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Cultural Anxiety

At Prospect, Richard Jenkyns discusses what he calls canon anxiety. In a lengthy but never less than interesting essay, Do We Need A Literary Canon? he argues that our sense of belonging, our shared references, must evolve more organically.

Consider the most striking literary canonisation of our times. Jane Austen has always been esteemed, and FR Leavis sanctified her as one of the bearers of the “great tradition,” a sort of doctor of his secular church. But in the past 15 years she has turned into the English novelist, an inescapable part of the public consciousness, more universally present than any other writer bar Shakespeare. Some people think she owes her current prominence to popular fantasies of tight breeches and bosoms heaving beneath empire-line dresses. This does not seem likely: if that is what people want, they can get it more readily from Georgette Heyer. Another view is that she has benefited from nostalgia for a safer, quieter and more decorous world; but the idea that the world of her novels is cosy and comfortable can hardly survive the reading of them. Most of her modern popularity is the result of her actual merits, and in a broad sense the highbrows and the lower-middlebrows are admiring the same things: well-made plots, perceptive depiction of character and the acute study of social interaction. It is a genuine popular canonisation.

8 Responses to “Cultural Anxiety”

  1. I actually believe that great books, over time, really can be admired by the high-brows and the lower-middle-brows. They may relate to different characters within the books. But the two classes equally enjoy them. Such books must have the scope that so many novels on my side of the Atlantic at least lack today. But it may be more a reflection of the social stratification that has taken hold of American society over the years than anything else.

    CBaker

  2. Shawn says:

    Well, here I go again, ranting on your blog, John 🙂

    I think that the contemporary popularity of Jane Austen is for all the wrong reasons. She is unfortunately popular precisely due to the “popular fantasies of tight breeches and bosoms heaving beneath empire-line dresses”. Georgette Heyer may have done that sort of thing better, but no one knows, nor cares, who Georgette Heyer is. Most people were assigned a Jane Austen novel to read in High School (speaking of US high school here), just as they were made to read Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. This is the most obvious and simple explanation for Jane Austen’s popularity.

    Call me an elitist, but I still think that the opinions of people who know what they’re talking about should have more value than the opinions of people who don’t.

    The cannon has evolved pretty much organically: educated people reading, writing about, and discussing books have come to a consensus over the course of history on a group of books that represent the best of our culture and thinking. There isn’t a The irony is that it is precisely educated, or overeducated, people who have been trying to dismantle the cannon in the name of some form of populism. The definition of a middle brow is someone who receives wisdom or knowledge, but does not create it, a high brow, creates knowledge, wisdom, works of art. They create, judge, set standards, for the middle brow and everyone else to follow. The easiest way to not be a middle brow is to think for yourself.

    Jenkyns arguments for a so-called populist cannon are because we don’t have any heroes (?) and people are less educated than they used to be. I don’t want to put words into Jenkyns mouth or attribute ideas to him that he does not profess, but I do think that the bemoaning the absence of heroes often really means, “we no longer have popular authority figures that will help keep the rabble pacified”. And the argument that we dumb down the cannon because people are getting dumber is really a symptom of the core problem we face as a civilization.

    Once upon a time, rampant illiteracy and ignorance inspired armies of reformers to demand better education for all and free access to education for all. They viewed mass ignorance as an unconscionable failure of society.

    Now people simply accept this lazy and cowardly, extreme majority rule philosophy: if everybody’s dumb, then we just have to make things dumber for all the dummies. We can’t inconvenience anyone by expecting them to meet basic requirements of social cultural and linguistic literacy. It’s this fatalist “the customer is always right”, “the rich are always going to be rich, the poor always poor”, “you can’t fight city hall” philosophy that has permeated every aspect of our lives.

    The term middle brow itself used to be an insult, something to be ashamed of, a label to be avoided,now it’s just a market demographic to be served.

    We couldn’t stop people from closing down the factories and taking away our jobs, it was inevitable, a force of nature, so why should we be able to change anything else, even ourselves. Everything is accommodation, no more questioning, no more challenging. Sorry, if it appears that I’ve gone off on a tangent, but I really do think all these things are related to each other.

    jb says
    : Hi Shawn. Hey, you’re welcome to rant here whenever the feeling comes over you. One, you’re good at it, and, two, I have the feeling that you say many of the things that others are feeling but keeping to themselves.

  3. Shawn says:

    Sorry for my lengthy and poorly formatted previous post. Let me say again, that I don’t necessarily think that Richard Jenkyns is wrong, he makes some excellent points, but I think he is wrong about the cannon. Just as an example, I’m not a fan of the bible but even if only theologians and literary critics ever read it from now on, it’s cultural impact would still be felt centuries from now. A book does not have to be widely read to be influential, as his Don Quixote reference demonstrates.

  4. Having just read Shawn’s post, I want to associate my comments with his in this regard: the growing sense of paralysis in modern Western democracies. I think it’s created a couple generations of fiction that is wholly disengaged with the reader. For me it’s not a matter of high or low brow but of books seeking a wider audience. If you look at current fiction, the process it must go through to get published, is often a weeding out of stories set in the wider world. Fiction has eschewed the actual world for a much smaller internal world. Even in terms of themes, writers have turned away from subjects affecting everyone in favor of a kind of prose that is beautiful on the surface but really engages little with the wider world of people going to work in their service industry jobs and shopping at strip malls and even this, replying to posts put online by strangers. But apparently, that’s the way the book world likes it. To read fiction grounded in the world outside of NY and London literary agent scenes and happy hours would be to live in countries where the people were accustomed to being active participants in the destiny of their own nations. And that’s simply not the case. And marketers have more say about what’s being published than the reading audience that is shrinking in part because of the poor offerings given them by book marketers.

    jb says: Hi Charlie, thanks for that. It goes right to the point, while only locating the tip of the iceberg. We seem to be undermining the democracies ourselves by listening to the polemic of our politicians who tell us lies with a straight face even when they’re caught with their hands in the pot. Shame is, the people marketing the politicians are the same ones marketing the books. At the same time the reading public is diminishing, it is not a coincidence that the membership of political parties is doing the same thing, both events driven by an increasing sense of alienation with the process.

  5. I deny the premise that “everyone knew” a canon. For better or worse, no more than the best-educated 5% or less of any western society has ever had any more than cursory knowledge of the relevant “canon” so that, instead of a pitch for what “the general public” should have but never actually has read, it’s really a much less credible and profitable suggestion about what certain already self-confident cultural elites should read, that the rest should accept on the basis of good will or faith. I can’t wish this thesis even an hearty “good luck.”

    jb says: Not entirely shy an quiet, then? You don’t think Jane Austen is popular? OK, it’s an opinion.

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  7. Cathy @ 3 at 1 Copying says:

    How can you say that Jane Austen is not entirely popular where have you been, have you not seen the increase in movies been made on her work, but then again everyone is entitled to their own views and comments who am I to judge???

    I have visited this site before but have noticed that I have been moderated, which is a pity as I do enjoy reading here.

    jb says: You weren’; moderated, Cathy. Only put in an automatic queue while I was away on holiday.

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