Creating Your Own Personal Canon

We often hear about The Canon, a presumed-monolithic entity of classics from Western literature and art that is in opposition to literatures from outside the west, different art forms, and different ways of conceiving classical works. There is also much good debate about the canon as we know it, what should be included in it and what should be discarded so that we can make way for works that are more relevant and reflective of our modern society and perceptions. However, we can also ask ourselves about our own tastes and preferences, and create our own personal canon. What are the books, paintings, pieces of music, works of art that inspire us personally?

As I wrote in an earlier post, many years ago I saw a photo exhibit by Patti Smith at the Detroit Institute of Arts. What was most striking was not the photographs themselves, but the canon she had put together through photography. She has a sensitive, aesthetic eye and is moved by great art of any kind; she also knows which body of work inspires her. Inspiration is a word that is thrown around loosely, in clever memes on Instagram, on wooden cubes for home decor. On a deeper level, it is something that we cannot live without. Different artists speak to us in different ways–some appeal to our “shadow” or dark side, some uplift us, others challenge us, motivate us, see things in a different way than we do, etc. etc.

When we create our own personal canon, it does not necessarily mean we have to make a list or a Pinterest board to define it in a formal way. Naturally, we will gravitate to certain types of works or artists and over time, we get a sense of what we like. Emulation is part of the process: maybe we paint like X, write like Y, or dress like Z. And then we start developing our own voice, using elements of X, Y, or Z, and eventually our voice becomes our own. For those who aren’t artists, a personal canon will simply be a body of work and artists whom one always want to see more of. A person working in finance who has no aptitude for music may always want to follow the latest from Björk, or a scientist may have regular tickets to the symphony. What matters, in any case, is that we know who or what inspires us and ignites our soul. I argue in favor of following the artists we love best, the trajectory of their creativity, knowing the body of their work. Don’t we love talking with people who have a passion for a particular artist in depth?

We can choose whatever elements we want for our own personal canon. Who’s to say that someone can’t mix Rihanna with Balkan folk dancing with Latin American magical realist authors? Think of your canon as a special box in which you put your favorite, most precious objects. Each of these objects is like a different stone: one might be precious, one might be common but look nice, another one might be unusual. There is no right or wrong here; all that matters is that you choose what you love, knowing that it reflects a part of you that is your deepest soul.

In Memoriam: Toni Morrison

This morning’s news broke my heart: the great Toni Morrison is dead. I found tears coming to my eyes when I understood that no more great works could come from this titan of world literature. I have only read two novels by Ms. Morrison, and I have seen and read some of her interviews, watched part of a documentary on her. But her impact and influence has been significant upon my literary development.

My senior year in high school, Morrison’s Song of Solomon was part of our AP English curriculum. I had begun working on a novel, been reading more sophisticated novels, and thinking seriously that down the line, I would be an English professor. Song of Solomon was indeed quite a hefty, challenging novel, and I sat with my pink highlighter in hand, trying to mark the important passages. And after reading chapter after chapter, something finally hit me: Morrison used recurring symbols and motifs. And in my late teenager’s mind, that’s how I realized what real literature was – it had symbols! There was something about Morrison’s language and imagery that was built into the structure of the novel in a deeper way than anything else I had read. It made a profound impression on me, and I would indeed say that book was what really taught me what Literature with a capital L was.

Flash forward years later to 2018. I am in my MFA program at Warren Wilson, in my third semester, and we are required to write a long analytical essay of 30-45 pages. I want to study omniscience, and I am adamant that I use Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as my key text. My advisor concurs, but also insists that I add a second novel in which I will study omniscience. He suggests Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and refines my topic to looking at how omniscience moves in scene and zooms in and out. I agree to that, as I feel I need to become more familiar with Morrison’s work, and knowing that she is truly one of the greats of modern literature. I’m also happy to have a second female author whose work I will analyze, especially a minority woman writer. Part of the challenge of writing my essay is that I have to select the passages I analyze myself.

Morrison’s novel is not entirely written in omniscience; in fact the omniscient passages are limited. Once I do hone in on the two chapters of each novel I will analyze and compare, I noticed that there is a parallel between the novels. In each novel, there is a “groundwork” or “hologram” chapter in which the themes and ideas of the whole novel are encapsulated in one chapter. This is usually fairly early on in the novel. I do indeed study how Morrison uses omniscience, and what also strikes me significantly is Morrison’s use of diction. Her word choices really do a lot to create the setting, work with the themes of the novel, and add a layer of complexity to her fiction. For example, the way she describes the Breedloves’ neighborhood and house is very detached and apathetic, the family dynamic is very detached as well. This is crucial, because this sets up the contrast to what will happen to young Pecola Breedlove in the novel, and how her community by and large ignores this tragedy. In one of the obituary articles I read this morning, Morrison noted that one of her goals in writing was to bring attention to one of the most vulnerable members of society: a young black female. This is exactly what she does in The Bluest Eye.

I recently returned from a Warren Wilson alumni conference where I taught a class on diction. Naturally, I used a few passages from The Bluest Eye. Morrison is really a master of language and diction, and anyone who is interested in this topic should read her work critically.

I recall that once in an interview several years ago, someone asked her about the canon, given that she herself is African-American and the canon has largely been white male and needs to be diversified and more reflective of American society. Her answer was simple–“add to it.” Morrison read all the greats of the old canon as a child. I think this is something all minority writers need to do, even if they choose to diverge from it or even bash it. Nobel laureate poet Derek Walcott (whom I got to see at a very small talk at the University of California San Diego several years ago) also was very well-versed in the canon, though he is considered a key representative of Caribbean writing.

The literary community has indeed suffered a devastating loss, but I suppose Morrison would want us to move forward while also understanding American history, specifically, Black history. She has left us a lot of good ways to do this through her writing.


In Defense of the Canon

Why the disturbing trend over the past couple of decades toward secondary sources and a dislike of, or sometimes, hatred of the Canon?  Yes, virtually all of it is by Dead White Men, a cohort of individuals whose life experiences were indeed limited and shaped by their particular geography and Judeo-Christian values.  But what is ironic is that even the greatest post-colonial writers or ethnic minority writers, such as Nobel laureates Derek Wolcott and Toni Morrison, are themselves extremely well read in the classics and the Canon, and it informs and influences their works.  Without the Canon, one’s scope is limited, as is one’s understanding of history, classic literary themes, tropes, motifs, allusions, et cetera.  There is a certain “flatness” to the work of many scholars and writers of recent times, for it smacks of excessive self-absorbed individuality or literary disconnect.  In my opinion, this reflects the underlying problem of a general lack of historicity in many people’s perspectives in American academia.  American culture places such a high value on individualism and the now that context—-and along, historical context of hundreds if not thousands of years—-seems to have no importance in shaping one’s mind.  I find literary scholarship and criticism often very guilty of this, with reading into earlier works from a current perspective:  really, shouldn’t Elizabeth Bennet have earned her own living as an investment banker and just hooked up with Darcy on weekends?   Shouldn’t Madame Bovary have just gotten some therapy and a divorce?  But seriously, scholarship based purely on feeling or an individual’s psychological needs reads as somewhat juvenile.  (There are those who maintain that Americans are the teenagers of the world.)  Needless to say, those scholars who have no exposure to non-white, non-Western, colonial and post-colonial works or ideas are just as bad—-they come across as living in some bizarre sort of time warp, dinosaurs of an academic age that is long past.  (I myself suffered through a couple of these professors during my graduate studies).  Aren’t they missing out on Rushdie’s pastiches of literary genius?  Pamuk’s tremendous insight into Turkey’s position between East and West?   Scholars who come from cultures and civilizations that are 10 times as old as their American one?  But for any writer, my feeling is that the Canon is a must.