When I dropped out of my English Literature graduate program, many years ago now, it was with a mix of emotions: some regret, a dose of embarrassment, a much larger dose of righteousness, and a cascade of relief. Relief that I would no longer have to invent elaborate excuses for my late papers, relief that I would not have to consider the academic job market, relief that I could stop saying “always already,” and relief that I would never again have to argue about the fucking Western canon.
What a rube I was! What an utter and astonishing moron. Because that is precisely what I have continued to do, with alarming regularity, in the intervening years, as there is no surer way to have a tweet go viral than to ask some version of: Which great book is actually bad?
What is the worst “great novel” you’ve read?— ryan teague beckwith (@ryanbeckwith) November 3, 2019
This preoccupation with taking Henry James down a peg persists for a number of reasons, and all of them are very stupid. The first, and most forgivable, is the sense that one is addressing a historical injustice. It is true that for many years the works of anyone save white men were ignored, if they were allowed to be produced at all. Canon formation can be accurately described as the congealing of privilege, so there is a thrill that comes with saying “fuck all of you, your books are actually bad.”
But this is not a particularly sophisticated argument, nor is it any way a new one. The project of canon expansion — acknowledging the artistic work of marginalized people as worthy of scholarly engagement — was rightfully undertaken decades ago. In fact, if you wanted to add a Twitter-savvy veneer to your critique of the Online Canon Wars, you could say that it erases the work of many noble scholars who came before. Or you could simply ask, as I do seemingly once a month, “why are we still having the conversation nobody is saying anything new at all and I am beginning to suspect that I am stuck in some kind of hellish time loop where I must undergo this Sisyphean endeavor except I should call it something else because Camus is overrated now, I guess.” And anyways I dare you to look me in the face and tell me our culture exalts Byron over J.K. Rowling.
“But this isn’t about college-level courses, necessarily, it is about instilling a love of reading in children by not forcing them to read Salinger,” you might interject, wrongly. Perhaps it is truly the case, as people seem to argue, that one could cultivate a childhood love of books only to have that cruelly stripped away by a boring syllabus, but I hardly think the most pressing concern with our public education system is what we are forcing kids to read. I’m sorry you had a mean teacher and not one of the ones who tells you that pop music lyrics are poetry, but if it makes you feel any better she or he is probably living in penury now, if they are still alive at all.
Besides which, like most arguments among adults that pretend to be about what is good for children, it is no such thing. Social media has proven exceptionally good at providing people permission to do exactly what they wanted to do anyways — bailing on your friends is self-care, not answering the phone when your grandmother calls is taking a firm stand against her complicity as a boomer in the climate crisis, etc. — and this is an extension of that logic. Rather than living with that twinge of recognizing our mortality that comes with thinking there are too many books and not enough time to read even all of the ones everyone says are good, you can dismiss entire swaths of a library by calling them overrated. This is understandable to me, a person who has not read Infinite Jest sort of because David Foster Wallace was bad to women but mainly because it is very, very long.
Proclaiming that any book you have been told you should read is probably overrated, because the whole canon is stuffed to the gills with turgid prose by horrible people, is a very convenient way of giving yourself permission to skip them. Funny, then, that the most ardent Canon Arguers tend to be the sort of people who use that awful “let people enjoy things” cartoon.
Are some canonical books undeserving of wide acclaim? Yes, certainly, I have read many and thought to myself “really?” But that is not a good enough reason to continue having this argument every few months, without any hope of resolution, forever. In the time it takes you to type “Middlemarch is boring” that many times you could actually read Middlemarch, which is fucking excellent.