Melville, for instance - or Walt Whitman. Holly, what you're writing is that you get to read a mixture in your courses, right? If so, I think that's great. If it is just modern stuff (like Tim O'Brien, whom I agree is a good author) - I would be disappointed.

While some of the more recent authors are great, I think many of the classic authors/works help increase understanding of the modern authors - how they got where they are. Dickens, etc.

tn trap said...

The Da Vinci Code isn’t literature, it’s a story. Orson Scott Card isn’t a writer, he’s a storyteller. In my simple terms, art tends to fall one of two ways, either the cultured high art or the pop/folk art. Neither is better or more important than the other and each works us differently; two different experiences, both worth having (that isn’t to say that there isn’t any overlap).

I value the popular storytelling because anyone and everyone can get involved. One of the nice things about Harry Potter is that it wasn’t just me and a book; everyone was reading it and we were all experiencing it together. This sort of art is important primarily because of the shared experience.

Literature or high art isn’t as easy for the viewer. It is more of a personal experience and usually it takes some effort to have that experience and I think it helps to be taught how to have that experience. I find literature provides a deep connection, not with others, but with some ineffable thread of the galaxy, a personal brush with the Divine.

When a classic doesn’t work for me, it can be any reason. The Iliad is all around great. Paradise Lost has its moments but too often is long and dull; it’s a work that probably is more important (because of it’s influence) than it is good. As Holly said, The Faerie Queene isn’t much fun if you don’t have the tools to read it (and I don’t have the tools). I don’t have a problem with liking bad art or not liking good art; I do think there is some value in knowing the difference and I think critics play a valuable roll in helping people encounter something likeable.

Holly said...

I'd imagined that an undergraduate lit course was more about literature appreciation.

there are probably still departments where that happens--but they're also probably very old-fashioned, staffed by dinosaurs, and not associated with a graduate program. A department can't turn out hireable PhDs if that's the way it teaches literature.

My particular battles in the canon wars have to do with being told, over and over, especially in grad school, that I was corrupting literature by teaching memoir and nonfiction, that it was WRONG to focus on works that privilege "memory" over "imagination" (as if the two aren't related, as if you can imagine anything new if you can't remember what happens in your own life, or stories you hear about the lives of others; as if you can say anything valuable about your memories if you can't imagine multiple possible meanings and interpretations). But my main approach was simply to continue to do what I wanted, because after all, I could.

Hi Aerin--it's wrong to include Austen in a list of writers who were formerly ignored or undervalued. She has been wildly popular since she was first published, and has attracted attention from important people from the beginning. It's true that Sir Walter Scott dismissed Emma (which was dedicated, by request, to the Prince Regent of England) as mere romance in some ways, but keep in mind that Emma was important enough that someone like Sir Walter Scott reviewed it.

You can of course still find courses that include Melville and Whitman--but they're often discussed as "foundational" rather than "canonical;" they're important not because they're de facto great in and of themselves, but because they are part of our culture in that they have had great influence on our ideas about ourselves, both through their impact on their own times and the writers who read and admired them. The same goes for Mark Twain and, to some extent (she had almost no impact on her time--she was too quirky and weird to be published while she was alive) Emily Dickinson (both of whom I personally prefer to Melville and Whitman).

And keep in mind that individual genres have their own "canons." The canon or foundational works of nonfiction include Saint Augustine (for his "Confessions," arguably the prototype of autobiography in western culture) and Montaigne (who coined the term "essay" as a literary genre, because his writings were meant to be "attempts," which is what essay means in French) as well as more modern writers like (yes) Virginia Woolf (not only "A Room of One's Own" but her shorter essays, diaries and so forth), George Orwell (a master of the essay), Frederick Douglass (whose slave narrative is very important not only for its literary and narrative worth, but for its political claims), Mary McCarthy (she undercut her "nonfiction" in ways that are extremely relevant), Gertrude Stein (who wrote an autobiography for her girlfriend) and even Nietzsche (for his very interesting and unconventional autobiography Ecce Homo).

I do think it's important to provide students with a decent grounding in the history of literature as well as the very wide field of contemporary literature, in part because, as you suggest, Aerin, you can't understand contemporary literature if you don't have some sense of what came before it.

And also because you won't know whether or not you like stuff if you don't read it. I loved David Copperfield, but truth be told, I don't know if I would have read it if it hadn't been assigned in a class--though I can at least point out that I was willing to take a class in which we had to read something as long as David Copperfield. I could never teach something like that at my current institution; students simply wouldn't finish it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey TN Trap!!!

I'm sorry, but I have to say that I really don't agree with your proposed dichotomy. I think that good storytelling really can be high art, and that there's nothing more powerful than a well-told narrative for creating a profound connection among the generations of the human race. If The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter aren't high art, it's not because they're examples of "storytelling"...

Blog Kangaroo said...

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tn trap said...

Oh, I'm not saying pop art/high art is an either or situation. Sure, there are crossover hits. How often does that happen? Works that are appreciated by both camps, is it because they truly cross over or is it because they successfully combine storytelling and literature?

A mostly unrelated thought, Jane Austen wasn't the only popular author 200 years ago, but she's one of the few we talk about. I wonder, what percentage of the population actually read Austen in her day, or Dante in his? I don't know what literacy rates were, but how popular can you be if a significant percentage of the population can't read?

MormonZero said...

The concept of high art vs pop art and literature vs storytelling have very little meaning to me personally. They are constantly in a pendulum state, dependent upon the person, peoples, or societies that are interpreting the work. An ancient religious text may originally be interpreted as literature but today could be looked at as just good storytelling.

For me the true success of the work is identified by knowing the message the writer or artist was trying to send (Not always possible on our end). It may be that the writer or artist has the only true measuring stick capable of measuring their own success. I believe this because each work of art is done with a purpose or message in mind. It may be entertainment, peace, morals, values, principle, doctrine, happiness, love, power, religion, politics, strategy, secrets, hate, confusion, and many more. If the creator of the work was able to transmit their message then it was a success.

However, imo, the greatest success is found in the works that transcend both time and place. This does not mean that the Shakespeares and Homers win by default. Many who read their stories may not be getting the true meaning of their message any more. But some oral storyteller in the heart of the Amazon may be sharing his ancient stories passed down from the original shaman that is influencing his ppl w/ its message.

The INFLUENCE a artist's or writer's message has on the person is the true measure of the greatness of any work. Although Jane Austen did not have a large number of readers during a time when many could not read she may have influenced a small group during her time and may still be influencing people today with messages about love and class among other things. Who knows?


Also, on a side note. I think it is interesting how a society might interpret certain texts differently as time goes on. For example, the Iliad is essentially a story about Achilles. Within Greek culture Achilles' actions would have been seen as heroic whereas many societies today would see his action as barbaric and see Hector's character as the real hero of the epic. I find it interesting anyway.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mormon Zero!!!

It's true, it makes sense to analyze influential works. Holly talked about this as a motivation for analyzing a work in her comments above.