Saturday, 3 September 2005

I wrote 2,800 or so words of Behemoth yesterday, which I am pleased with, so I treated myself to a leisurely perusal of the Guardian today. Now that the summer is finally over (barring a Test match) the Review section has started to return to form. Today it includes a good discussion of the whole concept of "classic" novels by Alan Warner. Warner is unimpressed by Vintage's attempt to use reading groups to identify the future classics of 20th Century fiction. Vintage have started with a list of 100 titles, and then winnowed it down to fifteen, which, not exactly coincidentally, is how many years Vintage has existed for.
In our violently consumer, winner and loser society, lists are a new catechism - excellent for dealing with books and circumventing the pesky act of actually reading them. Choosing from a list, we believe we somehow briefly have power over everything proffered upon it. I have always been tickled by that truism, "a list, by its very nature, is exclusive": classics, literary canons of "great" works, prize short-lists and long-lists, certainly are exclusive.
Like Warner, I am somewhat suspicious of canonical lists (especially those whose size is constrained by either a desire to have a nice round number or else by the age of an imprint.) The idea of a canon of great works which are objectively better than the rest is something that harks back to the Leavises, whose approach was neatly dissected by Terry Eagleton in his surprisingly readable Literary Criticism (I found his subsequent books, like Ideology, a bit indigestible - partly because I am not a great reader of "formalism, semiotics, hermeneutics, narratatology, psychoanalysis, reception theory, phenomenology and the like", and partly because I just disagreed with what he said.)

Where was I? Canons, yes. Warner usefully skewers the idea that anything that is hailed as a classic novel must be a great novel by looking at one of his favourite writers, Sir Walter Scott.
Even after three single malts and a patriotic suppository, Scott's ravings remain without charm for me. Technically I know he is an awful writer - much of his punctuation had to be added by the compositors and this shows - and that Scott was never capable of writing a masterpiece. Yet I devour his work out of a painful and fascinated curiosity. Walt's contemporary, that unbearable snob Austen, could write very well indeed and Scott could not, yet it was Scott who changed the future of the novel, so I can quite comprehend his sentimental, romantic junk being tagged "classic". Thus, bad writing can be classic writing.
If some Leavisite test of "worth" or quality cannot be used as the test for classic or canonical status - and the importance of Scott suggests that it should not be - then what can be?

Warner's suggested alternative approach is one I whole-heartedly endorse:
Reading fiction is not a rationalistic act of enlightenment. Like life itself, reading novels has no definite final outcome, except The End. We are always changing throughout this campaign of page turning and our literary memories shapeshift too. Every book we read in some way nudges our stubborn psychological DNA into reaction and affects our impressions of the book we read before and the one we shall read after.... It is up to each of us to conclude which books we should not be reading. We might be missing out on something important, so we cannot trust anyone but ourselves. Let us not say we should celebrate a few select books. I say: profusion, abundance, read more, more, more!
And if that is not sufficient encouragement for you all to rush out and buy Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth once I've finished writing it, I don't know what is.

1 comment:

Mandy said...

If Austen is the new black, perhaps Lord Alexander's Cipher will be the new Da Vinci Code.