This week, I read this wonderful essay by Georg Klein, published in the Guardian. I don’t suggest you read it online; instead, print it and take the time to sit down and read it on paper. It’s a bit complex, but worth the effort.
The danger of the canon
Here’s a passage that really called to me:
I remember a young author telling me about her collision with the history of the novel. She had written her first work of prose, a slim, autobiographical volume, in the finest enthusiasm of naïve creativity. Before she tackled a proper novel, she simply wanted to see just what had been written so far. She asked experienced readers for help and drew up a list. No more than a selection from, supposedly. the most important German-language novels of the 20th century, 20 or 30 titles.
A pity! With a little luck things could have turned out differently. From the experience of frightening greatness she drew the fatal conclusion that whatever there was inside her, driving her to write a novel, was embarrassingly small. The shock of greatness prevented her from achieving what experienced readers spontaneously succeed in doing time and again: the fusion of one’s own creative system with the structure of the text; the magnificent identification of a reading consciousness with the imagined world of the novel; the flight into a wonderful and vast expanse.
In short: an aspiring author read canonized literature, got scared, and felt her creative impulse shrink away in fear of insignificance.
Insignificance–there is so much to fear in that word. It is the fear of meaninglessness, the fear of leaving nothing behind, the fear of being forgotten. The canon, with its list of “significant” (read: meaningful) works, can be daunting indeed. Who wants to write in the shadow of George Eliot? Vladimir Nabokov? Jonathan Franzen? Not me, and probably not you either.
I spent years studying the canon. Hell, I was a Victorianist; I studied those people who invented the concept of canon. And although I learned so much doing it, it has also been the most paralyzing thing I have done to my creative impulse.
The canon is dangerous. Read good books, but read bad books too. They’ll tell you that canonization is not the be-all and end-all of writing. There’s a big universe out there, and reading only canonized novels is like never leaving your hotel when you’re visiting New York.
We are all Doctors
According to Klein’s essay, there are two kinds of time: the small time of daily life, and the big time of the novel.
Novels are universes in themselves. The words of the novel are finite, but their worlds are infinite. I like to think of novels as TARDISes. Literature (taken in the wider sense of things written) is a maelstrom of each piece being its own world–a big bang of books. It expands forever, feeding on itself and using what has been laid to rest–atoms, words–to build new universes.
Novels are TARDISes because they are a window, a short glimpse, in those universes. You hop in, you hop out, leaving a trail of your presence behind. We are all Doctors when we read novels. We are explorers of time and space, of things not quotidian or mundane. We escape the concept of progress (false conception that it is) and enter cyclical big time. Life and death. Reincarnation and enlightenment. Beginnings that are ends and ends that are beginnings. Unfinished stories, all of them, despite the fibbing “The End”.
There is hope
So, is there a place for me, young and inexperienced author that I am, in that universe?
Of course there is. Klein’s essay gave me hope that I can contribute to this ever-expanding universe. All I have to do is give away my own share of big time, to see myself as a “dogged amateur in the field of experiencing big time”, not, as he describes so pointedly, “an expert provider of narrative services”.
How does one write big time? I don’t know that yet. But I imagine it’s the work of a lifetime to find out.
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