Speaking in tongues

I was reading my favourite Italian literary review, L’Indice, the other day. L’Indice contains reviews of new and recent books and articles, a bit like the Times Literary Supplement or the New York Review of Books.  One thing that struck me was that a significant number of the reviews had English words in the text. These were not English words as used in Italian but straightforward English words. Most of them were not translated. For example, one review quoted extensively from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with no translation into Italian, though the poem has been translated into Italian. Can you imagine a review in an English-language publication quoting from La Ginestra in the original Italian without translation?

I am certainly not pointing out anything original here in saying that even educated readers from the US, UK, Australia and other anglophone countries do not have a good grounding in foreign languages.  Yes, they know the words they have seen in ads (e.g. Fahrvergnügen), the words in the news (e.g. bunga-bunga, though it probably is not of Italian origin ) and, of course, the standard foreigns words that have crept into English (e.g. fait accompli).  Many Brits will have a basic grounding in French while some US nationals will have a basic grounding in Spanish but, on the whole, it is no secret that most of us do not really bother with foreign languages.  The reasons are obvious.  Everyone speaks English (they don’t but we like to think either that they do or ought to do so).  Stuff we need to read is generally available in English and, if it is not, we probably do not need to read it.  Your average educated Swede, for example, knows full well that s/he will have to learn English to read much of what s/he wants to read. And when we go on holiday or even meet them in our own country, if we shout at them loudly, they will generally get the message, even if they don’t speak English.

There is an apocryphal BBC weather report which allegedly stated “Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off”. Despite our somewhat reluctant membership of the EU, we still do not really feel ourselves part of Europe, as recent rumblings over the Euro crisis have shown. The US is even more isolationist, as the Tea Party has shown, despite the fact most of them come, originally, from somewhere else. In short, all too often, we feel that we can do without them damn furriners and their nasty habits, their nasty religions, their nasty food and their terrorism. Yes, of course, other nationalities have been as jingoistic but probably less so, at least in recent years, when it comes to linguistic jingoism.

All this is leading to an issue I have noted while doing my website, namely that there are many books that have been written in a lesser known language and have not been translated into English, though they have been translated into other languages. This is doubly unfortunate. Firstly you would assume that the largest audience for most books is English, not just because of the large number of native English speakers but also because many others might read the book in English translation if they could not read it in the original and it was not translated into their own language. Secondly English speakers are far less likely to read books in the original language than some other nationalities, who are more likely to have learned not only English but also another language. How often will you see a book written in another language and not available in English reviewed or even discussed in a UK or US literary mag? Yes, the TLS, to their credit, occasionally does so but I cannot think of many other examples, except, perhaps abstruse academic publications. Looking at the current fiction best-sellers, IQ84 has creeped into the top ten NYT list but it is the only non-US book to do so. In the UK, it is all British and Americans. However, looking at Western Europe, US (and, occasionally, UK) books seem to be found on equal footing with the local works. And most of them, of course, use the English word best-seller.

Anyway, enough ranting. There are not enough books translated into English, usually because of cultural reasons towards other languages/cultures and not just because of the ineptitude/reluctance of the publishers, and not enough people learn foreign languages well enough to read other books in foreign languages. I shall almost certainly come back to this topic.

The Canon – Part Deux

Following on from my previous comments on the canon, I would like to say a few words in favour of the canon.

1) The stunningly obvious reason is that it does help us, if we are fairly ignorant of literary offerings, to see what is generally considered great and good. I consider myself fairly well read but I certainly found a lot of interest in Bloom’s The Western Canon. I am unlikely to ever read some of the Greek and Roman writers that he mentions; I have never read (and am unlikely to do so) the poetry of the likes of John Skelton, Fulke Greville, Thomas Campion and Thomas Traherne. I am aware of most (but certainly not all) the others and have at least dipped into many of them. I have a few gripes – why no Prus, for example and there are many gaps in what he calls the Chaotic Age (i.e. the modern period) And if Arabic and India are to be included there, why no Arabian Nights and Ocean of Story? And if Arabic, India and Africa are deemed to be part of the Western Canon, why are China and Japan not?  However, these are quibbles, as everyone will have their views on what should or should not be included.  The result is that we have list, however imperfect, of what many consider the best books in the Western tradition, though with all the provisos mentioned in my previous comments on the canon.

2) Are there rules for writing a novel? Somerset Maugham famously said There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. Actually, he is not quite right. While there may be relatively few rules (prose fiction of a certain length), there are numerous conventions, involving plot(s), character and character development, milieu, beginning and ending, style and so on. I shall not discuss these, as there are so many and there is considerable disagreement as to what they are. On this site, for example, we have novels that are too short, which are not strictly fiction, which have multiple, separate plots, which have few characters, with little development and which are frankly not novels as Somerset Maugham or others would consider novels. However, those that do break the rules/conventions – obvious examples include Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Georges Perec, though there are many more on this site – have had to learn the rules before they broke them. I am sure that there are some novelists who have written wonderfully experimental novels without knowing much about the novel but I cannot think of them. If we look at the canon, we can have, at least, an idea of what the accepted (accepted by (often white male) academics, of course) rules and conventions are. I would think anyone whose novel reading is limited to Finnegans Wake and other radically experimental novels would be missing a lot of what the novel has to offer.

3) It could be argued and, indeed, has been argued that having a canon excludes many excellent novels that, for various reasons, have been excluded from it. This is certainly true. The temptation for students or others limiting themselves to the canon is only to read those novels in the canon and to ignore those not in it. While I agree that this is certainly a danger, I would think that it is less of one than it used to be, not least because with the Internet, it is so easy to find other sources to guide one’s reading, not least of which is my site!  However, this works the other way.  However awful The Random House Modern Library Board’s selection of the 100 best novels (left-hand column), it is much better than the Readers’ List (right-hand column) which has four novels by the spectacularly awful Ayn Rand in the top ten and three by the equally spectacularly awful L Ron Hubbard in the top eleven.  It would be hoped that the canon compilers (academics) would have enough taste to exclude Rand and Hubbard, even if they do exclude many worthy novels.


So am I trying to establish a canon with my site? God forbid.  What I am trying to do is to say that we do have a canon and it has some uses and I have included many of what would be considered the 20th/21st century canon on the site (and others will follow – it is far from complete) but that the standard canon is missing many, many works, even some by DWMs, and that I will try to suggest works that should be considered.  Over-ambitious?  Absolutely but I hope that some people somewhere will find books on here that they were not aware of and read them. The more people read the non-canonical works that should be in the canon, the more likely that they will be added to the canon.

The Canon

The Canon is one of the most controversial aspects of literary criticism. I think that goes without saying. Most of us were first introduced to it at school when we are given a reading list or we learned in English (or French or German or Italian…) class that there were certain standard books that were considered “good” books and all too many, probably the ones we enjoyed reading most, that were not considered “good”. We laboured through Dickens and Balzac and Goethe and Carducci and Lope de Vega, all too often vowing never to read such books again, unless we were one of those swots who actually enjoyed reading such stuff. We were even more exposed to it if we studied a literature-based course at university, while many of our friends were absorbed in Dune or Tolkien or John Grisham or Harry Potter or Georgette Heyer.

Some of us may have taken notice of Harold Bloom, litcrit extraordinaire and his seminal book The Western Canon. Bloom’s book came in for a lot of flak, though his choice was fascinating. We can and, indeed, should all disagree with some of his choices but there is no doubt that they are interesting and most, if not all, of his suggestions are worth reading if you wish to be the fully educated, well-rounded Renaissance man or woman. There are several problems with Bloom and other canonisers. Here is my take on this, though I am well aware that my views are by no means original.

1) Bloom and other proponents of a Western Canon tend to stock their list with Dead White Males or DWMs as they will henceforth be known in his post. Nothing wrong with DWMs. Writers like Shakespeare, Dante, Flaubert, Lermontov and many other DWMs wrote some quite good stuff. My website is stashed with DWMs. However, around 51% of the world is not male, probably around 80% of the world is not white and 100% of people (excluding the odd zombie – you know who you are) are not dead. This means the perspective, the experience and the contribution of the vast majority of the world is ignored. Women, non-whites and living people have all produced some very worthwhile reading. While the Canon had long been criticised, it faced its first major, concerted attack with the rise of the feminist movement. Though there had long been a feminist attack on the Canon – think Virginia Woolf, for example – feminist writers, such as Betty Friedan and Kate Millett from the US and Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer from France and Australia respectively, led the way. Soon there was a series of excellent works focussing on women and literature such as Ellen Moer’s Literary Women and Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own, both of which are still well worth reading today. Publishers then started publishing or republishing writings by women (see my website for examples of women publishers).

It wasn’t just women who justly felt excluded but also people of colour, particularly those from former European colonies. Post-colonial literature soon dealt with some of those problems and publishers such as Heinemann, with their African Writers Series, started publishing books from former European colonies.  Inevitably the French were better at this, with mainstream publishers such as Gallimard publishing many works from former French colonies.

But the DWMs weren’t giving up. In 1998, Random House published a list of the 100 best novel of the 20th century in the English language.  The average age of the selection committee was 68.7, all were white and all but one male.  Of the 100 books they selected, eight were by women (all white), three by the obvious African-Americans and one by V S Naipaul, a man not known for being at the forefront of the feminist revolution.  The 88 novels were by white males, some of whom weren’t yet dead.  There were many responses to the list, including, in particular, Erica Jong’s interesting though flawed list (Adrian Mole!)  But if the Random House represented the literary canon, then God help us.

2)  There are other reasons for opposing the canon.  The canon plays it safe, almost by definition. Ulysses was on the list but it wasn’t always, being considered too experimental and too obscene. The experimental, the obscene, the daring, the innovative are going to be excluded and they are the ones that need the promotion. Even now, the really experimental is not going to be included in the canon.

3) I do not include many genre novels on my website, primarily because I do not read many.  However, I do accept that some have much to offer.  Many literary writers have flirted with science fiction, crime and other genre fiction.  The standard canon does not.  One of my favourite authors is J G Ballard.  Many consider him science fiction and nothing but.  This is not the place to explain why he is so much more but suffice it to say that he definitely brings genre and lit fiction closer.

4) As well as excluding women, people of colour, the experimental and many of the living, the canon also tends to exclude the working class. Rohin Mistry wisely commented “Most fiction is about the middle class; perhaps because most writers are from the middle class.  Working class fiction all too often is excluded from the canon.

5) The Random House was specifically English-language. Why? Because that is what they know. Yes, they have read the obvious foreign works, from Murakami to Gabriel García Márquez but I am betting that there is a lot of foreign literature about which they are stunningly ignorant and I would bet even more they have not read any books in a foreign language that have not been translated into English.  Even Bloom, in his Western Canon, though he included many works from foreign countries did not, as far as I can determine, include any works that had not been translated in to English.  Yes, many other countries have their own canons but, in many cases, they include a fair amount of foreign works and, while they might not include works not translated into their langauge, that is partially because so many more (particularly those originally written in English) have been translated into their language.

In a future post, I will try and say why I find the canon (partially) helpful and other stuff about the canon.