In high school I had this awesome English teacher who was broody and hated his students but forever marked my tastes by introducing me to e.e. cummings and Anne Michaels. There was one student in the class who offended my teacher in particular by being not only not particularly bright but unusually unwilling to correct that situation. When this student gave a presentation on Steinbeck’s The Pearl, he brought the Cliff’s Notes, but not the book itself, to the podium. The teacher, going by this student’s desk, would often “bump into” the student’s chair because he was constantly rockin it, leading to Marx Brothers’ style hijinks as the student struggled to keep aloft.
When the teacher handed back our first papers, he gave us some general pointers, illustrated by examples from this student’s paper. One I remember in particular was that he cautioned against sweeping opening statements, such as this student’s, which was, “In all literature…” What does this mean, the teacher asked? Is this person truly ready to claim familiarity with ALL literature? The student in that case was not. Probably none of us are, the teacher pointed out. It is more than a little possible, in fact, that no one ever will be.
So, out of sheer humility at the task of being able to sift through the sum of writing all humanity has and will produce and leave behind over the course of our lives, we probably shouldn’t appoint ourselves to the positions of learned poobahs of All Literature, right?
Wrong, say hipster dudes. Our English majors at respected universities should be enough for us to make grand declarations! Plus, we have an internet magazine.
Case in point: Harpy reader Khrushchev directed my attention to This Recording’s recent list of the 100 Greatest Writers of All Time. I read it, and well, heh. You’ll be happy to know that 13 or 14 of our vagina-having number made the list. Being responsible for 13-14% of the great literature in the world is no slouch, one supposes. The other 77% being, of course, fully attributable to penii. Of course, this list considers Emily and Charlotte Bronte to be one person (hence the 13-14 number), does not even list Jane Austen, or Patricia Highsmith, or God knows any number of other women who have slowly kicked down the heavily-guarded doors of the Western canon.
And then, of course, there are so few people from outside the Western world. But I digress.
Rather than argue with any one exclusion or ranking, I’d say what galls me most about this sort of thing is how breathtakingly unapologetic these young men are on the whole about the hubris of the project. Here’s their caveat:
Other lists of this kind have been attempted, none very successfully. We would like to stress that there is a crucial difference between “an important writer” and “a great writer”; the latter is at this time our sole interest. We will account for some of the names that did not make this list in a later dispatch.
But hey, don’t be bothered to define these terms, guys! Because that crucial difference is certainly obvious to the rest of us. And certainly, we wouldn’t want you to get bogged down with small questions like, “Does my opinion that x writer is ‘great’ really matter in the grand scheme of things given that last I checked I had not been elected spokesperson for Readers Everywhere? Wouldn’t it be far more interesting to investigate the significance of writers beyond the bounds of my very limited experience?”
It gets better, of course.
There is nothing bad to say about anyone we list here, except in some cases that they were anti-Semitic or racist, hated women or hated men.
How sweet. They, of course, don’t have anyone on the list who hates men, because hating men, in this culture, is an absurdity! Why would anyone hate men? But hating women and Jews and people who are not white, well, those do exist but they are minor, regrettable faults, otherwise eclipsed by their “greatness.”
You know, I am not ragging on the authors of this list just because I have reason to believe they are young, upwardly mobile American white men. (Although, it would be fair to say, in my estimation, that belonging to such a group makes one’s experience limited in a way it simply can’t be for a member of an oppressed class.) No, in this case I find their demographic coincidental, because what I really, truly object to, is the formulating of these kinds of lists at all. The appropriation of authority for one’s own opinion over that of all others – that’s something I feel like feminism has to object to. Because more often than not, coincidentally as I said, the pretender to the throne of Good Taste is a person with social power. And by claiming to be an authority on “Great Literature,” they are not the beneficent rulers they imagine themselves to be. They are codifying their reading experience as the only one worth having.
Oh relax, you might say. This is the internet. People make lists all the time. Perhaps these young men are tongue in cheek, they probably don’t consider themselves more qualified to issue these pronouncements than a Harold Bloom (a whole ‘nother kettle of fish, there). These lists are just starting points.
But I guess what I’d like to see, just once, is someone starting a discussion about books, and books worth reading, that didn’t posit themselves as the authority on Life, the Universe, and All Things Literary. I’d like to see truly discursive presentations instead of lists based on nothing more than self-aggrandizement. I’d like to admit other perspectives to this conversation about what’s “Great.” Wouldn’t that get us closer to the answer, anyway? Wouldn’t that be the real revolution, that we’d stop having people just declare themselves authorities, but actually be forced to defend their positions to each other?
Maybe that’s too much to ask for.