“…almost all critical judgment…is in the main built on prejudice.” So wrote British writer E. E. Kellett. (“What is Literature?” by Arthur Krystal, Harpers, March 2014, pg. 93) His pronouncement came as a relief, as I’d just read and hated two bestselling novels for my upcoming YouTube series “Just Read It” with Susan Stoner, (See Blog 2/10/14). To be fair, the writing was up to the task, in fact one writer’s prose was lyrical. What I couldn’t stomach were the plots. So what makes a novel literature, I wondered, style or story?
If Kellett is correct, the decision is a matter of preference — although he cautions that readers have an obligation to recognize their biases. Arthur Krystal, the essayist who quotes Kellet, takes a different view. He concludes that literature is what critics tell us is good but that their opinions are often based upon politics. The canon of literature we use today began in the 18th century. It was a rebellion against the tyranny of ancient Greek and Latin scholars. England, in particular, was eager to promote its own heritage and by consensus, lionized writers like Shakespeare and Milton. This list the elite developed became known as the cannon of Great Books. To challenge it “was to mess with civilization itself.” (Ibid pg. 91).
Of course, rebels abound, ready to challenge traditionalists. (See blog 2/12/14) When new genres were born, like mysteries and science fiction, where was their place in the canon of literature, they asked? In 1952, Encyclopedia Britannica drafted a new list and called it Great Books of the Western World. (Ibid pg. 92.) Who was left in and who left out was again a matter of politics – the arbitrary opinion of so-called experts who drew a line between popular and high culture. The proposed standard for selection was whether or not the work reflected the values of its milieu (Ibid pg. 91) and whether or not the English departments of key universities melded it into their curriculum. (Ibid pg. 93.)
Given the arbitrariness of literature’s history, I have to wonder what the contemporary writer Philip Roth means when he says literature is dying? Perhaps he means that what he values is no longer the fashion. The past is a good place to start when we talk of standards, but art, like time, refuses to stands still. To like or dislike a book begins with personal taste. But whether the work is literature or not depends upon the opinions of many, possibly a society’s.
In the end, the canon to which artists bend their knees is nothing more than the majority opinion of those whom we endow with the authority to make that decision.
(Courtesy of behindmim.com)