Burn The Canon!
April 3, 2007 8:36 PM   Subscribe

EnglishMajorFilter: Why can't I stand much of the canon? How can I learn to appreciate it?

Okay, I'm an English major and despite what the question says, I love it to death. I really do like analyzing works, and feel that this is what I should be studying.

That said, I simply can't stand a number of works in the canon that I have been forced to study. The first canon writer I found intolerable was Edmund Spenser. I've also developed a fond dislike of nearly the entire list of Romantic poets I've been exposed to (Blake, Wordsworth, Burns, Hemens, and Keats). I cannot stand Emily Dickinson, and the member of the canon I can't stand at all is Henry James. I've read The Turn of the Screw as well Daisy Miller and a host of other short stories that I've blocked out.

It's not for lack of trying, but what the hell am I not getting about these writers?

It's probably relevant that I list what I do enjoy, which is mostly modern/post-modern writing: James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami, Don DeLilo, Ezra Pound are the first writers that come to mind.
posted by SansPoint to Education (35 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I have an English degree and I feel the same way. In fact, it's gotten so bad that I only read the same 10 books over and over again.

I think there is no universal standard of "good." Frankly, many of the writers that have been canonized blow big time, in my opinion. However, someone else finds or found them interesting. And that's what it boils down to, just read and enjoy what you find interesting, and to hell with the rest.

I think it was Flaubert who said something like, "It is better to know a handful of book really well, then hundreds poorly."
posted by milarepa at 8:49 PM on April 3, 2007

Erm, this is called taste. It's a sign that you're a committed reader. It's good to have strong feelings about the things you read. I'd be more worried if you loved things just because they were canonical.

I would try reading Emily Dickenson alongside hack writers who wrote in the same style and try to see if you can tell the difference in quality. You don't have to like Emily Dickenson, but it's probably not a bad idea to figure out why other people think she's a good writer.
posted by craichead at 9:02 PM on April 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

You know, canon may be great books, but in the end, they're books. No matter how good the book is, if you have specific tastes and the book is not part of that, it's not going to do it for you. For instance, improvisational jazz. I appreciate the technique of this type of jazz, I understand great creativity that goes into creating it--but Jesus Christ, I can't stand it. I can't listen to more than a few minutes without wanting to shoot myself in the face. That doesn't mean the jazz is bad, it's just not my thing.

So that's what certain canon writers are for you. I also hate those fucking Romantics. Byron and his endless whining about how misunderstood he is and how nobody will let him have sex with his sister--shut up, already! Great technique and innovation does not mean you have to like it.
posted by schroedinger at 9:04 PM on April 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

It's not necessary that you like them. It's necessary for you to understand why they're part of "the canon". That's what English Majors are supposed to do, no?

I can't speak for the major myself but I majored in Film. It wasn't necessary for me like all the films that are considered classics but it was necessary for me to understand how they fit into film history--what their makers brought to the table given the context of what came before--and what their contribution did to affect the history of their chosen medium. You cannot understand that about works you don't like until you understand that finding those things out is the goal. Once you know it, you can examine the work objectively. No one cares if you like Turn of the Screw. They're only interested if you can explain the impotance of the novel in a way that hasn't yet been done or in a way that has been done but in a simpler fashion.
posted by dobbs at 9:04 PM on April 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

importance! :)
posted by dobbs at 9:06 PM on April 3, 2007

I have an English degree and I disliked much (but not all) of the canon. I tried to focus my essays on the context of the writing, as opposed to just the writing itself. (Or I'd do Marxist-Leninist, post-modernist, feminist or Biblical analyses of the text.) However, it helped me to discover other writers, as I was fortunate to have profs who included selections from outside the canon. Wherever possible, I took courses outside the canon.
posted by acoutu at 9:10 PM on April 3, 2007

Read some criticism and history of the stuff you hate. Go to the journals. You can probably find something interesting in there. That's what I did. As others have said, your job is to understand why others thought they were important. Enjoying is optional. If I have to read 20-40 novels and lengthy poems in 3-4 months, I'm not going to enjoy them either (as I recall.) It's university, not a holiday camp. You're supposed to know something about the range of literature, so you appear somewhat knowledgeable.
posted by Listener at 9:19 PM on April 3, 2007

This has effectively been said by schroedinger and milarepa, but, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, no great [book] is for everyone-only bad [books] are for everyone.
posted by asuprenant at 9:21 PM on April 3, 2007

I'm a former English major too, and I think it would be ludicrous to like something simply because it's a canonical work. But if you're interested in striving for a well-rounded understanding of literature, it's important to keep reading works from all genres and time periods. No one says you have to like Keats, but what if you let that turn you off from reading anything written by a Romantic author? Would you dismiss Frankenstein unread? You'll be stunting your own education, and end up no better than the people who can't see the value in modern literature. So, give everything a fair shake, try to see the value of it, and then like what you want to like.
posted by MsMolly at 9:24 PM on April 3, 2007

It's necessary for you to understand why they're part of "the canon". That's what English Majors are supposed to do, no?

Interestingly enough, my survey courses have been almost anything but why they are in the canon. The texts are mostly presented as a blank slate for us to practice our interpretive and critical skills upon. History plays a very minor role. I wonder if it is either the English Department at my school (Temple University) or my professors which I can blame for this.

With regard to the canon, and my classes, the biggest problem I have is that I find it excruciatingly difficult to read something that fails to grab my interest, or worse, repels me (i.e. Henry James). When I'm interested, say by the love poems of John Donne[1], or French Symbolist Lit[2], I'll devour it.

[1] Donne was a total perv. You don't get much of that in Brit Lit classes, I find.
[2] Which I discovered by taking a mystery "Special Topics" class, and fell in love.

posted by SansPoint at 9:27 PM on April 3, 2007

MsMolly, I loved Frankenstein when I read it in an Intro to Prose class. It's romantic poetry I can't stand (except for some of Coleridge).
posted by SansPoint at 9:29 PM on April 3, 2007

I'm a PhD lit student and I can tell you that the canon is becoming less and less important and the parameters which describe it are becoming less and less concrete. Your dislike for it probably comes in large part from your appreciation/being a product of the post-modern (never mind the debate surrounding the hyphen). In fact, I've often felt like we're still made to read much of the so called classics as a kind of hazing (see the GRE subject test in Literature). I got through my MA exam by reading the cliff notes of those canonized works which I had a particular disinterest in. I also took a few good period courses that helped me understand the historical context for some of these works which led to grudging appreciation of works I had no previous appreciation for..
posted by Dr. Lurker at 9:35 PM on April 3, 2007

I'm guessing that you're an undergrad, in which case you might have the same experience I did. The stuff I loved when I getting my BA (Lawrence, Pound, Faulkner), the writers that just resonated with me in some fashion, had much less appeal when I went to graduate school. There, I found that the format of the small seminar classes and the contextual and theoretical readings we did alongside the main texts increased my enjoyment of entire eras of literature that had previously seemed unappealing. Also, my professors in grad school were often so passionate about the subjects that they taught that I could at least understand why Clarissa could get someone so het up, even if I found it interminable.

I never would have believed as an undergrad that I would end up concentrating in Victorian literature. I think the way it is presented in the Norton Anthology and was taught to me made it impossible to enjoy the era- long, disjointed section from Newman, Carlyle, Mill and Ruskin and other stick-up-the-ass sideburned windbags who addressed historical trends about which I knew little and cared less.

My first year of grad school, I took a seminar on sex and death in Victorian poetry - to get some coverage for my comps - with a professor who had done much of her research on 19th century madness and suicide. By the end of the class, I was an avowed, if somewhat ignorant, Victorianist. The writings were much more fascinating when I realized how amazing fucked UP the Victorians were, god bless them. I started to read less for narrative escape or for the underlining of profound thoughts (so painful to look at my marginalia now), and more as a challenge - what am I going to do with this book? What connections am I going to make? What evidence am I going to find that will confirm or alter the theories I've developed about the era and the genre?

So I guess my prof's cult of personality and my exposure to cultural theory made the works much richer to me than when I approached them simply as a reader who would like or dislike something in itself.

And while I no longer read with the pig-sniffing-for-truffles intensity as I did in grad school, I've learned to apply this inquiry to any section of lit I'm thrown into - fortunate, since I've somehow found myself teaching ancient and early modern lit. But these are still some works I dislike, and I can always avoid them. I've read them, I can nod knowingly if you make a reference to them, but they play no other role in my life. It's a big canon.

And I still can't stand Henry James.
posted by bibliowench at 9:46 PM on April 3, 2007

Another literature Ph.D. student posting to say: this is not a problem, it's a sign that you are an individual reader with your own responses, preferences, and ideas. A (very intelligent) colleague in my Ph.D. program says she sincerely cannot understand why Emily Dickinson is even considered a good poet; I, for my part, often find Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens hard to take seriously.

We all have our own stumbling blocks, and also conversely authors that we esteem more highly than is usual. While it's not enough by itself, either kind of response can be a great start to a piece of critical writing: how can I give an account or explanation, in the most persuasive and detailed way I can manage, of why this text repels or enthralls me? Even some of the greatest critics of decades past (I'm looking at you, F.R. Leavis) have elevated their own prejudices idiosyncrasies by providing lengthy critical arguments for them.

Particularly with regard to the 19th-century poets you say you're having trouble with: the problem can be simply alienation from their vocabulary and diction, but I am guessing it is more likely that you're reading the poems in a mode of detached contemplation (and finding they fail to work for you as pure art objects) where a little historical and critical context might make them seem more significant. Try glancing at some of the many, many volumes of great criticism that have been written about the Romantics (anywhere from Cleanth Brooks's essay on Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" to Jerome McGann's Romantic Ideology, or on Dickinson, maybe Sharon Cameron's Lyric Time) and see if that helps. Criticism, when it's good (and when it speaks to you), can serve as a reminder of what was, and what still is, powerful in a text that you don't feel an immediate connection to. I think it's a shame, but it seems like some literature majors end up reading very little criticism until grad school or personal interest leads them to it. (This might not be true of you, so feel free to ignore.)
posted by RogerB at 10:04 PM on April 3, 2007

What everyone else said + if you know a foreign language or two, Consider Comparative Literature
posted by conch soup at 11:01 PM on April 3, 2007

From the examples you mention, it seems like it's the older works that you're finding most difficult to plug into; as RogerB points out, social context, genre conventions, intellectual concerns, and plain old diction very often get in the way of appreciating some of these older works.

Yet I think the question you pose here is exactly the right one--it's risky to dismiss dusty canonical tomes at first blush. Better to really consider (as you clearly are) *why* you find these older works distasteful or boring or bad, and whether the problem is simply that you haven't yet developed an interpretive framework that can apply to these texts, or whether on the other hand the readings you dislike bother you for some more significant (and interesting) reasons.

Personally, I looked to the nineteenth century literature as a means of understanding the twentieth, and then moved back again to the Renaissance as a means of understanding the nineteenth. For me, it seemed impossible to get a grasp on the present without trying to understand the ideas and moments that gave rise to recent (and more readily accessible) lit.

As you do your reading and take your courses, consider the connections between the works you read and the relation of these texts to your own critical interests (what subjects and questions are now of persistent critical interest to you, across your courses?)

More advice: talk to your teachers about this. Perhaps find one you like, and discuss with him or her what courses might be good to take next semester. Use Google etc. to find out what your professors teach and have written. You can take classes with those whose interests are similar to yours, and perhaps even write papers that engage with and (respectfully) challenge their conclusions (I tended to enjoy doing this as an undergrad). They'll love you for this, of course.
posted by washburn at 11:38 PM on April 3, 2007

It's essential that you divorce your enjoyment from your critical faculties. Also, you must learn to enjoy utilizing those critical faculties. That's not to say that you can't retain the ability to like or dislike a work on an emotive, intuitive, non-analytical basis. You should. But there are a great many works that are worth reading whether or not they are enjoyable. Indeed, even if they are very unpleasant.

The naive, traditional theory of the various canons are that they are meritorious. As a dedicated student of the so-called Great Books canon, I think there's enough truth in that supposition that it is relevant. So to the degree to which this is true, then presumably these works are worth reading even if they are unpleasant and even if the ideas within them are repugnant.

To the degree to which this isn't true, and the inclusion of a work is less meritorious than it is an accident of history, then there remain at least two other reasons to read these works. First, as several people say above, there is the metatextual, historical familiarity and comprehension of a text that is worthwhile. Second, an important aim of your education is the honing of your critical skills and your ability to take effective oppositional critical positions relative to a text is valuable and important. There is opportunity there with the books you think are not very good.

You shouldn't be expected either to enjoy all the works you read nor agree that each and every one is worth reading. But you are expected to support a negative view on the basis of something more skillful and rational than "I didn't enjoy it".

I can't emphasize enough how essential it is for mature intellectual growth to learn to not rely upon the positive feedback of simple pleasure to motivate you to think carefully and deeply. This is true in the case of anything worth doing well. It's true with all intellectual work. But it's especially true when working in a domain that most people, and most beginning students, participate in primarily because it entertains them. This is the case with literature and other art forms—every serious student must mature beyond that simple motivation.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:52 PM on April 3, 2007 [5 favorites]

Make your own Mofo canon! Non-canonical works have importance as well!

I hate hate hate hate hate The Scarlet Letter and I have refused to read it every single time. Fie on you, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

So, I look for merit in other books, popular, modern books, and I'm building my own personal canon.

posted by santojulieta at 12:56 AM on April 4, 2007

"Reading Lolita In Tehran" made me appreciate Henry James (when I'd previously disregarded him) to the extent that now he's one of my favorite authors. You might want to check that out!
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:35 AM on April 4, 2007

I'm an English graduate, so I'll chime in although I think my points have pretty much already been made. In my last year I took a course on Joyce's Ulysses. The lecturer who led the class claimed it was the only book he ever read any more for recreation, and that he'd come to really hate most other books. He was one of my most competent teachers and a great guy to boot. Most of the other lecturers were pretty focussed in their reading habits as well, if not quite to that extent. So I don't think disliking even large sections of the canon means that you're a literary moran.
posted by Drexen at 3:04 AM on April 4, 2007

Sometimes my "way in" to canonical authors is to discover what makes them incredibly weird and idiosyncratic. Emily Dickinson, for example. What's up with those dashes? The bizarre pseudo-subjunctive tenses? And what the hell is she even talking about, anyway?

I think some authors become canonical in part because they take near super-human risks to realize their unique visions in the most authentic ways possible. It's often hard to appreciate those risks without historical perspective, but I find that sometimes a certain intensity burns through nonetheless. If you can find or feel your way toward that focal point of intensity, that can be a way in.
posted by treepour at 5:07 AM on April 4, 2007

You could try imagining what kind of person would enjoy the canonical work you're currently reading -- what experiences has reader had, what are his loves and hates, that make this work compelling? Was he reading for pleasure, for education, for some kind of reassurance that he was living a moral or otherwise superior life? I find this enriches some otherwise dull experiences for me.
posted by amtho at 5:55 AM on April 4, 2007

Henry James is just terrible.

As for the rest, it's mostly a matter of finding a good professor or a good someone who really actually likes the author and letting them explain why they really like the author.

And I still don't really care for a great deal of British stuff; I liked The Faerie Queene almost entirely because of how much the Redcrosse Knight reminded me of a certain paladin in a D&D game I was in.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:10 AM on April 4, 2007

no great [book] is for everyone-only bad [books] are for everyone

I suspect this is true, but it troubles me. Must great books be unpopular? If so, what makes them great?
posted by futility closet at 6:23 AM on April 4, 2007

Do you like any poetry? When you have the chance to watch television or read poetry, do you choose television?

Maybe you're in the wrong field. "I really do like analyzing works" -- try cryptography?
posted by pracowity at 6:24 AM on April 4, 2007

You're not supposed to enjoy it!
Seriously, you think all those physics graduates are just tickled pink by fluid mechanics? Reading for enjoyment and reading for academic study are distinctly different things. This is something I failed to appreciate before starting my BA. There will sometimes be an overlap, but ultimately you will have to learn to read stuff you don't enjoy, something that most people have never had to do before.
It's a matter of perspective. If you think of it as work, it's enjoyable. If you think of it as pleasure, you're going to get pissed off.
posted by greytape at 6:30 AM on April 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

pracowity, the OP says he likes Pound!
posted by treepour at 6:35 AM on April 4, 2007

I'm a former English (and Comparative) Lit major too, and have found that sometimes, the best way to participate in / experience literature is by listening to it. Honestly, I would never have been able to *read* The Brothers Karamozov or Faulkner's The Hamlet, but listening to the book on tape versions were so enjoyable that I didn't want the experience to end! A good reader can bring so much to the reading - think of the difference between reading a play and watching one... Give yourself a chance to listen to a really good audiobooks reader and see if it makes a difference.
posted by crepeMyrtle at 7:07 AM on April 4, 2007

The copyrights on the canon material have long since expired; so it is 'free' literature. Canon material will never go away for that reason, and the yellowed lecture papers of many professors testify to how well it regurgitates.

Dr. Lurker had the right mind of using Cliffs notes if you have to in order to finish a reading and move on. Completing and moving on is a good goal to have with canon material that does not suit your tastes.
posted by buzzman at 7:31 AM on April 4, 2007

To me, art and science are both part of the process of humans seeking to understand and to change the world. A book is basically worthless in itself. Reading a book can be a tool of escapism, sweet relief from the day-to-day grind, and it can be many others things, but at its best, in the process of reading, you learn something about the world (including yourself) and you are changed. What this means is that it helps if you're reading not to read the work, but as a process of your own interaction with the world.
For instance, Langston Hughes and William Blake will both sound completely different if you are committed to fighting injustice.
Yeats will sound different if you're spurned lover (that's how I got poetry for the first time).
posted by Furious Fitness at 7:39 AM on April 4, 2007

Tastes change over time; some authors I didn't like in my English major days I like now. You may not have the perspective to enjoy some works, or to enjoy them the 1st time around. I read Lucky Jim in high school, because we had a copy in the house. Didn't get it at all. Read it after college, and howled with laughter.
posted by theora55 at 7:44 AM on April 4, 2007

You only hate the canon? It gets a lot worse, SansPoint.

I studied literature once. I read books, big books, as a teenager and that seemed like a good enough reason at the time. Dostojevski. Tolstoi. Cervantes. Chaucer. Enjoyed those. In college, they made us read 'Bahnwärter Thiel' in college, and other expressionist German literature. Hated those. A lot of psychological novels by French Flaubert epigones. I soon hated them, and Flaubert as well. And Proust. Who has time for all those pages filled with narcissistic babble?

Ten years on, I only read nonfiction. Literature is all so very much the same. Is there any postwar novel that isn't about some middle aged writer with erectional dysfunctions and marital problems? I just can't stand anything about the concept of fiction anymore, unless it's pulp (Tom Wolfe! Michael Connelly! PG Wodehouse! James Ellroy!).

Literature is seriously overrated. You don't like the canon, because it is boring. Because most, if not all, novels are basically the same pattern over and over again, with varying degrees of pretension added to them. Reading novels is something teenagers do, not grown men. There is research to back this up: teenagers love novels. Grown men don't. Old men take up novels again, because they're bored to death and their hips won't allow ferocious partying anymore. Boredom is also the reason why teenagers do it, and also because they don't know any better. Having no girlfriend usually has something to do with it as well.

My suggestion for you would be to go study tax law. Yes! Mergers and acquisitions or something. Consider it an acquired taste. A bit like 'Finnegan's Wake', if you will. Takes a while to get into, but it'll be a hell of a lot more exciting later on. And think of the paycheck! Going to a fine restaurant with a classy girl is a lot more interesting than reading Trollope's 'The Warden' with a cheap bottle of wine. I am in a position to know this. You can trust me on it.

Don't forget to write a great kiss & tell book about insider trading after a long and satisfying career. I'll buy it. You can mention me in the 'thank you's, if you want. Good luck.

(disclaimer: I'm not a burned out middle school literature teacher. I did study law.)
posted by NekulturnY at 8:21 AM on April 4, 2007 [4 favorites]

I like a lot of the responses here, but I'm surprised at some of the more cynical and antiliterary remarks. I think the key is to understand that your response is normal, but not irrevocable or necessarily indicative of anything about the authors themselves. I think we sometimes think that an author as strange as James has a "natural" audience that instantly gets him, when in fact the opposite is true: it is the very strangeness and unlikeability of these authors that made them subversive or avant-garde in the first place. Realizing this was very liberating for me: I'd always assumed that there were people who, say, thought in a way that made Milton comprehensible; I'd also assumed that the canon could be safely ignored because it was homogenous, the default assumption. When I realized that these writers had constructed their own strange styles, the canon seemed diverse and strange, interesting weird territory.

The list of authors you like seems rather restricted to the twentieth century, so you might just be having the more general and less you-specific problem of cultivating an empathy to other modes of writing. (Scholtsky said that the purpose of literature was to defamiliarize.) What you might want to do is, first, start from the list of authors you like and see if any of them radiate back in time to help you understand the authors you don't. Pound, for example, was an anti-romatic, but a lot of his writing is actually quite similar to Keats and Shelley; he also thought James (really, a proto-modernist) was the best novelist ever. If you like postmodern poetry, then maybe check out Marie Howe on Emily Dickinson: she talks about the materiality of her dashes and manuscripts. Similarly, reading Eliot helped me understand a lot of poetry that came before him. You might have a similar experience reading essays by Woolf, Coleridge, Randall Jarrell, Johnson, etc.

I think also, in addition to considering the historic position of a work, it might also help to view canonical appreciation as a practical, problem solving game, rather than a leisurely aesthetic or critical one. What was it about these authors that was different? What resources did they create that remains useful today? How can using this writer help you understand or perceive the world in a different way? How can you make this text useful for you? Sometimes reading difficult postmodern or modern works can be difficult in a fairly straightforward way; it can be even more difficult to try to understand why one would like something.

Also, this might be far off, but it seems like the authors you like are "difficult," "cerebral," but stylistically transparent. If this is your "thing," then maybe you can either figure out specifically what you don't like about works that seem "easy," "emotional" or stylistically opaque and have that as a project. Or you can look for these qualities in the authors you don't like: Dickinson and James, for example, are incredibly "cerebral"; Spenser is as mannerist as Pound; etc. I think the key for liking new things is analogy: how can you tear off a part of this new thing and relate it to something you already like?
posted by kensanway at 10:43 AM on April 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Marie Howe on Emily Dickinson

Susan Howe? (Maybe Marie wrote on this too, I don't know -- but Susan's work is certainly illuminating).
posted by treepour at 12:37 PM on April 4, 2007

Susan Howe! Yes, sorry.
posted by kensanway at 1:43 PM on April 4, 2007

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