Last month you’ll remember I talked (at length) about firing ‘a’ Scots Canon. This month we’ve moved on (just) and I’ll talk about ‘the’ canon. You might ask yourself what’s the difference between ‘a’ and ‘the’ and certainly I seem to be hung up on ‘a’ even now. Mostly that’s because to define ‘the’ Scots canon means to ‘name names’ and I’m not really interested in that, but more in the concept of why we would have any works regarded as canonical in Scottish culture.
So please bear with me – what’s an ‘a’ or a ‘the’ among friends eh? For those who like these kind of things – here’s a wee definition:
A and The are two articles used in the English language with difference. It is very important to know the difference between them. A is called as the indefinite article whereas ‘the’ is known as the definite article. This is the main difference between ‘a’ and ‘the’.
The article ‘a’ is called as indefinite article because it represents an object which is indefinite in nature. On the other hand the article ‘the’ is called as definite article because it represents and object which is definite in nature.
In my world of ‘theory’ I’d tend towards the indefinite because I am a great believer in that Daoist principle ‘name is the thief of identity.’ You pin something down when you name/identify it. This may seem like so much guff, but actually it does have a significance when you think about the notion of ‘the’ canon of literature. It’s the point at which you move from theory to practice.
Look at this question and answer and you’ll see what I mean:
Question: What is a canon?
(An) Answer: The idea of a literary canon implies some official status. To enter the canon, or more properly, to be entered into the canon is to gain certain obvious privileges.
It hands on status and privilege. Boil it down and my issue is with hierarchical structures in general. For me, a cultural hierarchy is actually a contradiction in terms. It is not surprising to find cultural hierarchy as the chosen system of those who favour a hierarchical society (eg capitalism) but most people just accept hierarchy as the ‘natural state’ for everything and therefore do not even question what we are doing (never mind what we mean) when we privilege one thing over another.
I’m keen to find written works that challenge the hierarchical mindset – which when you really drill into them, few works do. Even if they challenge the ‘system’ they tend to work within it. I want to know what a non-capitalist structure looks like – it’s not as simple as create an anti-hero and off you go – I want to know how we get rid of all the subliminal, embedded messages of capitalism which are the natural bedfellows of a canonical structure.
In terms of literary culture (which is the branch that interests me, but it’s pervasive in all other art forms) I suggest that it is at least partly the responsibility of the canon (or the concept of a canon) that we have become completely in thrall to the notion of ‘good’ and ‘quality’ and ‘best’. For someone to be an ‘award winning’ writer apparently means something. No one questions where, how or why the recognition is achieved. People seem to want to win and to wear gold star badges – and other people want to be seen to appreciate these tokens of esteem without question. I came across someone describing themselves as a ‘multi award winning’ writer recently and laughed into my hollow boots until they filled to the brim. I mean, come on – is this how anyone with any shred of dignity or integrity would self-describe.
My response to that is: So what?
Bestselling is another term. What does it mean? Shifted a lot of product. Shifted more product than other people or others of your own work. By definition the work that sells most is bestselling even if one of your books sells 3 copies and one 30. Why should this sway an audience, or give any kind of guidance to a reader? What does it have to say to us outside of a hierarchical or canonical structure?
The argument (I call it the sheep argument) seems to be that if other people like something we might like it to. And that if enough of them like it we really should like it too. This agreement seems to me to be based on fear – fear of not being liked and fear of not being accepted – fear of being stupid – of being different – of the stigma of other. And it has no place in a diverse and mature society.
Hear me? No more place than a gold star system.
You will rail against me. We have to be able to distinguish good from bad? Quality from rubbish. Do we? I dispute this. I prefer to think of ‘horses for courses.’ What suits one may not suit another. One size never fits all.
The fact remains that a hierarchical (and therefore canonical) structure applied to culture is bound to privilege the elite – that’s the point of hierarchies – the platform exists to support those at the peak.
Is it possible to flatten the structure? You bet it is. We don’t need the terminology of ‘better’ and ‘quality’ but we do need to be able to recognise things for what they are. Then we can make informed choices.
We then need to accept that we are all different with different interests and desires. Different viewpoints and different ways of seeing the world. This will, surprise, surprise, be reflected in our reading matter. Or should be.
I’m not advocating always sticking in the comfortable world of what you like. I’m all for everyone challenging themselves – but it requires a degree of honesty and courage to engage with work that you don’t like.
I suggest we should all interrogate our reasons for reading each time we pick up a book. Reading is not an easy thing to do. It requires a lot of the brain power/activity. It can be a mind-altering event and it should not be undertaken (even for escapism) without a degree of appreciation that one is engaging in a relationship in which one is not the only party – that compromises may have to be made – that there is something to be learned.
But how can you know what you want to read unless you rely on a/the canon? Or more precisely what is ‘worth’ reading. Again, fuzzy logic. What do we mean by ‘worth reading’? In one respect just about anything is worth reading if you approach it the right way. This is not just saying one man’s trash is another man’s treasure by the way, it’s suggesting that we can seek, find and imbue ‘value’ in anything we read. We just need to be more open and flexible in our mindset. My judgement of a ‘good’ reading experience is when I feel that I have connected with what the writer intended and so have a deeper level of communication or understanding as a result of the exchange. I could, of course, be ‘reading into’ a work – but it’s a much more productive stance than simply dismissing that which you don’t ‘understand’ or naturally favour as ‘rubbish’, ‘bad’, or ‘second-rate.’ You live by a hierarchy, you die by a hierarchy and if you change your structural pattern you open up a whole new world for yourself.
And what of reviews? How can they help you? You have to read them with, if not scepticism, then at least maturity to understand who is writing what and why and who is privileging what and why. Caveat reader! Canons are really just a kind of elitist review. Both ask you to take their opinion on trust. And why should you? A review often tells you more about the reviewer than the work being reviewed. For a review to have any real value for anyone (and we must accept that its value will be different for each reader) it should surely be linked to how it actually explains and explores the ‘reality’ of the work it reviews. It doesn’t need to tell us what’s ‘good’ but what there is to like. Less puff and shiny stars and more spades being called spades is what we need. Those who want to promote or prop up a canon are equally suspect. They may ‘know’ lots about literature – but what they know is how to privilege their own version of ‘the truth.’ That’s not a truth that will set anyone but themselves free.
Now, I am primarily concerned with the culture and canon of my country. And as regards Scotland and canons I have an uncomfortable sense of irony. I don’t think Scots should accept the concept of a canon of literature unless we are happy to self-define as North British once more. I believe (I may be wrong but it’s my belief) that as countries we are individualised by different social structures. English feudalism is different from Scots community. I do not recognise such a thing as ‘British’ identity or culture. Even if you disagree with me on that point, you may still agree that a hierarchical structure such as canonical literature is a negative influence on a culture.
For me the irony rests at least partly in the fact that English literature has long established a canon in which Scottish writing is still the under-privileged poor relation - denied and rebranded as British, or diversified solely for the point of ‘minority’ interest. That others do this to our works of literature is bad enough. That we do it to ourselves is the ultimate irony. We need to throw off all the chains of our oppression.
Scotland is different. Scotland holds community and the oral tradition and diversity of dialect and language in a different (not better, not worse) manner than England, or America, or… well, anywhere else. We are unique unless we homogenise ourselves. At least this is what I believe.
For me, privileging Scott or Stevenson or Burns or MacDiamid or Welsh or Kelman or anyone is simply a folly. An act of hierarchical control or dominance. And we should not embrace it.
Let’s get personal. Tartan Noir is partly a fashion statement, partly a branding operation but also reflective of the concerns of some members of our nation (not all.) You enjoy it or you don’t. You may not even recognise it as a ‘thing’ in and of itself. Why should you? If you like one Tartan Noir work will you like another? Do you like apples because you like oranges? Should you? Personally, I’m not a fan of crime/detective/thriller type stories. Or police procedurals. Or urban based literature. That’s just me. I don’t seek to denigrate them because of my personal opinion. I can see they serve a function and ‘speak’ to many people. I have some reasons why that bothers me and they are of the ‘life reflecting art’ nature. I wonder why it is that our culture seems to be obsessed with crime and horror and the ‘dark’ side of life. It doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly healthy obsession. Replacing the tyranny of hierarchy by the tyranny of what may be voyeuristic tendencies doesn’t seem a positive move. Perhaps it represents a lack of self-confidence or self-worth– but if it’s what people like (genuinely like) then that’s what they like and I can have nothing to say about it other than it’s not my bag, thanks. Of course I go beyond personal comment and talk about what I perceive to be the role of literature in society but my opinion on that is, as ever, simply my opinion which either will or won’t touch you, or convince you, or annoy you – depending on your own views which may or may not be more or less mediated by a hierarchical view of society in general and literature in particular.
It’s worth remember that when I say:
I like Crockett but I don’t like Scott
I like Barrie but I don’t like Oliphant
This is not a hierarchical statement it’s purely a statement of personal preference. I can argue why you might want to read Crockett or Barrie – I can argue why I don’t like Scott and Oliphant but I can like many and diverse texts at different times and for different reasons. And just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean I won’t read it. I will read it for different reasons.
I NEVER read to be cool. I NEVER read to be accepted. I never read to have my own personal vision of the world re-inforced. (Just as well, there’s precious little literature that does that!) I read because I’m curious about all kinds of lives and writers are one of the fastest ways into different opinions, different cultural perspectives and different worlds that I know. They tell it how they think it is, unlike conversations with ‘real’ people, who, it seems, always have one eye on the gold stars and where they might be perceived to stand on the hierarchy.
What have I got against Scott and Oliphant? First the style. Too long-winded for me. That’s my problem not theirs. I was not their target audience. Second and more importantly (for me at least) the political stance. That’s all of our problems – they were writing at least partially to promote and reinforce a set of values that I don’t either favour or accept. So I might read them to find out their ‘arguments’ or world-view, but since I don’t agree with or like that view I’m unlikely to find it captivating, enthralling or even enjoyable. And thirdly, perhaps most important of all, they are hierarchical in their approach. Of course they are. Their goal is to reinforce not to overthrow. Barrie and Crockett, however they may be cast (by the canonical hierarchists)as nostalgic, are both closer to my understanding of reality, and both explore the very notion of hierarchy – Crockett primarily through character and setting and Barrie primarily through narrative structure and style.
So I say, fire the canon. Shoot the hierarchical pattern into oblivion. Stop cowtowing to the big guns. Stop looking into the barrel of the gun. Start looking around you, pick up a few stray things you find lying around inconsequentially and see what there is to learn. Discover a few species that are ‘new’ to you. And keep a record as you read of what it is that you like and what you don’t. Ask yourself why this is. See whether you are coherent in your likes and dislikes. Test yourself. Don’t worry about what other people think of you. That’s cultural hierarchy stalking you. Set yourself free to say (for example):
I don’t like anything the Enlightenment stands for
I am unlikely to enjoy Enlightenment literature
But you may find one that you like (you may, I don’t think I have yet) I like this 18th century novel – why? How? What is it that I like about it? Remember it’s okay not to like something. That’s not the only reason to read. The world of words is a much bigger place than that with much more on offer. It begs you to use more of your brain.
I might say, I like Lanark but I don’t like Poor Things. Why? I find Grey disturbing at the best of times. I found the former interesting in terms of what it said to me about politics and society primarily as well as excitingly challenging regarding structure. The latter was just ‘too’ weird for me. Note FOR ME. I didn’t ‘get it’ in the same way I did Lanark. That’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, but it’s a statement of fact. One day I may read it again, when I am a different person and my relation to the world and the world of Grey is different and I may ‘get’ it, or if not, at least ‘appreciate’ it, or at least be able to engage with it on a deeper level.
The world of words and the authors who write them is infinitely complex. It’s never as simple as if you like a you will like b simply because they are by the same author. For me, the reason that I liked Lanark is more closely linked to why I like Sentimental Tommy. We humans make patterns. We like to draw connections. I am happy to draw my own connections, based on personal preferences on aspects like story, structure, character. A canonical hierarchy would suggest that you must (or should) like a because it is better than b. The question remains better for whom rather than better in what way?
Step away from the pyramid. Flatten the structure. Fire the Scots canon into the cultural hierarchy and get down and dirty amidst the rubble, finding something that you want to read. This is a real cultural revolution.
Next month I’m going to explore a ‘new covenant’ as an alternative way to finding and reading and experiencing culture.
To find past articles please use monthly archives.