Death by Canonization: Against Literary Criticism's Mortal Sin

Okay, boys and girls. Today, I want to rant to you about one of my greatest frustrations in the study of literature. While I've discussed this issue using different terminology in the past (hero worship, justification bias, etc.), today I'm going to borrow a phrase from David Foster Wallace: death by canonization.

What is Death by Canonization?

"Death by canonization" is when we give so much praise to a piece that people start to assume the work is good rather than looking at it critically. Sadly, it's one of the greatest and most pervasive issues facing us in the academic study of literature.

When we start to view a writer as some sort of mythological hero—when we place their work on a pedestal—we distance them from our everyday lives. In the same essay where he introduces the phrase "death by canonization" (titled "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky"), David Foster Wallace discusses this disconnection:

To make someone an icon is to make him an abstraction, and abstractions are incapable of vital communication with living people.

The problem is not merely that these abstractions become more difficult to connect with, however. It sabotages our ability to examine and understand the work itself.

Our careless approach to the canon.

The end result is a deeply entrenched game of emperor's new clothes.

Our literary canon has created an "in group." If you want to be a literature buff, it's not only expected that you should read the canon but that you should love it. The end result is a deeply entrenched game of emperor's new clothes. Everyone faces the same frustrations, gets burnt by friction with the same flaws, but no one is willing to talk about a canonical piece as if it's anything less than perfect.

In attending classes as a student, helping to teach courses, or leading workshops, I've seen this tendency over and over again: When we encounter something dull, complicated, or difficult to understand, we assume that the problem isn't the work we're reading. No, no, no—of course not! It's some famous piece by some thoroughly canonized author, so the problem couldn't possibly be there. So we blame ourselves instead, or simply lie and pretend that we "get it." (As if there is something mystical here to "get.")

To further elaborate on how this is a problem, I want to give two examples.

First Example: Buber's Convoluted Thou

If you can't tell me what the text is trying to communicate, it doesn't matter how poetic you think the passage is—you still don't understand it.

In a recent class, we were studying I and Thou by Martin Buber. This piece is one of the most difficult to understand texts I've ever encountered, and Buber himself was even recorded as having had trouble interpreting some of its passages. For me, the experience of reading the piece was thoroughly mixed. It was like trudging through a swamp and bumping my foot against something under the mire. In pulling up these stones and polishing them off, I sometimes found they were gems. Other times, they were just rocks.

The professor of this course did not approach Buber as an unnecessarily difficult writer, however. She approached his work as nearly sacrosanct. It was profound and beautiful and so very important to read. Inevitably, this created an uncritical classroom discussion that barely grazed the surface of the text. One of my classmates made a remark that physically hurt me. To paraphrase, she said that Buber's words were like a soundtrack of a movie, and that she felt they helped bring her to a more profound understanding in the same way a soundtrack supports the emotion of a film. As such, even though she couldn't tell you what Buber was trying to say, she felt his words were deeply true.

That. Is. Not. What. Understanding. Means. If you can't tell me what the text is trying to communicate, it doesn't matter how poetic you think the passage is—you still don't understand it. Sadly, this tendency to praise Buber but have no idea what the fuck he was saying is painfully common. I went hunting through online reviews of the text, only to find many five star reviews that summarized I and Thou as being about "semantics shaping the world" or "the words we use to describe people" or some other equally off-target summary. It was immediately clear that these people who claimed to love the text had no idea what the text actually said.

There are similar examples with other critical theorists or philosophers, ranging from Lacan to Heidegger and well beyond, but this problem also plagues more commonly read canonical works.

Second Example: Bardolatry

When readers can do more than look past the flaws—that is to say, when they can look at them—they can start to truly engage with the text...

I'm pretty familiar with Shakespeare. My father is a Shakespeare professor, we attended a Shakespeare Festival each year, and—causing what I assume were deep emotional scars—my father taught me Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy when I was just three years old. I've acted in a half-dozen Shakespeare plays. I've studied well more. It's with this level of experience with, appreciation of, and even enthusiasm for Shakespeare that I say: Death to the bard!

The idea that Shakespeare is "the bard," rather than just "a bard" or "a storyteller" assumes that Shakespeare is the ultimate writer. The degree of hero worship we find here prevents students from raising the important questions—like, Why can't I understand this? What is this guy trying to say? Why is this so boring?

These are actually vital questions if we want to engage deeply with a work. But these sorts of questions, and so many others, are suppressed by the culture of bardolatry. If "the bard" is so wonderful and perfect, these questions become blasphemies. People today dismiss any criticism of the work as being due to a lack of understanding or mere cultural difference, and thus prevent any engagement with the text as a living work.

While worshipping William Shakespeare is a project as old as Billy-boy himself, criticism is also easy to come by. Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare's, wrote:

[T]he players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, "Would he had blotted a thousand."

Hear, hear! Shakespeare was a windbag, and not everything he wrote was gold. More importantly, Shakespeare's plays are not holy texts. They absolutely require the mighty slash of a red pen, with some of his longer works running as much as five hours on stage if left untouched.

Despite these flaws, there are many academics guilty of bardolatry. The most prominent is probably Stephen Greenblatt, who wrote the best-selling book about Shakespeare's life, Will in the World. While the book is an interesting read, its degree of obsessive praise is nauseating, with Greenblatt repeatedly referring to Billy as "the greatest writer the English language has ever known." As if something like that could be objectively determined; as if there weren't dozens, even hundreds, of other contenders; as if Shakespeare shat gold.

Why is this such a problem? Because Shakespeare is too fun, smart, and interesting to be turned into such a flat abstraction. When readers can do more than look past the flaws—that is to say, when they can look at them—they can start to truly engage with the text and realize what a hilarious, witty, and dirty playwright Shakespeare really was.

Here is What We Must Do Now.

To teachers: your enthusiasm and passion in sharing your favorite works is beautiful. The idea that education is "the lighting of a fire" is a lovely one. However, the tone you set for your classroom guides what sorts of discussions will occur. If you put everything on a pedestal, it will be out of reach and impossible to see. Instead, put it on a platter. Let people taste it, chew it, swallow it or spit it out; add a dash of salt or curry; let them be nourished by it rather than humbled.

To students: read each text like it has a pulse. No—read each text like it is your job to save its life! Don't assume that it will be fine on its own; it is your obligation to give it breath and heartbeat. Read each text like it's a creature struggling to survive, and find the shards of beauty in it, and the shrapnel that's caused it to bleed out. You, the reader, are a co-creator of each text you encounter. Don't enter as a supplicant but as a living subject.

Love literature, but don't love it like it's holy—instead, learn to love it wholly, with all its flaws and pitfalls known. When we worship writers and texts, we slaughter them. It's when we read them critically and with full engagement that we bring them back to life.

Robbie Blair

Column by Robbie Blair

Robbie Blair is a world-wandering author and poet who blogs about his adventures, the writing craft, and more. He was doomed to write when, at just three years old, his English-professor father taught him the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Robbie has since published more than a dozen creative pieces in literary journals (including Touchstones, Enormous Rooms, Warp + Weave, and V Magazine). Robbie Blair's website is loaded with travel narratives; original creative work;  writerly humor; pretty pictures; writing games, lessons, tips, and exercises; and other uber-nifty™ content.

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Josh Zancan's picture
Josh Zancan from Crofton, MD is reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck November 17, 2014 - 1:46pm

Reminds me of when Ira Glass tweeted that Shakespeare wasn't that great, and people flipped a shit.  Saw him on the Tonight Show and he was just like, "It's like I tweeted, 'Kermit the Frog is an asshole.'"  Some Shakespeare is great, some of it, really, is not.

But that being said, I'm totally Team Buber.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami November 17, 2014 - 3:54pm

I'm glad other people have noticed it to.

I recently tried reading Infinite Jest, it seems like some sentences could use a little bit of a trimming. Though I'm not sure how I would.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated November 17, 2014 - 9:22pm

Jane Austin.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing November 18, 2014 - 11:24am

I agree.

But in a way, you treat professors and the classes we/they teach as being as immune to criticism as the books and plays you cite. The answer is not only to encourage critical thinking about a work of literature or film. It's also to encourage critical thinking about the class experience. The professor may encourage the class to question a work's literary or cinematic value, but if he s/he doesn't encourage the class to question the class itself, genuine learning takes a hit.


L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami November 21, 2014 - 3:01am

Oh, and I notice it with 1984 too. Its like you can't analyze it for its faults without being lectured.

That and sick of dystopias with technically impossible scenarios. Like suggested telepathy even though no magic is taking place. Just apparently telepathic microphones.

Even for soft sf, thats far fetched.


dbdurden's picture
dbdurden from North East is reading Cat's Cradle November 21, 2014 - 8:53am

There is no real, authentic canon.

Reading is a personal activity. No two people get the same story out of any book: I've read The Joy Luck Club at least twenty five times. I absolutely adore that book and pretty much thought I new everything about it. A couple of weeks ago, I thought I'd listen to the audiobook version. I was shocked at how bitchy and petty the characters sounded. They didn't sound like that in my head and it really changed a couple of the stories. Because of this, there can never be an authentic universal canon.

That being said, Shakespeare is a genius. You can't say anything less about the man who wrote Hamlet, Macbeth, The Tempest... And, I agree, everything he wrote is not good: Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night's Dream are a few examples of those. You may agree or disagree with both of those statements because they are opinions that cannot be backed up by anything substantial.

I, too, have been in those conversations where people address the classics as the end-all-be-all in reading. And, unless you agree with their opinion, these same speakers are quick to denounce your contrasting opinions as drivel. I usually find a way out of those conversations and try to avoid those people.

Out of curiosity, I mix classics into my reading lists. This practice also helps me with allusions in other stories. Like them or hate them, I enjoy discussing these titles (as well as any books I've read) with others who've read them. Differing opinions may give me a different understanding or depth to the story. Closedmindedness does nothing for me.

(on a side note: Ben Johnson was not only one of Shakespeare's contempories, he also hung out with him. I would guess that that quote was probably made more in jest rather than a condemnation).