In the last post, I posited that once something has entered the canon of literature, there is no point at which we can look back and say that it never entered it. This is hardly a radical idea. If one reads a book, it cannot be unread. If one thinks a thought, it cannot be unthought. If one hears a word, it cannot be unheard.
I spent the greater part of my last couple of posts speaking, perhaps vaguely, about the relationship that canonical literature has with its environment (with literature and with the publishing industry). I brought the subject of canonical literature into the posts because I felt it represented the most extreme identification of what ‘good’ literature might be, or at least, what we accept as ‘good’ literature.
I also posited that the mechanisms of art’s mass communicability—which in the case of literature happens to be its distribution through publication—are arbitrary factors when trying to determine what makes a piece of writing ‘good’ or ‘bad.’
A book that achieves bookdom still might be a ‘bad’ book, but it would just be bad for more professional reasons than what you find with independent publishing.
We find ourselves in a situation where the fact that a certain kind of publication is now easier to generate. If we can blame the high volume of bad independently published work on the easiness with which it is published, how do we account for the ‘badly written’ books that get published traditionally?
To say that a book which achieves bookdom is ‘bad’ for more professional reasons than the independent book is to speak of the former’s tastelessness, unoriginality or its inability to adhere to several different non-technical, societal expectations.
The ‘bad’ books of independent authors usually miss all of the above, though we never notice because the spelling and punctuation is so dreadful or the voice or the consistency is so off.
We have a gap between the two kinds of ‘bad.’ I believe this gap also hints at the key to the great gap between the two different kinds of ‘good.’
The reason that ‘bad’ books get published traditionally is because the publisher’s sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is based on marketability. The reason that ‘good’ books get published traditionally may be the same or it may have to do with an extra-commercial standard of literature. It may even get published because of some wonderful marriage between the two.
Independent publishing eliminates the traditional publisher as a mediator in the distributive process. The distributive process can act as a potential mediator in the creative process if a feature of the work compromises its potential for wide distribution.
With the one person, the author, cutting all the losses, seeing all the profit and putting all the work in, there is then potential for a ‘great’ work to emerge. It may be that this speculative ‘great’ work of the independent world achieves its greatness through: a) meeting a common grammatical standard, b) avoiding clichés and striving for some sense of individual voice, thus achieving bookdom, and most importantly, c) transcending mere formula in favor of a fuller dialogue with its literary heritage and with the world in which it was written.
Even bigger than the gap between the ‘bad’ books of independent publishing and the ‘bad’ books of traditional publishing, is the gap between the ‘bad’ books of independent publishing and the ‘great’ books that emerge in any form.
Proposition 4: The existence of good art is not harmed by bad art.
It could only be argued in a commercial sense that the contemporary place that some ‘low-brow’ or ‘middle-brow’ art holds in contemporary literature in any way harms the production of good art. If we’re to speak of ‘production’ only in terms of traditional publication then this is true, but not if we now include independent publishing, since independent publications are not necessarily determined by or reactive to a pre-existing market.
Writers who publish whatever they want allow the reader to come to them. It is possible for any kind of book, ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ to find its own audience.
Bad art has been around for a while. What harm is it if bad art is easier to make public? Some might be afraid that there is some standard measure that will lower so long as high volumes of bad art continue to see the light of day.
I disagree. I think that it will make the gap between good and bad much bigger—much more recognizable to the reader. Yes, it will be up to the reader to find one good book swimming in the bad thousands, but this is what we readers need.
It is readers like us whom are not satisfied with the reactionary process that always lambasts the new and praises the old and easily recognizable. We careful readers, we patient readers, are waiting for a work to stumble upon, and not for ‘the next big thing.’ We would like it that our favored works were like precious stones buried in the sand or forgotten photographs of generations past hidden in the attic.
Buried in the muck of movements, we’ll find new American voices, new European voices, new Latin American voices, new African voices, new Slavic voices, Oriental voices, Persian voices, Arabic voices, western voices, aboriginal voices, Anglo voices and Inuit voices.
We will stop worrying about the lofty image of writers that has constantly changed throughout the ages—The writer as learned statesman, the writer as global altruist, the writer as starving winnow, the artist as childish dolt or forbidding genius.
If a canonical literature is to go on and exist, it will continue to do so in spite of the many changes that have happened in the aesthetics of literature, in the political and commercial schemes surrounding it, and in spite of the many changes in technology that have come about since the first instant that people began to tell stories to one another.
One mustn’t worry about the canon. The canon can take care of itself.
The only one that should worry about the quality of art in the future is the artist. Let this be a challenge to those who worry: You dare worry, but do you dare be an artist?
Click here for Part 1