In order to maintain the pretence that I’m in any way a social creature, I joined a bookclub (see WriteronWriter for the blog of one of the co-clubbers). In response to a recent article in The Australian (and see the replies), a short disagreement arose about the merits of Dead White Guy Lit.
There is obviously a difference between ‘popular culture’ and ‘culture’ simpliciter. If there weren’t, those two words would mean the same thing. We understand intuitively that there is a difference between ‘That which I find enjoyable’ and ‘That which I recognise as good’. Note, this distinction has not always been appreciated. Even somebody as elite as Immanuel Kant argued that, if there were a disagreement between the conventions of style and taste and that which he found pleasing, he would tell the advocate of the conventions to utter not a word more. Cultural excellence was, somehow, immediate: it did not require further reasoning. That Kant dedicates a book to the subject suggests that, perhaps, further reasoning was needed…
‘It’s very good but I did not enjoy it’ would be incoherent if there were not a divide between pleasurable and excellent. As it is not incoherent, there is a divide.
So how can we distinguish between the excellent and the pleasurable? The obvious answer is cultivation.
I’ve always loved Coleridge. The words were enjoyable – wonderful. It took me a very long time before I’d realise exactly why they were so enjoyable and so wonderful. More, it would take me even longer before I’d realise exactly why Coleridge’s poetry was so excellent. In order to do that, I had to read a lot of poetry which introduced Coleridge to the world and a lot of poetry which was written in response to Coleridge.
I wrote absolutely asinine poetry as a kid. Holy crap, it was crap. Fortunately, it was never about my feelings or about girls (two subjects about which no poetry should be written — or, rather, two subjects about which I should be forbidden from ever writing: ‘Lust! — Sing, Muse! The Lust for that hot blue chick from that video game…’). The problem I faced was that I didn’t have the toolkit to write good poetry.
It would be false to say that there is more dreck in the public sphere today than there has been in the past. The horrors of Harry Potter, Dan Brown, and Twilight seem large because they are closer to us. What they all have in common is a complete blindness to the cultural history which has generated them. Being blind, they don’t seek the tools that our cultural toolkit could provide them. Harry Potter would be thoroughly more enjoyable if it didn’t seem like it was written by a twelve-year old.
It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew – and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents – that there was all the difference in the world. [Rowling, HP&HBP]
While it would be fun to wail on Rowling’s inability to write (and I’m sorely, sorely tempted to do exactly that), it would distract me from my point: this isn’t good writing. This is barely mediocre writing. It’s not writing; it’s typing (to quote Capote).
It’s hard to see Rowling take a seat next to Austen or Bronte at the table of English female writers. It’s hard to see Rowling take a seat next to Tolkien and Lewis at the table of English fantasy writers. It’s hard to see Rowling take a seat next to Carroll and Milne at the table of English childrens writers. Where does she fit? Sure, she’s made an enormous amount of money — but this seems to emphasise the point that thereis a sharp difference between good and excellent.
The same goes for the others. Is Brown a modern Conan Doyle? Suetonius? Whoever wrote the Infancy Gospel of St Thomas?
To return to Fry, the problem appears to be the belief of these authors (and the people profiteering on the back of them) that everybody has a novel inside them and that all you need is a blank page and some ink. While everybody might have a novel inside them, unless they have the tools cultivated by our cultural background, they’re going to write crappy, crappy novels (which they did). On the other side, in order to understand the texts — and, more importantly, understand the severe shortcomings of these authors — the reader has to have a familiarity with the cultural backdrop of these texts.
And this is why the Canon is essential. It cultivates our senses to understand and intuit the difference between that which we enjoy and that which is excellent.