Literary canon formation is a zero-sum game. I can think of several reasons for this, including the tendency of the literary establishment to turn absolutely everything into an exercise in hierarchical ranking — there are people out there in the world who can’t even look at a sack of potatoes without wanting to sort them in order from The Very Best Most Nearly Platonic Potato down to The Potato Which Barely Made It into the Sack in the First Place.
And then you have the Two-Semester Literature Survey Course — taught, usually, from the Fat Two-Volume Anthology. Combine compulsive ranking of everything with a limited amount of anthology shelf space, and literary scholarship starts to look like an episode of Survivor: Bibliography. Tenured professors and rising scholars engage in war to the knife to decide whose chosen texts are more important, more artistic, more nourishing to the mind and spirit . . . and recognizing something as “good” isn’t going to be enough. It can’t just be good. It needs to be better. It has to be best.
If this is beginning to sound a bit like those other arguments . . . the ones over whether the Enterprise-D could take out the Death Star, or about who’s the bigger hero, Batman or Superman . . . well, let’s just say that the people involved in all of these arguments take them very very seriously. The problem with the literary-canon-formation argument is that it slops over onto the heads of everybody else in the reading world, and tends to alienate a whole lot of people once they notice that it’s often their preferred reading material that’s getting dissed. Their reading material doesn’t get a ticket onto the canon island at all, and when they ask why, the answer that comes back sounds to them an awful lot like “because all that fun prole stuff you people like isn’t high-level enough to be art.”
I don’t want to blame the literary canoneers too much, though. It’s amazingly difficult to talk about the whole idea of voluntary avocational reading without the use of language which, deliberately or not, imposes rank and hierarchy upon it. We speak of “higher levels” of difficulty, and “greater” challenges; and — in our still-puritanical society — even words like “pleasure” and “relaxation” have a faint negative cast to them, especially when set beside words like “instruction” or “insight” or “self-improvement.”
I’m willing to accept that somebody else may find enjoyable something that I do not. After all, most of the people who tried to convince me, during my school days, that organized team sports were fun, certainly appeared themselves to enjoy them. But I’m no more fond than the next person of being told, or even feeling like I’m being told, that my enjoyment of those things that I do like is in some fashion inferior to the enjoyment experienced by other people who like something else.
My theory (I believe I’ve articulated it at the Viable Paradise workshop once or twice) is that what most of us are looking for in our reading is the perfect birthday present effect — the perfect birthday present being the one where you’re completely surprised by exactly what you’ve always wanted.
And nobody likes being told that their perfect birthday present is actually a cheap piece of Walmart trash.