I read an interview with Toni Morrison in The Paris Review, and she talks about coming to books without the weight of expectation. The interview is from 1993, and it feels like something that’s harder to do with the FOMO terminology of social media. Not just these “event” books that everyone must drop everything for, but all that canon of classic books that someone decided at one point were the ones worth reading.
Which makes me think about my own reading habits growing up, which pushed out of the expected reading lists at school, that I found to be stifling. I came to books as I came to them, wrapped up in a bubble of voracious reading that everyone else found odd. So, what did it matter what I read? I was being judged anyway.
Stephen King sat next to Anne Rice sat next to Alice Walker sat next to X-Men comics on my bookshelf. I learned more about narrative structure from superhero narratives than I did from Jane Austen. I learned about dramatic tension from Homer, Stevenson, and John Grisham in equal measure. I read Ginsberg and Whitman because they were queer, not because of their linguistic complexity. I enjoyed the beautiful language of Toni Morrison and Arundhati Roy, less concerned with Pulitzers and Man Booker prizes, or hot takes to share around a dinner table.
I continue to read this honestly. I will defend genre fiction, commercial fiction, any fiction as long as it’s good and engaging and telling stories. It was a shock to enter university on an English degree and find a level of snobbery I thought was a myth or stereotype. I remember in my first year, a notorious lecturer telling a class of first years that if they hadn’t read Woolf and Kafka and Joyce, they had no right to be in the class or call themselves readers or writers. Well, fuck you. I’ve read Woolf and Kafka and Joyce. But that’s not my background, and it shouldn’t have to be anyone else’s.
I came by classic fiction honestly, free from the weight of what it means symbolically, or the reverence placed on some authors like they saved the world. While it’s interesting to read literary criticism, it’s also useful to come to The Odyssey when it’s just a story about a man trying to get home to his wife after a war, who meets weird and wonderful creatures along the way. Similarly, reading Dubliners by James Joyce is a delight when you don’t have people around you thinking he is the highest peak of literature and every word should be analysed for evidence of his sheer genius.
It was interesting to hear Daljit Nagra talk at this year’s Brunel University Writers Series about language and canon. He confessed to not being a big reader until he was in his teens, and not being daunted when he eventually picked books up, because to him they were stories, and not narratives full of expectation around language and canon and the things that are correct. He also railed against the classism of Standard English, and how people forget the excitement of playing around with language and slang, non-standard English, or not even English at all. This Trump Brexit worldview has forgotten that language and culture are powerful. It’s the same pride in ignorance when people turn their noses down at anything not written by a white dead English person that doesn’t sit in the Classics section, or is thoroughly complicated for the sole purpose of appearing to be deep.
It’s interesting how little space there is in this acceptable canon for people from other cultures or classes. My reading lists during my time at university have often involved stories about rich white English people feeling tormented over their divorces while on holiday. Scintillating. Everything else is thrown into the corner of “genre” or “world literature” for a week of tickbox exercise. Thankfully, I’ve also had some wonderful tutors who have introduced me to the joys of Shirley Jackson, Gloria Anzaldua, Octavia Butler and Junot Diaz.
Madeline Miller talks about having written The Song of Achilles in secret for ten years. As a Classics student, she was worried that academics would judge her for having somehow ruined the original texts by producing a modern love story. Her passion paid off though. She’s now a successful author and her books are fantastic. Imagine giving in to the snobbery of others and not producing a work as vital and interesting as The Song of Achilles or Circe. Similarly, Tolkien was initially ridiculed for writing The Lord of the Rings and wasting his talent and energy on what was seen as childish drivel. Now, people use Tolkien as a tool to judge others. I am confident to say I read The Fellowship of the Ring and that’s probably about as far as I’ll ever get. It’s just not for me.
Read everything. Enjoy what you enjoy. Don’t pay attention to these Joyce-loving bros who hold him at an impossible regard, a branch above everyone else in a space so narrow it only fits themselves. Grow your own canon, you’ll be a better reader, writer and person for it.