Generalizing and Genre-lizing
Perpetuation of the Literary Canon
“We write in Latin America to reclaim a space to discover ourselves in the presence of others, of human community –so that they may see us, so that they may love us –to form the vision of the world, to acquire some dimension –so they can’t erase us so easily. We write so as not to disappear.” -Elena Poniatowska, Wellesley College 2008
When talking about iconic, canonical literary works, there is a built in perception of idealism and perfection that appears as if it will never be surpassed. Restricted in its classical significance, it becomes difficult to stretch its relevance and meaning across several time realms. Yet, works that have been considered a part of the Canon for such a prolonged amount of time have not evolved in themselves; they remain stagnant in idealism. Such inactive definition remains true of the overlying idea of genre as well. Donald Murrau explains “Most writers view the world as a fiction writer, a reporter, a poet, or a historian. The writer sees experience as a split of a lyric poem or a news story or a chronicle. The writer uses such literary traditions to understand life” (1).
Does placing a label on a literary work and putting it in an idealist category restrain its meaning? And in doing so, is the restriction imprinting it’s confinement on the literary work? In other words, does placing a literary work in a certain genre or within the ideal Canon category take away from its original worth and meaning?
The overarching idea of a genre develops out of a commonality in plot and purpose. Putting a literary work into a certain genre assumes that it has some thematic commonality that allows it to take on the identity of a single, defining heading: Science Fiction, Historical Nonfiction, Mystery, etc. Whether it is plot, characters, setting, or time that binds a novel to a specific category, the act of simplifying the text to a single common point detrimentally erases its individuality. Lattimer quotes Bromer and his piece Time for Meaning in which he states, “Every piece of writing, every text we read, comes to us both as a text –the piece it is –and as a kind of text –an instance of genre. And what kind of thing it is puts some limits as to what we expect to find there. Genre, an often overlooked cueing system in reading, constrains our prediction, and lays down a track for our reading” (1). Through the act of labeling the work and placing in a common thematic setting, individuality and personality are lost.
It can be argued that the formation of genre gives the novel a space to retain its significance; the fact that a genre will almost never die or be forgotten allows for the continual survival of that novel. However, a literary work can be placed into a space that allows for its perpetuation through continuous change, in reality its categorization is detrimental to the literary work as it confines its meaning. Generalizing and “genre-lizing” novels initiate the risk of commercializing a work and perpetuating misrecognition. In a Spanish Surrealist Literature course I took this semester, we discussed the implications of reducing a work to a single genre and if through this process we believed that the novel is able to lose its initial and entire worth. Through this discussion we emphasized how in placing literature into a category, one entity from that novel must be chosen as the distinct factor to represent its entire being. In this process, how do you weigh the importance of intertexuality and theme? “Genre-lizing” will induce an identity onto the text, allowing it to be categorized by thematic elements and lose all scope of prose, authorship, and intertextual resonance. Creating categorized texts allows for the dangerous action of creating an alienated conscious and cognition that perceives the world via categories and subjects created and imposed by society.
And so we arrive to the central debate as to what is the significance, worth and relevance of the English Literary Canon? Rather than debate as to which texts or authors should be a part of this ideal category, it is necessary to dissect what allows us the ability to categorize, idealize, and label novels. Is generalized idealism detrimental to the literary world and the creation of a novel?
When someone brings up the topic of the Canon, if another responds that they are unfamiliar with the term or unfamiliar with the works that comprise the Canon, an essence of shock and disgust is felt. It appears as if that person is ignorant of an ideal that forms a major societal construct. In discussing the Canon, it is necessary to diverge into a discussion regarding the necessity for and the implications of idealist constructs. Idealism allows us the action for comparison and is what evolution continually tries to achieve. Linking a scientific theory to a more sociological and cultural argument, evolution works to continuously produce the most fit, the most ideal of a population that will be the comparative predecessors for subsequent generations. Idealism instills an unachievable end, yet it promotes a continuous progressive motion towards reaching that perceived “end”. Within the works that fill the Canon, a certain ideal, classical generality has been given to each piece. Diverging titles and plots of canonical work actually converge to a common method and significance, sharing in the portrayal of unachievable perfection. Don Quixote and The Odyssey may be works from different cultures and authors, but the epic, heroic and iconic textuality and thematic base make these works similarly unsurpassable. I wonder: if Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and Homer were to meet, would they recognize how much of an impact their works would have after their deaths? Likewise, would they recognize each others brilliance and their iconic, ideal worth within their writing? It is as if when talking about these novels, their work is timeless and unsurpassable, unable to be confronted by evolutionary time and progression. This is not to say that my argument is that canonical work is not in fact classical, but rather my analysis works to promote a critical critique of why these works are ideal, how they continue to perpetuate idealness through changing time, and what components (if it can be generalized) categorize these works as ideal?
Works that comprise the English Canon have survived the natural selection of literary importance and seem to form a mold to which all other literary works are compared to; the Canon is “the most fit” of all literary works. Undeniably in selecting a few works to be included in this category, there is the necessary action of exclusion that must work to label the non-ideal, unwanted novels. This here draws us into the question of what in fact makes canonical work the overlying ideal definition of the literary field. In essence it’s definition of idealism stems from an influence of culture and political decree. Guillory begins The Ideology of Canon Formation with the assertion that "the authority of the culture, what maintains it as both marginal and elite is not to be distinguished from the authority of the canon" (4). Idealism is a cultural construct that works from the definition and traditions of a society. (Some questions that I want to pose, but not fully elaborate on at this time are: Is the English Canon a crane while idealism is a skyhook? Is there an objective understanding of universal aesthetic values?)
In order for an ideal construct to survive it must be continually perpetuated through time by the same culture from which it originated. Canonical work must have a following to support its reputation. Likewise, for the maintenance of its structure through time, there must be some component of a perpetuating theme that continuously molds its relevance to the applied time. Each canonical work must still contain old ideals yet be deemed sacred and unbreakable in the age of changing modernity. Here in lies a great debate of the essence of idealism in literature and its relation to the formation of a culture. Each culture has its own idealistic definition through which its national definition and identity is attained. Kolbas states, “Traditional appeals for a high canon have relied on hypotheses about some central core of human experience which pervades cultural change and which enables us to test and to preserve those works most fully expressive of that humanity” (3). This seems to indicate that idealism motivates a culture to progress into continuous motion of change, forever trying to attain that which it once had or that which is different from its current state. The definition of idealism perpetuates the evolution and development of a culture through continuous motion to a more developed state of being. However, if the canon consists of the past, then is a culture forever dictating its identity on what once was, on a past ideal that forever will not transition into the modern age? The argument of describing the purpose of the literary canon and how to perpetuate it through a continuous developing modern age seems like an unending argument. Can a past ideal retain it’s idealism through continuous change?
The rational for a majority of this discussion on idealism, values, and models is rooted from the particular culture that the Canon represents. To even try to dissect the Canon and its relevance or significance is to engage a discussion of the cultural authority comprised in the challenges that previous authors represented. Nemoiani and Royal propose that, “As we become educated within a general canon, we form a comparative framework that requires our answering certain questions in our valuations and our engaging certain contrasts which have already been defined by those acts of valuing one another’s writing which survive within the canon. As we think about educating others in that canon we aught to be able to make possible the experience of that kind of thinking” (6).
It seems that the English literary canon is the supreme domain of higher level academia and all work utilized in the English curriculum fights a comparative struggle to gain as much worth and power as those within the Canon. Is the Canon then not a literary canon, but simply a category of power? The texts that survive mimic the most powerful ideologies and personas that survive. But what about those that get left silenced? We teach each generation what the previous generation saw as the most ideal, an unending process stunted through evolution and not evolving itself. At the same time idealism is in our human minds the unattainable end, and if an entity already fits that image then there is nothing more to surpass or evolve into. Creating a literary canon is perpetuated through the process of its production of a cultural memory and as a vehicle for national identity. Kolbas argues that, “The canon represents and proliferates dominant aesthetic, ethical or cognitive images, central to society, recycles its leading ideologies, norms, conventions, values, produces identification patterns and imaginary cultural totalities, such as a ‘nation’” (2) Can a national literary canon, being a material force standing behind this representation, become a portion of representation? As Kolbas writes, “individual conical works have been instruments of nationalism, invented traditions, and exclusive cultural identity, but they have also endured beyond specific historical contexts, affected cultures beyond that of their own origin, and transcended the immediate political interests in whose name they have been used.” (2)
In identifying and perpetuating canonical works, a comparative strategy to learn succeeding classical texts is greatly necessary. Comparing modern literature to classical literature is a sort of “self-regulatory strategy”; comparative literature allows for the perpetuation of the past and the formation of anew in the future literary construction. The necessity to fit a label must not constrain a novel to a single meaning, but rather should offer a space for comparative analysis and constructive criticism. In this context, classical literature should be compared to modern literature in an effort to unravel a strict limitation of time on controlling idealism and meaning. The Canon is going to have to withstand not only the test of time but also the ever changing culture of its readers. As the readers change and expand so must the canon. The question then becomes, should there even be a canon? Idealist structure here has been defined as personal preference in relation to the context of time. However, a Canon is necessary as to homogenize a certain sector of understanding in a culture and label a literary hierarchy as to make sure everyone within one culture begins at the same foundational point.
Can we subdivide the Canon and its idealist subjectivity? If so, can literature be separated from the realm of science? It goes without debate that either subject is comprised of a set of classical works that are referred to by scholars in each field as the foundation for intellectual thought and continuous reference. But, it seems possible that if idealism is the commonality between these two areas of interest that within classifying that ideal state there must be a common bond of some sort. The action of categorizing a subject as ideal allows for the convergence of two originally perceived, divergent subjects. Or is subdividing these texts into two distinct categories a necessity to keep importance on an equal level? For if they were in the same subject one would need to instinctively trump the next, and is that even possible with such different form of analysis? Here in lies an important question that is meant for further reflection beyond this essay. Does creating a literary canon have more to do with the perception and image of a genre, or is it the production of these images and the discourse of representation that is more important? (5).
This here leads into a discussion about the combination of old, idealic literature with the new, progressive texts. Such a comparison can be made between reading The Origin of Species and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Comparative literature is of great importance as to put an older published work into the context of the modern era. Reading comparative literature allows for an analytical critique of classical texts; it allows for a deeper look into the past idealism in a present lens. It can be said without argument that The Origin of Species is a component of the Scientific Canon; however, can we go so far as to say it is a member of the English literary canon as well? The ideas and content of the work has added to our known perception of self and our cultural understanding of what evolution means in the context of organismal life on earth. Without this work, our perception of evolution and natural selection would not be the same as it is today. However, while Darwin’s ideas are fundamental to our understanding of biological evolution, his canonical methodology has become the center of criticism for today’s developing scientist and philosophers, such as Daniel Dennett. Darwin’s lasting impression on society and cultural ideology makes it fit to place his novel work into the literary canon. The best way to teach this is through a modern critical comparison.
Teaching literature alongside science changes our predicament with needing to interpret science and literature in two separate realms. Rather, we are forced to find a method for commonality. Classical literature is changed when both the definition and method of defining are changed. Society needs a common reference and resonance, but what makes it necessary for canonical work to dictate this commonality? Rather than institutionalize a single set of idealic texts, maybe it is better to let importance and significance evolve naturally. However, on the other side of the argument stems the rebuttal that significance is culturally induced, and forming a Canon may in fact lesson the worth of the entity of the novel and simply deem it great as a result of its relevance and importance to a certain time period. It is not to say that cultural competency is not required for canonization, but rather an equal mix of merit and influence must be made to make a work truly significant and remembered with praise. The other portion of canonization is the ability of a work to embed itself into the cultural consciousness through time, surpassing elements of time and withstanding a brutal criticism for centuries; these stories must become a part of a common inheritance.
So how do we teach the Canon without ruining its grandeur and without making it the most idealic such that nothing else is read beyond its perceived perfection? It is necessary to teach the Canon with continual evolving texts that criticize the ideal. “We should also teach the development of personal task: the risk in stressing the canon too much is that it can seem to require something always be told to us; without person predilection, there is no true civilization.” The Canon allows a culture to perpetuate, holding true the values and idealism of a past and present time. The importance of historical memory and ideal construction must not be overlooked.
1. Lattimer, Heather. Teaching Genre in the classroom; Coming to Genre Studies: A Reflection. (2003) http://www.stenhouse.com/pdfs/0352ch01.pdf
2. Kolbas, Dean. Critical Theory and Literary Canon. Westview Press, 2001. http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=100746408
3. same as above
4. Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of literary canon formation. University of Chicago Press, 1993.
5. Lofgren, Hans. Representing America: Some Aspects of the Literary Canon Debate. American Studies in Scandinavia. 30: 1998
6. Nemoianu, Virgil. Royal, Robert. The Hospitable Canon: Essays on Literary Play, Scholarly Choice, and Popular Pressures. John Bejamin Publishing Co. 1991.