By Colorado Review Editorial Assistant Mike Moening
I should begin this blog post with a simple disclaimer: I don’t come from a particularly literary background. Sure, I have a bachelor’s in English, but I wasn’t reading Faulkner or Nabokov as a child like some of my peers were. This is the only thing I’ll say that touches on this feeling of imposter syndrome—a term I’ve become well-acquainted with over the last few months—because this post isn’t meant to be about my perceived inadequacies, it’s about another term or idea I’ve become familiar with as an English major and beyond: the literary.
Small talk. I don’t believe I’m alone in both hating it and in being a complete hypocrite. The first five minutes of a casual conversation with me will likely include at least one comment about the weather; it’s an unavoidable topic, and I cringe at revealing this less-than-flattering fact about myself. But I’ve come to find the English major’s version of the question—”How about this weather?”—is some variation of “Who’s your favorite author?” or “Who do you read?” And I’ve come to find it often feels like a loaded question. On the surface it’s an easy one, but there are wrong answers. If I am to keep beating this weather analogy, it’s similar to saying, “I love these sixty degree days in January,” and finding my answer met with a frown. Oh, you mean you like that this planet is warming at a dangerous rate? You like human-caused climate change? Obviously, the answer is no, but I can’t lie; I don’t hate wearing only a light jacket in the morning in January. Likewise, when I respond to the English major or MFA candidate’s question, “Who do you read?” with, “Hunter S. Thompson,” and am met with a brief frown, I have to wonder: Who should I like to read?
Is it wrong that Infinite Jest took me months to finish? Or that I haven’t actually read Lolita (though I respond with a confident nod anytime it’s brought up as though I have)? I realize that there is a chance this blog post will do nothing more than reveal me as the fool that I may be, but why do we consider certain novels works of literature and others pop culture, or worse, utter trash? Is it our own self-conscious desire to prove that we’re smarter than others that makes for the distinction? It should also be mentioned that I don’t have any intention of answering this question. The canon is, as the memoirist Mary Karr writes, “deeply flawed and has only begun to open up,” and I won’t pretend that I’m qualified enough to even attempt to fix it, or to answer questions that great writers and critics have been struggling with for decades. This is merely meant to be a brief meditation on my thoughts surrounding the literary.
I understand the rows of romance novels—their covers plastered with sweaty, muscular men lying in wait to play some antiquated version of the hero—belong where they are: far from the literary canon. I can think of plenty of other books that belong alongside them as I’m sure you can too, but why do we consider Stephen King’s or Hunter S. Thompson’s works—among countless others’— to be undeserving of the prestigious spot in the canon? When their names are uttered, the response is often accompanied by a slight flinch or a brief, you’ll-miss-it-if-you-blink eyeroll. Does The Shining not raise important questions regarding the human condition or discuss the degradation of sanity in a valuable way? Is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas not an important generational novel that discusses the tragic decline of the optimism and excitement that the mid- to late- 1960s ushered in with open arms?
But, when I ask myself these questions, the nagging oppositional voice that resides in the back of my mind clears its throat. I’ve found that a couple of the many valuable things I’ve learned from an English degree and my continued education is the ability to both critically think and the ability to argue, and when that annoying voice makes itself known, I do have to wonder if I’m simply biased because two of the books that got me into this area of study were The Shining and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. What if someone else’s was Lolita? Or, to risk a minor uprising for even mentioning these books in the same paragraph, what if someone else found their passion for English—for reading and writing—from Fifty Shades of Grey? This novel, despite the numerous flaws and questionable ethical choices that I’ve become familiar with lately, was a major bestseller, and while I cringe that someone may have found their passion for this wonderful subject from such a book, I’m sure many would feel quite similar to my own introductory forays into the field of English.
If you’ve stuck with my ramblings this far, then bear with me just a bit longer as I attempt to claw my way out of this hole I’ve dug for myself. Three days before I sat down to try to put these thoughts in order, Derek Jeter and Larry Walker were elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Without getting into the many details regarding the Hall of Fame and who’s elected, these two players were chosen out of an already impressive group of over twenty players eligible for consideration this year. In a lot of ways, considering the literary canon, and who or what should be included, would be both infinitely easier and terribly difficult if there were some sort of statistical method of ranking books. For the purpose of this blog post, being based in Colorado, Todd Helton was also on the ballot. Helton received just over 29 percent of the vote (75 percent is required to be inducted). This isn’t to say that if someone said Todd Helton was their favorite baseball player, they would in any way be wrong—it is an opinion after all—but if someone were to say Todd Helton was the best baseball player ever, they may likely find some resistance in their argument. Even arguing that Helton belongs in the Hall of Fame would be grounds for debate, not unlike Hunter S. Thompson or Stephen King belonging in the canon. While there are certainly some books that we can likely all agree belong there, there are others that dance around that line that we all perceive a bit differently, not unlike the cream of the crop that rises to the top of any profession. There is great, and then there is that almost unfathomable level above great that deserves a class of its own. But there are a lot of books that hover around that line that may just not quite make the cut, and for a lot of these books, it is all about perception of those in charge of judging.
And this word perception brings me back full circle. We all likely have at least some variation on what we would consider literary, on what we believe belongs in the canon or at least in the discussion. And there is also a pretty good chance that it is merely my perceived outsider status to the academic world of literature that skews people’s curious questions into traps intended to make me reveal my lack of knowledge. Because at the end of the day, I have a strange feeling that a part of each of us is just happy that there are others out there like us, who still enjoy curling up with a book, be it one that belongs in the canon or not.