Flavorwire has a post on Which Books Should We Stop Calling Classics?, asking a handful of critics, writers, and publishing industry people for their views. Interestingly, only three authors made the list more than once – James Joyce for both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Ayn Rand, who is not even vaguely a classic and never has been but is an awful writer and To Kill a Mockingbird, a book, I must confess, I have never read but I have seen the film, which made me think that I probably shall never read the book. I was also glad to see someone mention Updike (though, sadly, no-one mentioned Philip Roth, whom we certainly could do without.) This has been done before. Brigid Brophy and her husband Michael Levey, and Charles Osborne produced a book called Fifty works of English literature we could do without and others have produced similar lists. I could add many more to the list – Hemingway, D H Lawrence and Solzhenitsyn are three obvious candidates and Mailer is now joining the list. I could never read George Meredith but then, I suppose, few people read him anyway. The same could be said for Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress. I am sure that we all have our candidates but, as some of the writers in the Flavorwire article said, we should be thinking more about adding to the canon, not cutting it. Now, for that I do have a list.
I have yet to read John Lanchester’s Capital or, indeed, any of his other books, but will probably do so in the next few weeks. However, I was intrigued by the heading to the review of his novel in the Guardian. The online edition merely said Capital by John Lanchester – review. However, the print edition said The Hunt for the Great British Novel. This raises a few points. Firstly, nowhere in Theo Tait’s review does it mention the Great British Novel, either suggesting Capital is the Great British Novel or discussing the concept. Secondly, what it does do is say if you want to read John Lanchester’s great London novel, then read Mr Phillips. I will ignore the sub’s giant leap from Tait’s suggestion of John Lanchester‘s great London novel to the Great British Novel in general but find it interesting that the assumption is that the Great British Novel may well be the Great London Novel (or vice versa). As I will shortly show, this is very much not the case. Thirdly, there is the interesting idea of the Great British Novel. The concept comes, of course, from the Great American Novel, on which I have a relatively long page on my website. The US literary world is moderately obsessed with this idea and it comes up frequently in US literary discourse, most recently after the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as well as the debate on sexism in the litcrit world. Indeed, as my page shows, there are several novels published in the US called The Great American Novel, most famously Philip Roth’s. Further down on my page, I have links to discussions of other Great…Novels but there is none relating to the Great British Novel. If you google the term, you will find a few hits, such as the Guardian’s very brief intro to the idea and a very feeble attempt to have a joint effort to write the Great British Novel, which leads to a now defunct site. But on the whole, we Brits don’t seem too keen on the concept though we have contributed to various best of lists .
So is there a Great British Novel? Firstly, we need to start with the word British. As I mentioned above, saying that the Great British Novel and the Great London Novel are synonymous is wrong not just because many great English novels were written away from and about other regions of England, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish might be even more upset by the idea. So let’s divide the Great British Novel into the Great English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Novels. So let’s start with the Scots. For me, the Scots Quair is the easy winner, though a case could be made for Lanark as well as for Kidnapped, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Waverley (or other Scott novels). My Scotland home page has various lists with suggestions.
Wales is trickier. The two obvious choices are not novels. The Mabinogion is definitely the Welsh classic but it is a collection of legendary tales, not a novel. Under Milk Wood is a radio drama, later made into a film but not a novel. It is, however, the 20th century Welsh classic. While there are a lot of fine Welsh novels, I cannot say that any one is the Great Welsh Novel, not least because the Welsh, like many other nationalities, have been more interested in poetry than prose, as Harri Webb’s poem shows.
Northern Ireland is going to have to go the same route as Wales, as its great novel is not a novel but a legend, namely The Táin Bó Cúalnge (Cattle Raid at Cooley). Some (particularly the Protestants) may argue that this should be associated with the Republic of Ireland but it was very much part of the Ulster Cycle when Ulster played a major role in pre-Protestant, pre-Cromwell history. Apart from that, At Swim Two Birds might be a possibility, as O’Brien was born in what is now Northern Ireland but I am not sure that he would have wanted to be associated with what we now call Northern Ireland. There are other fine novels from Northern Ireland but probably none could be considered the Great Northern Irish Novel.
Which brings us to England. The 20th/21st centuries are singularly lacking in Great Novels. Brideshead Revisited could possibly be a candidate, as could Mrs. Dalloway or Heart of Darkness. I would stake a claim for Crash though I am not sure many would agree. However, it is probably to the 19th century that we should turn for the Great English Novel. While Mrs. Dalloway is set in London, it is hardly a London novel. The same could be said for Crash. The other two certainly are not, set primarily in Oxford/Yorkshire (given that Brideshead is based on Castle Howard) and the Congo, respectively. The best 19th century novels are even less London novels.
You can see what I consider to be the best 19th century English novels as they are in my Best 19th century novels list. Beauchamp’s Career and Vanity Fair are set partially in London and partially elsewhere. Bleak House and the Palliser novels are set in London. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Jude the Obscure, Lavengro, Middlemarch and Erewhon are not. All have claim to be the Great English Novel but I would be hard pressed to pick one as the Great English Novel.
Part of the issue with Capital is that, because of the current situation, the Great British/English Novel should be about finance and, for that reason, Capital has been put forward. Till I have read it, I will be unable to say for sure but, I suspect, it is no more worthy of the title than A Week in December, Other People’s Money and other recent financial novels. I will probably come back to this topic of the great British/English novel but let me just conclude by saying that a) it is not clear what is, if any, the Great British/English Novel and b) it is certain that, as yet, no 20th or 21st century novel can lay claim to the title.
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 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.