A Personal Canon
Clout-chasing, lifeless jokes, LRB totes.
A few weeks ago, I emailed Hannah Williams about Camus and Salinger in response to this tweet. Here’s roughly what I said.
I first read L'Étranger for middle school French. My teacher suggested it for extra practice, which implied to me faith, meaningful. Struggling through it made me realize, in contrast, how much English I'd acquired since starting school (and how little Vietnamese I had left). My senior year of college, I was 2,000 miles from home, 19, and resentfully depressed. I felt useless, incompetent, and silly, which wasn’t not true, and the world seemed relentlessly cruel to other people who didn’t deserve it, as though anyone ever does. The blurry average of my thoughts for months was just why bother with anything at all. Reading La Peste for a course on the literature of global health suggested a compelling, insultingly simple answer: because you must (appended lol implied)! “[Camus] wrote beautifully, even when he thought conventionally, and the sober lucidity of his writing is, in a sense, the true timbre of the thought,” Adam Gopnik says. And so from what sounds unremarkable and mortifyingly juvenile in summary here, I also read: because one has a responsibility to the world and the people with whom they live, even if they can't articulate why that is and even if that world is damned. (This did not magic away the depression.)
Perhaps this reflects more the state of “elite” American higher education than anything, being filled with people who confidently, falsely act like (believe?) they've read everything, but no one else in my class seemed to see the possible wink at “Hier, maman est morte” in “I was not sorry when my brother died,” the opening lines of Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions. I note this not because they needed to but because I spent so much time and energy feeling inferior to peers who’d accepted my insecurity at face value as objective ignorance rather than reasonable uncertainty, for no one knows anything. I like Camus’s writing because (1) it happened, by coincidence, to accompany me during several very charged points in my early life; (2) I think he's really fucking funny; and (3) it reminds me of the kind of people who seem so irritatingly discontent and cynical and intent on making everyone else that way, too — until you realize all that umbrage is powered by fierce, consuming disappointment and hope, an offended sense of integrity and righteousness. I may be projecting; I’m excellent at that.
I also love Salinger, whom I find very funny, thanks to re-introduction by a friend obsessed with the Glass family. Catcher, Franny and Zooey, and several of his stories scratch that (3) itch for me, too, though obviously Catcher most of all on that point. It’s become a strange evil strawman of toxic masculinity, as though Holden were made out to be a hero to emulate rather than an angry young person who gets some things right about bad faith and human cruelty but perpetuates the same. In college, I was quite proud of not liking Catcher, which I half-read in 10th grade. I gave it one star on Goodreads once upon a time and felt pleased with myself for having such a Hot Take, though even then I don't think I was much concerned with him being problematic as much as Catcher being part of the high school assignment stable (I never had it assigned!), which automatically rendered it something to sneer at knowingly, chicly, intriguingly. (By contrast, I had felt fine about loving Vonnegut, which I also never had assigned; I think I just did not understand then that he too, to many, might be part of The Canon. I thought him much more niche than he is, which is adorable if I say so myself.)
Accounts of abusive behavior were renewed after I read Catcher, but even so, my impression is that people performatively hate it more because they think Holden is annoying (drawing all sorts of comparisons to murderous incels and alt-right white boys, at worst, and to selfish, sexist ghosts from the critic's childhood past, at least) than because they're concerned about the morality of reading Salinger. The willful belief that fictional characters inherently represent authorial endorsements of distasteful thoughts and actions just because a text is in the first person is too unserious to bother with, but sometimes even points that aren’t objectionable become risible by association because it’s easier to laugh than think.
This TikTok, for instance, which Hannah linked in her email, features someone faux-pensively flipping through a copy of Catcher to audio that starts, "I wish my family believed in me!" What a cruelly absurd sentiment to mock! It's not even in the same family of parodying-boring-men exclamations that follow: I wish I could grow a beard, I wish I had a puppy growing up, I wish these glasses were actually prescription, I fell off my bicycle yesterday, I am now going to share my political views with you. This seems to illustrate a larger, confused conflation of being annoyed at a certain character’s whininess and refusing to hear a work's serious, valid questions. One can say anything in a mocking tone if they want to, but “Why bother being alive?” and “Why do people choose cruelty?” is such a weird place to start.
Likewise with Camus, I don't believe most people (Americans, anyhow) think about him being a pied-noir, or all the complications of French intellectual politics and colonialism, or his stances on Algerian independence. He just evokes a black-turtlenecked spectre of “condescending ex who majored in comparative lit,” as though that isn't what Americans generally think when they think of “France” anyway. I find this deeply unfortunate because it wastes such an opportunity to talk about what Algerian writing, as conceptualized by Algerians, is. I’m lucky that my high school French teacher, a Senegalese man who studied law in Russia, was clearly, exquisitely bored by (and not great at) teaching American children grammar, so he spent instead all of class time talking about anything we wanted. I learned a lot of critical context for various aspects of French art and literature — and creators, like Camus — I wouldn't have had any introduction to otherwise.
I do think the idea of a singular “canon” is unworkably, hilariously flawed and that it can only benefit people, especially young people in school, to read far beyond what gets a SparkNotes companion. I believe it critical to interrogate whose writing, from where, about what, is (de)valued. Conventional U.S. public education unduly prioritizes what mostly white, mostly English-speaking mostly men have written, and there is so much ground, after all, between (1) electing not to teach particular famous books in order to allow students time and space to engage with other texts and (2) “banning” them, as fearmongers would condescendingly frame things. Children have so much more intellectual agency and curiosity than anyone gives them credit for, and it’s fine if someone never reads an anointed “classic” in their life, as far as I’m concerned.
The only idea of “canon” that makes sense to me is an individualized one, an optimized sequence of texts that would do something to/for that particular person. Unique resonance. I feel dizzy thinking of all the work published every year, let alone that has ever been written, as I could read every second for the next six decades of my natural life and not make even a drop in the bucket. The point of reading is not to tame the world; I am only ever trying to enjoy an incomplete part of it. The great game is discovering what exists that's written for you (or a particular research goal), even if you don't know it, as well as where your lacunae are. It drives how I read: I'm always hoping to add another work to my personal canon of Things I Met at the Right Time Such That I Loved Them. I would now describe Salinger’s dialogue as “bracingly fresh” or something, but it did nothing for me at 14. Meeting the book whose Crow I wear around my neck felt like a once-in-a-lifetime miracle, though I understand friends I’ve pushed it on can feel differently. You are always the same person, and you are every second a different person.
But I hate the patronizing assumption that I couldn't, or shouldn't, derive value from these works, which have been important parts of my reading life that weren't forced on me at all, beyond being famous. (There’s the rub. Enter: conversations about resource scarcity, the fact that most people don't actually read that much or have the time to, zero-sum attention availability, and the dynamics of publicity — which I find much more substantive than most of these pithy, lazy jokes on social media.) I had complete free rein as a child to pick whatever I wanted from the public library, and I used that freedom. I didn't like some works from the canon, whatever that means, then that I do now, and vice-versa. Who cares, I’ll die eventually. Anglosphere publishing as an industry is racist and perversely money-orbiting in all sorts of “risk-averse” ways, but I rarely feel like that's what these disdainful takes are getting at; there's little attention to current, ongoing dynamics with working authors. I feel that many people are obsessed with hashing out why their high school teacher was wrong, or why they didn't deserve that one C, or why they were a gifted child, actually, but different because they could see through the “classics” grift. Can’t most people?
People enjoy feeling that they have a fashionably unpopular, interesting opinion; I'm not above this compulsion. One always wants to be right on the cusp. Sometimes this skepticism of established “good” things is fair, and I believe it always necessary — but often, it's substanceless. Like carrying an LRB tote or deriding it as passé, a lot of proud eagerness to show that you don't read certain people is shibbolethic, as much as proud eagerness to share certain authors you definitely have. Maybe it just doesn’t matter.
Like, what is the point of this?
Clout-chasing and shaming are two sides of the same handwringing coin; it’s all boring.
Thought about the following while writing the above
“Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction” by Zadie Smith
“What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?” by Lauren Michele Jackson
the fact that someone needs to blast an airhorn at me every time I grumble “shibboleth” about something
life’s brutish brevity
Edit (12 January 2021): Thought this Seghal review of George Saunders’s new book resonant. “The anxiety about a classic can persist through ages. How easy it is to be blind to ‘Moby-Dick’ even today. The novel is barnacled with praise, glory; how can we see it clearly, how do we dodge the twin temptations of dull reverence and crabby contrarianism?” The twin temptations of dull reverence and crabby contrarianism! She’s just so good, all the time.