Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Canons (1984) Edited by Robert von Hallberg

Book Review 
Canons (1984) 
Edited by Robert von Hallberg

   A canon is a collection of works, typically art works, considered to be the best representatives of their form.  The 1001 Books project is a canonical attempt for the novel as an art form.  The major development in the discussion surrounding literary canons in the last generation has been an assault upon the "classical" canon as being too white, too male, too exclusive.   This is a discussion that began in the 1950's, but really took flight in the 1970's and 1980's, when professional canon-establishers (professors, critics and readers) began to elevate contemporary authors from previously excluded groups.   This was a logical response to the more critical approach of denying the possibility of any canon, or deriding the concept of canonization as somehow irrelevant for a modern, enlightened era.

  Canons, published in 1984, represents the state-of-the-art of academic literary critics towards the idea of canons.  This came after the revolt of the 1960's and 1970's, and the introductory essay, Contingencies of Value by University of Pennsylvania professor Barbara Herrnstein Smith does a great job of summarizing the status quo circa the early 1980's- a position that has not been materially altered by new criticism in the last 30 years.    Smith describes the progress of serious literary critics and their attitude towards the project of literary canonization.

  She begins with the (much derided) "magisterial mode of literary evaluation," which is typically associated with the 19th century, and forms the "before" of canon formation. In the mid part of the twentieth century, the magisterial approach was attacked by critics, influenced by developments in philosophy and linguistics, which questions whether the type of critical project represented by the "magisterial mode" was even possible, let alone valid.  These critics ultimately foundered on the rocks of cultural relativism, and left people without a canon.  As Smith points out, this had the impact of keeping the existing canon in place.

  The "modern" period- which covers the early 1980's and beyond, acknowledges the validity of the concept of a canon, but vigorously contests the boundaries and representatives of canonical project.   That is where we are today, in 2017.   Canons are constructed by groups who are critical of the canonical project, but acknowledge it's importance, whether teachers who need to teach or critics who need topics to write about that people will read. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Get Shorty (1990) by Elmore Leonard

Book Review
Get Shorty (1990)
by Elmore Leonard

  Elmore Leonard is an interesting figure to use as a basis for discussing the yes or no canonical status of an author.  He clearly did not start out life as a canonical author- there was no burst of initial recognition and prize winning type plaudits.  Rather, he labored for years an average type genre writer- starting with Westerns, and graduating to Detective fiction.  He wasn't a stranger to Hollywood, either, with something like 10 movie versions of his books being released before the movie version of this book, Get Shorty, was released in 1995.   That was followed by well received versions of Jackie Brown (based on Rum Punch) and Out of Sight in 1997 and 1998.   In 2017, Leonard is firmly in canonical territory, with three separate Library of America compilations "Four Elmore Leonard Novels of the 1970's" etc.

  I think Leonard's canonical place was secured by those three films- the first of which was a commercial hit, and the last two were critical hits, with some commercial success, by notable directors.  I would argue that it is this book- Get Shorty, where Leonard delivers the blend of action, humor and philosophy that constitutes "classic" Elmore Leonard.  The humor and philosophy came later to his work- early books like City Primeval are short on anything except tough talk and hard living.

   The idea of doing a noir/detective novel about Hollywood was hardly original- by 1990 people were literally writing books about "Hollywood Noir," but the ability to blend humor into the mix clearly set  Leonard apart then, and continues to do so today.  Get Shorty the book (unlike the film) holds up 25 years later.

Vertigo (1990) WG Sebald

Book Review
Vertigo (1990)
 WG Sebald

   Vertigo is that rarest of entities: A book that is both experimental and commercial, and one that achieve both goals while being translated from a different language (German to English).  Still, it's hard to even describe Vertigo let alone summarize the plot, which may not exist.

  Vertigo is comprised of four stories connected... not at all? About different literary figures, one section concerns Stendahl, another Kafka.  The figures aren't named directly- Kafka is Dr. K, so it is left to the reader to figure it out.  The same could be said for the whole book.

The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) by Hanif Kureishi

Book Review
The Buddha of Suburbia  (1990)
 by  Hanif Kureishi

   The Buddha of Suburbia is another example of the way familiar literary themes can be invigorated by the introduction of novel perspectives.  Here, the novel perspective is that of a mixed-race Indian/English narrator, a stand in for the author,  growing up in and around central London in the 1970's and 1980's.  The Buddha of Suburbia is not the narrator, but rather his India immigrant father, who augments his office work  with a mid-life crisis that involves him leaving his wife and the narrator's mother for a different English woman.

    Karim, narrator and protagonist, is a bright, vibrant fellow, not gay but certainly bi-sexual, who decides to make his way as an actor.  He has amusing adventures along the way.  Like many characters coming of age in contemporary fiction, the growth process can look suspiciously like non-growth, or arrested development, but it is impossible to pin that on Kureishi, who does a good job blending style and really gives insight into the mentality of a second generation London area immigrant.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

At Home at the End of the World (1990) by Michael Cunningham

Book Review
At Home at the End of the World (1990)
 by Michael Cunningham

   At Home at the End of the World is a combination of a gay coming-of-age book and a contemporary relationship novel.  Each chapter is voiced in the first person by a different narrator.  The narrator rotates between the three main characters: Bobby, Jonathan and Clare with occasional appearances from Jonathan's mom.  The main childhood friendship is between Jonathan- essentially the main character and author stand in, Bobby- his straight friend, and Clare, who is the type of woman one might call a "fag hag" - in a non pejorative sense, of course.  

   Although these characters are 20 or so years older than I am, I recognized all of them, from the parents on down, as being accurate portrayals of urbanites in the late 1980's.   Unlike other gay-friendly lit titles from this time period, At Home at the End of the World explicitly deals with the AIDS crisis through the travails of a minor character who none the less features prominently in the unexpected resolution of the book.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Music of Chance (1990) by Paul Auster

Book Review
The Music of Chance (1990)
by Paul Auster

  Paul Auster is balls deep on the first edition of the 1001 Books list.  I was thinking about Auster while recently reading a book about the formation and maintenance of canons (called Canons), published around the same time as this novel.  The trend, in those days, was to oppose canons and critique the process of canon formation, often in the key of "dead, white men."  Ultimately, this critique foundered on the realities of institutional pedagogy: One has to teach something in freshman English, but it is this time period which gives us the concepts and vocabulary to accurately describe the canon forming process in the same way that I am attempting to describe it via the 1001 Books project.

  Most of the disparate essays in Canons deal with 19th century poetry, but one interesting essay on canon formation for American fiction between 1960 and 1975 makes some interesting empirical observations about what is essentially the current canon forming process.  The author's hypothesis is that the best place to start is the best seller list, and that you then overlay the best seller list with critical response- he doesn't differentiate between critical response before best seller status.

  If you want to apply this quick and dirty method to say, the current New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestseller list, you see quick results.  Of the 15 titles on this list, nearly half are automatically disqualified because the best-selling author has no critical audience.  These are titles by: David Baldacci, Nora Roberts, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, Janet Evanovich, Dean Koontz and John Grisham.   To the extent that any of these writers are likely to sneak onto any literary canon, it will be with a single, early novel.   Almost every other author on the New York Times Hardcover Top 15 Bestseller list can be excluded with a single Google Search:  Elin Hilderbrand (writer of summer beach read novels according to her wikipedia page), Paula Hawkins (thrillers), Adriana Trigiani (YA fiction), Don Winslow (Police procedurals), Lee Child (Jack Reacher books).

  This leaves us with two possibilities:

1.  The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
2.  Beach House for Rent by Mary Alice Monroe

  Since the list is rolling, you have to imagine doing this  maybe 30-40 times over the course of a year, and then toting up points at the end, that would give you your best canonical candidates for fiction.   Looking at these two, Arundhati Roy, who ticks all the serious lit boxes AND doesn't write fiction very often, seems like the obvious choice.   If you were looking for one book to maintain literary relevance over the summer, it would be the Roy novel, and if you were going to bet on one book from this time period, it would be that one.

  Which all goes to say that the inclusion of so many Paul Auster titles on the first 1001 Books list represents another manifestation of this best seller/critical appeal overlay.  Auster sells books and he appeals to critics, this makes each of his books, even the non best-selling titles, candidates for canonical inclusion.  He, like other artists writing in the "present" benefit from the easy access to pre-canonical "best of" lists, typically organized by year.

  The Music of Chance is an interesting novel, like other of his books it blends dark action and European style philosophical musings, with a firm understanding of the role of genre in serious fiction.  His books are recognizable but slightly askew, they go down easy, but stay with you over time.

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