Not easy to update the classics

We should pay attention to Ezra Pound’s “Literature is news that stays news”


A lot of the media I know as “classic” comes from my parents. It’s the books I was given to read later in childhood, the cassettes sitting under the phonograph (not a match, I realize), and a handful of VHS tapes, or at least rumours of them. It’s Shakespeare, Dickens, and the fantasy of George MacDonald, but also our own Stephen Leacock and Robertson Davies; the prog rock of Jethro Tull and the folk-ish songs of Bruce Cockburn; stuffy but wise old movies like 84 Charing Cross Road, and ones that nearly predate my parents, like A Man for All Seasons.

When I read an article like the one in features this week on “the problem with the literary canon”, my knee-jerk reaction is defensiveness about these works. How can our English professors suggest that we need to move on from great works? Bunch of hacks… and so on. But after the initial emotional reaction comes more reflection.

The first thing I noticed is that my list of classics includes recent and Canadian artists. Many of the names I love are not known across the world. And although I intellectually concede, at first, that they probably don’t stand up to the best, that concession doesn’t diminish my appreciation for them—and it also raises the sneaky question, “Aren’t all the classics originally just contemporary local creators who are recognized later?” And what I mean by this is that I recast my canon, too, both adding new ones and failing to hold on to the old (like Austen, who somehow never had much shelf space in our house).

And I’m all for adding new voices to the canon of dead white guys, if not throwing out a lot of the work. One of my favourite examples is Wide Sargasso Sea, which I was introduced to in my only real English lit course and recently reread. The book is a beautiful response to the colonial assumptions the author saw in Jane Eyre, but it doesn’t dislodge Jane Eyre. In fact, the earlier classic contextualizes the latter. Other works that originate from different cultures in the first place don’t need complements from the Western canon—although they raise interesting questions about where they fit in. Are we updating the “Western” canon, which seems unlikely if we mean we’re including very different cultures, or creating a new world canon? (But isn’t it a bit of an illusion if we mean the English versions?) What if we still had distinct canons that were unaware of each other, but promoted that meta-knowledge in the readers instead, who should be encouraged to delve into each in turn? As with language, taking the time to learn others’ ways of communicating doesn’t have to mean overriding parts of your own. Or perhaps the analogy doesn’t apply. Like I said, only one real lit course.

My point is that although the canon is always being updated, there’s no straightforward way to ensure that the process is helpful, even following great principles like “add diversity”.

Even when I read the professors’ opinions that what speaks to a generation’s values becomes canon, with the implication that we can naturally gravitate to the new classics, I’m not so sure. Our generation has some very odd dynamics. Take, for example, the fact that when Jeff Bezos created Amazon, he had human editors reviewing and picking the books that appeared on the front page. But they were gradually replaced with software that guesses what you’re likely to enjoy reading. This creates a risk of exposure only to more of what you already know, which is the opposite of literature’s project. Similarly, you’ve no doubt noticed that algorithms for determining what’s popular are subject to the snowball effect: what’s “rich” in attention only gets richer, on the logic that if the first 50 people who saw a post didn’t like it, there’s no point displaying it on the timelines of the next 500. And vice versa. Even the news works like this: if you see something trending on Facebook, you’re fairly sure to hear it later on the radio and TV.

Which is kind of scary. Holding up a mirror to a generation’s values is healthy; holding a mirror up to itself is just feedback and becomes the amplification of noise.

The article’s bottom line, though, I agree with. We need to read intentionally, not automatically, more now than ever—to remember that there are other ways to let something into your life than to see it on a news feed.

In fact, one way to be healthily countercultural is to actually dig up the old works and read them for ourselves. I remember a course in which Chet Scoville said it doesn’t matter about your degree, you’re not educated if you haven’t read The Iliad. I still haven’t; but in that same course I read a 2,400-year-old dialogue of Plato’s that deeply affected me—and became what I’d recommend to those looking for a fuller education. It’s not a matter of which classics we read (or listen to, or watch), but of encountering works that challenge us.

After all, the deserving classics did that. Not just being new but staying new is a better criterion.