Like any group of literate Americans in 1998, readers of this article would applaud Bill Cotter's advice but disagree violently about what books would be considered "good." Even people who revile canons and canon-makers know that Harlequin romances and the authorized biography of Dennis Rodman aren't good books, let alone great books.
Nevertheless, reading anything at all--short of the Boise telephone directory--is increasingly rare in American culture. Let me be perfectly clear: I'd prefer that my students read almost any novel or novelist--John Grisham, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Danielle Steel--rather than be drugged by typical airline-fare movies. Last summer, between 2 and 4 a.m. on my way to Alaska to visit my daughter, I almost overdosed on a little number called Paulie, the saga of a lovesick parrot. I ended up lusting for the Boise telephone book. Still, I know sure as shootin' that someone out there loved Paulie, the epitome of G films--another canon, you will note, Hollywood style.
Somehow, readers, like diners and football fans and shoppers, seem to need validation for their choices. We want the Top 20 in every regard, the imprimatur of the "expert," the wheat sifted out of all that chaff. After all, no one has time to waste just reading a book. We could be watching Paulie or tapping away on our laptops or running marathons or curing the common cold.
What makes this whole issue so hot right now is the controversy surrounding the Modern Library's list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, a roster that appeared in almost every conceivable medium last summer and is now called simply "The List." A distinguished advisory board--including William Styron (Sophie's Choice), Gore Vidal (gobs of novels like Burr and 1876), the British novelist A. S. Byatt (the only woman) plus six eminent historians like Arthur Schlesinger and Edmund Morris--weighed in with their selections, and, predictably, fur flew all the way to Boise.
Almost no one liked the Modern Library list, which was led by the most famous unread novel of all time, James Joyce's Ulysses. As K. J. H. Dettmar characterized The List: "It's too white (no Toni Morrison?), too male (no Toni Morrison?), too dead (no Thomas Pynchon? no Don DeLillo? no Toni Morrison?); too Anglo-American (no Nadine Gordimer?); too middlebrow (Brave New World in the top 10?); too self-interested (over half the books are published by the Modern Library itself)." The Modern Library Advisory Board almost immediately backed off in print, lamely confessing that they'd been hoodwinked by The List's catalyst, Christopher Cerf. Styron eventually characterized The List as "stodgy," and Schlesinger complained in The Wall Street Journal that "the execution was not well thought out." Even Cerf admitted that The List was a scam, but a "good scam." After all, it did get the subject of books back on the op-ed page.
A graceful little essay by historian Morris on The List's glories and omissions in The New York Times Book Review in late August did little to soothe the disgruntled. Morris had never heard of Peter Carey, a contemporary British novelist of some reputation in the English literary establishment, engendering a snappish letter to the Times from my one famous friend (everyone has to have one famous friend), Joel Conarroe, president of the Guggenheim Foundation, who opined, "That Morris is one of a half-dozen historians on a panel of 10 may account for the `fiction lite' quality of the Top 100 list--and for the astonishing absence of such writer's writers as John Updike, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor and Flann O'Brien. Were the century's 100 best history books to be selected and ranked by a group dominated by literary figures, the results would doubtless be no less inept than this bland pudding cooked up by a historian-laden panel." Conarroe is normally a very calm and easy-going man, but canons seem to bring out the Mike Tyson in all of us.
And, of course, the press services loved comparing the Modern Library List to another Top 100 compiled at about the same time by the (predominately female and young) students at the Radcliffe Publishing Course. These canoneers didn't forget Toni Morrison (or Alice Walker, or some others), but they brought scorn on their list by including The Wizard of Oz and Charlotte's Web and The Wind in the Willows, all of them lovely reads but almost never considered "great."
So, you see, even as we seek validation of our reading choices by "experts," we will spit fire if somehow our favorite novel is left out. I share my friend Conarroe's indignation especially that Updike and O'Connor didn't make The List. But I also love a novel that Morris, the historian, failed to get included: James Gould Cozzens's Guard of Honor (Conarroe thinks Cozzens "pedestrian"). Angry as we get, we continue to attach labels to books--"good," "great," "classic"--probably because we think that reading "masterpieces" will demonstrate cultural status. Hey, if you waded through Ulysses (or, God forbid, Finnegan's Wake), you're a certified intellectual who walks among the favored few. Look how much of the Modern Library's fiction you've read, you superior creature, you. We should strike you a medal or something, in gold, Shakespeare rampant.
For all that, the identity of elitist literature varies panoramically. The historian Lawrence Levine, in his delightful Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, notes that Shakespeare was for many years the most popular author in America. For example, Ulysses S. Grant played Desdemona in the Fourth Infantry Regiment's production of Othello in 1845. Levine isn't keen on elitism in any society, preferring "those who, possessing no map and little liking for fixes and unmovable fences and boundaries, believe that worthy, enduring culture is not the possession of any single group or genre or period, who conceive of culture as neither finite or fixed but dynamic and expansive, and who remain unconvinced that the moment an expressive form becomes accessible to large numbers of people it loses the intellectual criteria necessary to classify it as culture."
Levine's radical inclusiveness is based on his belief that the ambitious and snobbish plutocrats who dominate American economic life seek to extend their power into culture. "That panoply of cultural creations, attitudes, and rituals that we have learned to call high culture [e.g., `The 100 Best English-language Novels of the 20th Century']," writes Levine, "was not the imperishable product of the ages but the result of a specific group of men and women acting at a particular moment in history." If this assertion seems culturally relative, accenting the attitudes of the audience more than the intrinsic achievements of the work of art, Levine also emerges as a cultural populist who believes that art is constantly evolving and can blossom anywhere, anytime, to anyone. We exclude at our peril.
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