Why should people read Western literature nowadays?
First and foremost, people should read Western literature to appear superior. While 99% of Western literature was originally written to be entertaining, and at least 80% is still entertaining, there are many, many other entertaining things. If Western literature did not make you seem superior to other people, it would have nothing over playing Angry Birds or popping the bubbles in packing material. This superiority effect works for literally everyone. If you are a myopic, fugly weakling, reading Western literature will make you seem like a cool Bohemian. If you are a football player type, just read a little Proust and you become a Renaissance man. Even if you are a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist, reading Western literature makes you seem superior to other Nobel-Prize-winning physicists. Western literature is also a great way of learning how the world works, without having to actually have life experience. (Keep in mind that life experience involves things like making a fool of yourself, losing all your money, getting syphilis, and being shot at point blank range.) In the role of educator, literature is roughly 60% better than television, movies, or listening to your parents. However, I will not lie to you: some great authors had no idea how the world works. However, the only sure way to figure out which authors these are is to become worldly-wise yourself. You can achieve this by reading many great authors, or you could leave the house. Remember: when you take this latter course, you will make a fool of yourself, lose all your money, get syphilis, and be shot. Then afterwards, your parents will want to know why you didn’t listen to their advice.
Did you feel nervous about passing judgment on these books?
I didn’t worry about it that much, given that all of the authors considered in this book are dead. Also, in researching this book, I was constantly reading the dismissive comments made by great authors about other great authors. No opinion I have could be more boneheaded than Tolstoy’s obsessive campaign against Shakespeare. While I didn’t aspire to misunderstand and under-rate, if it happened once or twice, I was willing to let the chips fall where they may. If I am ever called out on this, I intend to call these my “Tolstoy moments.”
Didn’t you find any of these books boring?
Many of the greatest works of literature are wretchedly boring in places. Sometimes it’s because the author is writing about things that no longer matter to us, such as Jesus Christ. However, sometimes it’s because the book is simply very tough to understand. It’s a strange fact that, the more challenging a book is, the more likely you are to fall asleep face-down in its pages. Conversely, even the most scornful reader of Dan Brown stays awake effortlessly through The Da Vinci Code. You might think that when you gave your brain a lot of riddles to solve, it would be more engaged than when it is announcing triumphantly that one plus one is two. Alas, that is so not the case. Perhaps the problem is that, as you give your brain more and more things to do, the chances of giving it something it doesn’t feel like doing increase exponentially. Eventually, the grumpy brain shuts itself off, leaving you drooling into the pages of The Divine Comedy. Often, however the same material that sent you to sleep becomes extraordinarily interesting in retrospect. Many times during the writing of this book, I’ve found myself excitedly telling someone about how fascinating a particular work was, seemingly having forgotten that I was puddle-eyed with boredom all through the reading of it. This was completely sincere: reading the book was a long hard slog uphill. Mulling over the book afterward was the pleasant downhill stroll, full of new ideas and poignant memories.
Which books really aren’t good enough to be in the Western canon?
Books end up in the canon for many reasons, some of which are nothing to do with quality. The canonical works are not the books that are most finely written; they are the ones that are still read. A good model for how this works is the ancient Greek classics. The primary reason that we read the Greek authors we do is that these books still exist thousands of years later. People copied them and/or preserved them, while the less beloved works rotted away unlamented. You could actually define “Western literature” as “books that are still in print.” So, while Defoe is not a great wordsmith, generations of people have bought Robinson Crusoe and recommended it to their friends. After this happens for a few hundred years, people begin to think there’s something to this Defoe guy. There are also books which remain in print because of their historical importance. The Romance of the Rose is an ungodly stew with no obvious merit to a contemporary reader. But everyone read it for over a hundred years. So you have to, too, if you do Medieval Studies at college. Books can also be important because they were the first books to incorporate innovations in literary technique. The Da Vinci Code will never be part of the canon; but if it had been written in 1532, it would be responsible for the invention of the fast-paced plot, and might still be taught in universities. And it would still be cheesy rubbish – like Chretien de Troyes’ tales of knights, or the bulk of Edgar Allan Poe’s work. It also helps a book’s longevity immensely if its home nation conquers a huge swathe of the world. World War II was worth fighting not only to defeat Hitler, but because it saved generations of non-German schoolchildren from reading Faust. Most early American writers – Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau – would be forgotten by history if America were not a world power. In fact, one happy result of America’s decline might be that The Scarlet Letter goes out of print.
Which contemporary authors do you think will be considered literary greats in the future?
There’s at least a chance that J.K. Rowling or Stephen King will enter the canon at some point. If their books continue to sell, they will become increasingly culturally important, while there’s no reason to believe they will become less readable. You may think this stuff is too lowbrow/middlebrow – if you have never read James Fenimore Cooper, or seen a performance of a play by Moliere. At 100 years old, Harry Potter will have become a respected elder, and reading about him may become a cultural duty as well as an absorbing way to pass the afternoon. At the other end of the spectrum, I have a gut feeling that David Foster Wallace will last. While snob value in itself doesn’t give an author much staying power, having the greatest snob value of all of one’s contemporaries does. John Dos Passos has gone the way of the dodo, but James Joyce we will have always with us. This peculiarity of canon-building could work in DFW’s favor. There’s a huge tranche of excellent writers – the Philip Roth/Jonathan Franzen realists – who are broadly similar to each other and will seem much more so in a hundred years. People will not continue to read them all, and it’s very hard to tell which of this group will survive. It’s like betting on which of the baby turtles will make it to the ocean as the birds swoop down on them. They are all very good at what they do, and what they do is very similar. The whim of a single literary star of the future could ensure Roth a place in the canon – or mean that he is totally forgotten in favor of a dark horse like Mary Gaitskill. We should also keep in mind that it’s likely that the bulk of any future canon will be filled by Chinese authors, Brazilian authors – authors from the next great powers of the world. In fact, for all we know, in the next two decades, Nigeria could become a world power and produce its Golden Age of literature. Then, when 21st Century Fiction is taught (if it is still taught), half of the assigned authors could be Nigerian, along with two Chinese authors, a Korean, and a sprinkling of Indians and Germans. Really, we need to get to work on fixing our economy if we want our writers to have the privilege of boring the college students of the 2300s.