Do We Need A Literary Canon?

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 18 2015 @ 7:35am

Arthur Krystal answers in the affirmative:

[I]n this blur of the present, when every book, every critical evaluation, is almost immediately swept aside by another, there seems little of consequence. How different this is compared with the agitation felt by the Elizabethans, Romantics, and moderns who did their best to forge something new. Those first moderns who maintained that their works rivaled in significance, if not skill, those of the Greek and Latin masters started the ball rolling and, in effect, laid the foundations for the canon. But as I look around today I can’t help wondering if the ball hasn’t finally come to a stop. Whom do our poets and novelists seek to supplant, and what aesthetic or philosophical precepts ride on the attempt?

Although serious writers continue to work in the hope that time will forgive them for writing well, the prevailing mood welcomes fiction and poetry of every stripe, as long as the reading public champions it. And this I think is a huge mistake. Literature has never just been about the public (even when the public has embraced such canonical authors as Hugo, Dickens, and Tolstoy). Literature has always been a conversation among writers who borrow, build upon, and deviate from each other’s words. Forgetting this, we forget that aesthetics is not a social invention, that democracy is not an aesthetic category; and that the dismantling of hierarchies is tantamount to an erasure of history.