Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Reinventing the Canon

To what extent does the approved canon of American literature no longer work?

This question has run through my head several times while putting together brackets for the All-Time American Writer Tournament. How far does one go in respecting the past—or not even the past, but writers of the past approved by literary mandarins now?

John Updike is an example of what I’m talking about. Updike is considered a major literary figure of the last fifty years of our literature—considered so by those who control literature. But these refined persons represent in fact a sliver of the American public. Updike’s world was a narrow world. He never connected with the true mainstream of American culture.

Who in fact are the American writers of past and present that we should be honoring?


  1. As much as I disrespect Updike because of his criticism of "Zooey" when it came out in the New Yorker, you do have to give him some props for the Rabbit Angstrom series and some other works.

    The question we may have to ask is this (and it's one for the generation AFTER Updike): In a culture that has done away with all initiation rituals, which were in place for thousands of years, and which asks of its people no real sacrifice or hardship (e.g., no mandatory draft into the military), what can we possibly expect from its writers, who have NOT gone through these things? In other words, if you never conquer your fear of death, how can you write anything valuable about life?

  2. I'm on board with Updike's world being narrow. Probably a reflection of the times. Can't read him the way they did in 1970. Re: Frank's point, maybe the generation that sends others to war wants to settle back into a little world and be entertained. On the other hand, I have been moved by passages. I tried to recruit an Updike lover to weigh in. No luck yet. Next time I email her, I'll include more adjectives. How about giving more weight to the work and what it means to us than to who influenced whom, stature, relevance to a bygone era.

  3. There are of course a lot of kinds of street cred, beyond becoming a mandatory part of a system. One way is to exist entirely outside the system. The roots of the literary underground in the 1990's came from that lifestyle. The best initiation is the initiation of life, as rough and tumble and insecure as possible. The thing about Updike is that he never put himself out there, neither personally nor artistically. He embodied the system pet, was accepted and pampered and applauded from the start. Which is fine in itself I guess, but he seems to be the model now for every other "literary" writer. No one takes any chances. Yet great rewards often require corresponding risks.

  4. p.s. I've been tardy in setting up the other brackets, but I'll get to them.

  5. I respectfully disagree with the premise that life itself can be an initiation, because life's events are completely random. They do not have a vested interest in seeing the initiate succeeding and growing. The best initiations are conducted by a group of elders who have the best interests of the initiate at heart--they want him/her to succeed, to grow, and to become a valuable member of the society who has survived the trials.

    Military basic training comes to mind as a good, if not perfect, modern example of this.

  6. Frank, good points on Initiation. ...And its relation to art. And life. Big stuff!

    Some kinds of sport and adventure might apply.

    Firefighting, policework.

    Lots of dangerous "dirty jobs" out there with elders who work to bring in and bring up young folk. ...Where screwups are a big problem and where the public good and life lessons are big factors.

    "A River Runs Thru It" had some good lumber camp work'n'fightin'n'writin'.

    McCarthy often writes about subsistence work, cowboying. These are efforts with elders, consequences and relevance. Working a remote cattle round-up is one of those things that brings the breakthru about the nobility of poor working stiffs. Much of that kind of hard, risky, manual work does. So we're talking millions of Americans who still MIGHT get this experience, in addition to soldiers. It's not just about the paycheck.

    Have I gone astray of initiation? If I haven't, I'm thinking that most recent writers have! ...Thus the ULA. :)

    (Tom McGuane? ...Richard Brautigan, Tom Robbins? Just throwing them out there. Do they have any legs?)

  7. ps: Are we sticking to the Canon for this tourney? It's a shootout in a fishbowl, in a way. Why not open the doors to all comers? There are big writers out there who didn't become famous or approved, eh? :)

  8. pps: OK, I remember now that Popularity is a major criteria. Does this mean sales only? I'm just saying there might be some stealth players out there who might offer popularity of a different sort, and maybe sales, too, or who might be stronger in other categories to offset their careers spent in little clubs... (But this might be straying...)

  9. Many of the trailblazers of American literature found their own initiations-- Melville, Whitman, Hemingway, and Kerouac among them.
    An art progresses not from accepting its elders, but by overthrowing them. (Scott Fitzgerald himself made this point.)
    One could argue that MFA programs are an initiation of sorts for the writer. I see them as a way to keep the art in a box. Homogenization and regimentation.
    (Granted that many in this society could use the kind of discipline that the military offers. It depends upon the person and the person's background. This is tangential to literature, IMHO.)

  10. p.s. I'll agree that the workworld isn't covered enough in American lit as it once was. In the 1950's you had novels like Harvey Swados' On the Line. Even Atlas Shrugged with its Heroes of Capitalist Labor.
    Movies which cover workworlds are often overlooked-- I think of the original "Airport" (not "Airplane"), which lauds its various levels of people who keep the machine going. Or "Car Wash."
    Two novelists who'll find spots in the tourney are Herman Wouk and James Gould Cozzens, who among other subjects wrote about the nature of a military system, with Caine Mutiny and Guard of Honor respectively. They're in-depth examinations of bureaucracies and the personalities found within, so are applicable to other kinds of work environments. I'm sure we've all encountered Queeg-like bosses.
    (For Cozzens, The Just and the Unjust, about a small town legal system, is a better starting point for most readers.)
    One can't understand American civilization without understanding its systems.

  11. @Jeff, Yes, absolutely, there are some of these things still left - apprenticeships and police academies and the like. Those are better than nothing, I think, but they tend to serve the purpose of the institution, rather than the society, in most cases. Historically, initiation has been done by a community of elders for the betterment of the society at large. So that whatever field of endeavor you went into, you would do it with a level of maturity proper for an adult to the betterment of all.

    @Karl, The difference between the MFA system and proper initiations is that the MFA systems exist to enrich the universities, with subsequent consequences to the society at large, which you've written about frequently-- namely, that these MFA'ers then become the gatekeepers at every level: in agents' offices, on editorial staffs, starting small lit journals, etc.

    The reason I think it's more than tangential for literature is that in the absence of initiations, I think it's virtually impossible to write anything more than "me-focused" lit, and that's what we've seen being produced since the MFA programs have sprouted and initiations (including mandatory military service) have declined. In fact Prof. Amy Hungerford of Yale (in her free videos) explains the phenomenon of Self-centered lit in her lectures as "program lit" for "program minds." In other words, garbage in garbage out. It's not exactly a secret--the only question is whether we're better off or worse off as readers.

  12. Good points, Frank.

    My on-topic remark is to second the nomination of JIM HARRISON for a slot in the brackets. He didn't serve in the military, but he keeps a high place for conscience and duty in his work, with the stress and conflict that generates. (Interesting that indulgence is a big theme for him.) He may be one of the few living writers who have the Bukowski Charm -- ugly as sin but also magnetically attractive. What a face, what a voice, what a mind! It's one of the growing reasons why I am grateful for YouTube: he's popping up on it almost as often as Tuli Kupferberg! :)

  13. ps: Jim Harrison also "did it his way." And he wrote candidly about the MFA system, pushing the subject into interviews. He was a system-outcast for decades. He didn't teach or get grants. He sold his work -- always considering his poetry his best -- in many languages. He's also candid that selling a dozen titles steadily won't pay the mortgage. He solved his career dilemma by making friends in Hollywood. Writing screenplays got him shunned by academia, and perhaps also NYC, in terms of reviews, anyway -- he was usually able at least to get into print -- but he pushed thru to his recent breakthru. He celebrates both fancy lads and everyman: hard manual labor along with laziness are in all his work. Roadkill and French cuisine. Activism, too. Taking a stand. For something. (Driving around, wondering what that something should be...)

  14. We've had other votes for Jim Harrison. I'm sure he'll find a place in the brackets.
    We can agree that current lit is too self-centered. It likely has a variety of causes. Not least of them is that what's valued by the current literary system, in writing workshops and by literary critics who laud self-obsessed authors like David Foster Wallace. It's been a sea-change in focus from, say, fiction and poetry in the 1950's-- but the change began long before that. The valuing of Henry James-- who could look inward and outward-- over a novelist like Frank Norris. I highly recommend Norris's essays on literature, by the way, which express much of what I believe about the art.
    Another reason for the focus on self is that this is natural to the class of writers who dominate the art in academia and publishing. I dislike having to use class language like bourgeois, but people from different parts of society do think differently, and see the world in different ways. And so we see so much domestic fiction with lavish descriptions of a room, its furnishings, clothes, plants. Concerns of the leisure class are very different from those in the hectic conflict of work and life, whether in a giant factory or a soul-crushing office.
    By the way, Joseph Wambaugh's The New Centurions is a great initiation novel-- with the police academy only a small part of it. All the much-lauded police dramas on television the past thirty years sprang from his original depictions and insights.
    Do we find a spot for him in the brackets?
    What about popular historical novelists like Howard Fast?

  15. Initition novels: In its way, Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn is an initiation novel.
    In a very different way, so is J.F. Powers' Morte D'Urban.

  16. Well, the classic initiation novel, of course, is The Count of Monte Cristo, possibly the best novel ever.

    I should also mention that my ideas on the value of initiation rituals in society have been heavily influenced by the following:

    Iron John: A Book About Men by Robert Bly
    MindOS by Dr. Paul Dobransky
    The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
    "Iron John" (story upon which the Bly book is based) by the Brothers Grimm
    Many of the "Nick Adams/young man stories" by Hemingway
    The Hero's Journey/Joseph Campbell

    And one important point about them is that they are most effective when you actually think you are definitely going to die... but then survive, thereby conquering the fear of death. That is their main purpose.

  17. The Count of Monte Cristo is about resurrection.

  18. Well, a proper initiation includes a resurrection, of course. The boy must die so that the man can live. Edmond is initiated in the jail, where he has 2 fathers--the jailer and the priest.

  19. My own father was more like the jailer, who shows up once a year to whip Edmond, but that's a whole 'nother story.

  20. (I don't know what's going on with Blogger, but a few of the comments on this post seem to be missing, as well as one or two on another blog of mine. Curious.)