20 October 2006

Blooming Cheek

I was interested to find, when I followed a link from a recent blog item by Kate Orman, an online listing of the works of literature which the eminent critic Harold Bloom believes comprise the Western Canon.

Originally for this post, I intended to do as Kate had and simply list the books from the list I'd read or seen performed.

However, the traditional Oxbridge Englit B.A. and Masters made this rather a lengthy task. As my selection from Bloom's listing became longer and longer, and more and more dull, I began to feeel depressed at how many of the books in question I'd read purely from a sense of duty, gaining very little actual enjoyment (I mean honestly, have you tried reading The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia?), and how very small a proportion of Bloom's corpus of essential texts, even the English-language ones, I'd covered despite this.

So, instead of boasting about my erudition and exposing my ignorance in the same breath, I'm going to pick holes in Bloom's selection process. That'll teach him to be so bloody self-important.

Honestly, though -- I approve of including Beowulf, naturally, but it was hardly the only interesting thing to be written in English before Chaucer. Where's The Dream of the Rood, or any of the poems from the Exeter Book? Dickens' later novels are some of the best in the English language, but what possible justification could there be for including such early throwaway nonsense as Nicholas Nickleby among of the seminal works of Western literature? You might as well include the funny newspaper columns Dickens collected as The Pickwick bloody Papers. Which, of course, Bloom also does.

All of Shakespeare, Harold? What, even The Comedy of Errors? Even The Two Noble Kinsmen? Are you sure? What on earth did the Earl of Rochester do to deserve being on the list, apart from use the word "fuck" repeatedly in his poetry?

And honestly -- Gilbert and Sullivan?

I note that Vladimir Nabokov -- a Russian who was resident in the U.S. from the age of 41, became a citizen of the U.S. and did his best work there before retiring to Switzerland 20 years later -- is listed by you, Harold, under "The United States". That's probably fair enough -- but what, then, of T.S. Eliot, who lived in England from the age of 26, did all his best work here and died in London as a British citizen, whom you also list under "The United States"? Can we be quite certain that there's no cultural bias at work here, Harold?

And then there's the S.F.

Large amounts of respect are due, admittedly, for including any at all. There are a good many academics who'd consider even Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World to have been fatally contaminated by their association with such a populist genre. You, Harold, on the other hand, include Cat's Cradle, Riddley Walker and The Left Hand of Darkness, along with Wells's S.F. and something by Disch I've never got round to reading. Kudos for that.

But but but -- A Voyage to Arcturus? That was the best work of post-Wells British S.F. you could come up with? I mean, I know it's a philosophical allegory which uses the planetary-exploration genre to dramatise its a/theological dialectic, finally espousing an uncompromisingly Gnostic cosmogony which affirms the divine origins of life whilst at the same time febrilely rejecting the material world and its creator. It says so in my thesis.

But for God's sake, it's excruciatingly-written rubbish! Even C.S. Lewis thought so, and he was pretty much responsible for the fact that anyone outside the S.F. critical community's even heard of it. For this you pass over everything, S.F. or otherwise, written by Olaf Stapledon, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss (who also thinks it's rubbish, by the way), Christopher Priest or indeed Lewis himself? And that's listing only the British contenders, and thus failing altogether to address the scandalous omission of, to name only the most deserving of the many absent U.S. S.F. authors, Philip K Dick.

Academics, eh. Always obsessing about their own field while entirely ignoring the wider picture. T'sk.

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