One of our favorite bibliobloggers, Jessa Crispin (who edits Bookslut), recently explained why she refuses to read the latest U.S. Literary Sensation. An excerpt:
The idea that as a literary person there are a certain set of books you must read because they are important parts of the literary conversation is constantly implied, yet quite ridiculous. Once you get done with the Musts — the Franzens, Mitchells, Vollmanns, Roths, Shteyngarts — and then get through the Booker long list, and the same half-dozen memoirs everyone else is reading this year (crack addiction and face blindness seem incredibly important this year), you have time for maybe two quirky choices, if you are a hardcore reader. Or a critic. And then congratulations, you have had the same conversations as everyone else in the literary world.Hamlet versus King Lear versus Julius Caesar and never have a clear winner. There are celebrity issues with the must-reads, which few people acknowledge. I noticed this when I started rooting around in Hungarian literature, and none of the writers there would be considered Musts. Is it because Hungary has never produced a Flaubert? Never created a character as compelling or universal as Emma Bovary? Or simply because politics and celebrity and chance keep some people in the shadows and other people filling the entire spotlight with their bloated corpus. One of my favorite novels is Hungarian, which started this in the first place. But without similarly passionate people sifting through a nation’s literary output, like record labels’ signing every fashionably crap band in Seattle in the wake of Nirvana, we can make assumptions about the lack of quality Hungarian literature. Or literature by women. Or literature printed by small presses or self-published or printed online.
Of course there is no such thing as a must-read book. Maybe you should read some Tolstoy, but then again maybe not, if overly long descriptions of fields don’t really do anything for you, or if you have some problems with the whole woman-has-a-desire-and-so-must-die thing. Maybe you should check out some Jane Austen, but then again, Jane Austen is pretty boring and the whole marriage-as-life thing, I mean who really cares. There is Shakespeare, but you could spend a day arguing
There is no such thing as a canon — what you should read or want to read or will read out of obligation is determined as much by your history, your loves, and your daily reality as by the objective merits of certain works.
Crispin’s entire screed on this subject is worth a look.
Found at The Smart Set