Firing the Canon

Tuesday 27 January 2015

On a recent trip to Adelaide, Australia, I visited a second-hand bookstore. Predictably, it was up a small side street, hardly perceptible from the main street, and located down in the basement of a malodorous, subterranean cellar illuminated by harsh electric strip lights. The owner – he could not have been anyone else – was a fierce looking, thickly set man in a threadbare jumper with a magnificent Burt Reynolds moustache. He was not, I would learn, given to small talk. It was all deeply consoling.

After an hour or so of browsing – I’d lost track of time – I felt the inevitable obligation to buy a book. Even the Scots are not invulnerable to this feeling. Unable to choose from the writers and genres that usually appeal to me, I determined to buy a book I knew nothing about by an author I have never heard of. That’s me: A risktaker. I therefore picked up A Novel Bookstore, written, in French, by Laurence Cossé and translated by Alison Anderson. Burt Reynolds took my cash.

Having just that day finished the intensely moving The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, it transpires that Cossé’s novel was to become the second book translated from French that I would read consecutively. This is nothing more than a fluke. I am not, you know, intentionally getting into some kind of ‘French Season’.

I haven’t finished A Novel Bookstore, and haven’t yet decided if I really like it. The first section is somewhat, what shall I say, artistically rendered, and introduces an avalanche of characters (all with foreign sounding names!) that suffer rather nasty accidents. As the novel moves to the second section, some of the mists lift, and the reader comes to recognize that the novel – no surprises given the title – is about a Paris bookstore that only stocks ‘classic’ or ‘good’ novels. No celebratory cookbooks or misery memoirs here. The bookstore will be, the reader learns, a French language bookstore. It will include some contemporary French writers such as Annie Ernaux, Régine Detambel, Nicole Caligaris,and many others that I’m ashamed to say I have never previously heard of. In addition, however, the shop will also keep a limited number of indisputably great novels translated into French from a range of other languages.

I was reminded of this yesterday as I skimmed through the BBC’s website and came across an article called ‘The 21st Century’s 12 greatest novels’. No, I kid you not. The article emerges from a survey done amongst a variety of cultural luminaries who do their work at Time, The New York Times, and the Kirkus Review. Fine people, no doubt, who know things. The survey has distilled a list of 156 novels to 12. These 12 matter most. They are, as it were, primus inter pares. So what can we say about the list? Well, firstly, all the novels are originally written in English. And, all the novelists are American or English, with the exception of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria) and Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic). Most of the novelists are men (7 compared to 5 female writers), and 9 of the 12 are white.

The good social scientist says that you cannot draw too many conclusions from this one study and, anyway, you don’t know what questions the contributors were asked. This is true. Nevertheless, it is surely striking that if tentative inferences are to be drawn, it is that the most important literary writing of the 21st century to date is all in English, and written by a geographically limited number of mainly male, mainly white writers. We may hope now, as in the past, that views on value change diachronically.

Fortunately, the IB English Language and Literature course is more like the fictional Paris bookstore of my novel than the VIP views of a few cultural knowers. There is an insistence in Language and Literature that students study literature in translation, and it is hoped (at least) that this contributes to this thing we call ‘international mindedness’. It is, surely, a noble ambition.

Still, I have my quibbles with IB book lists, and I must confess to not entirely knowing my own mind. As a Scotsman, it peeves me that the PLA has not, as far as I can see (and I’m happy to be wrong) a single Scottish novelist. No Alisdair Gray. No Ali Smith. No A.L. Kennedy. No Jackie Kay. No James Kelman. No Janice Galloway. No Lewis Grassic Gibbon. All fine writers. And I could go on. However, the PLA does include a writer like Buchi Emecheta. This is great if one is interested in inclusion and pluralism (and I am). But is she stylistically interesting? And, the PLA includes William Boyd (who did some of his studies in Scotland!). I love William Boyd’s writing – especially read on the beach (or better still a bar by the beach). Does anyone teach William Boyd? Hands up.

My point is not to resolve issues of canonicity. My point is that we should continue to have the conversation on canonicity. It’s an especially good conversation to have with students of English Language and Literature, particularly if we are aiming to develop critical thinking skills amongst them. Some materials on the website provoke this kind of debate (for example, here and here).

A final trifling detail before returning to my reading: In A Novel Bookstore one of the central characters regards Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Border Trilogy’ as the greatest literary works ever written. And, no one would argue with that. Right?

Two Scoops
3 Feb 2015


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