In Defense of the Canon

In Defense of the Canon

Pretty much the only time you’ll hear someone mention the canon in the year of our Lord 2019 is to explain why it’s bullshit: the canon is a bunch of stuff made by old or dead white dudes that a bunch of other old or dead white dudes decided was important, and everything outside of the canon is deemed, by implication, not important or worthwhile or particularly good. The canon is the epitome of cultural elitism; any English undergrad can tell you all about it.

The idea of a canon comes from the Bible, with the books deemed good, important and true being preserved and assembled as part of the Biblical canon, and other writings – like the gospel where the cross is a character that talks, or ones about Jesus as a kid – getting left on the cutting room floor. The idea of a literary canon is a kind of outgrowth from this: collecting the good and important works of literature – Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare – as the ones worthy of study, the ones any educated person should be expected to have read. The literary canon is the stuff you’re supposed to read in school or college, but probably didn’t. There are tons of very legitimate criticisms of what makes up the literary canon: it tends to be disproportionately male – Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and Virginia Woolf would be the big exceptions when it comes to novelists – and almost exclusively white, and the people who decide what gets deemed canonical (academics and critics) have similar demographic problems. But the big difference between the Biblical canon and the literary canon is that there is no official list of classic books, with everything else likely to be lost or destroyed. The literary canon is necessarily in flux. When Herman Melville died, he was an obscure writer living in poverty, but a few decades later some hip literary types in New York realised no, wait, Moby-Dick is really good, actually, and now here we are.

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I Just Hope I Don’t Get More Out of This Than You Do

I Just Hope I Don’t Get More Out of This Than You Do

It’s been almost three years since one of the worst webcomic artists in the world published one of his worst webcomics of his career. The artist is Adam Ellis, formerly of Buzzfeed, whose work is likely familiar to anyone who’s ever used Facebook: it may well be mathematically impossible at this point to go a whole hour on Facebook without catching sight of his bug-eyed self-insert in a “relatable” and yet “funny” scenario. The comic in question was posted to Twitter with the caption “shhh” and depicts one of those deeply unfunny people who thinks not liking or knowing much about sport is a personality being silenced by an American football fan who tells him to “let people enjoy things”.

I loathe it more than most of his awful, awful work because, while I find “sportsball” types risible, it can’t mount a more thoughtful objection to their behaviour than “let people enjoy things”. It’s a nice slogan, but obviously a terrible blanket policy when people enjoy lots of bad things, and not just aesthetically bad, but morally bad. But even when there’s arguably not a significant, urgent moral dimension to something people enjoy, the “let people enjoy things” mantra makes me nervous. It’s one thing as a response to someone who’s snobby or pushy with criticisms of your likes or interests on an interpersonal level, the kind of people who comment on how unhealthy your food is or rag on the shows you like for no reason. But at any more macro level, like in online cultural discourse and, increasingly, in professional critical writing, it eventually becomes a way to deflect unflattering critiques or is so internalised that it pre-empts criticism at all.

Of course, Ellis and his comic aren’t responsible for the rise and spread of this attitude in online cultural discourse – how could it be, when Ellis’s work consists almost entirely in arriving three years late to observations that were already trite the first time they were verbalised? – but it’s emblematic of it in a way little else is, and for that, I hate it.

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Fan Boys: The Phantom Menace

Fan Boys: The Phantom Menace

People tend not to have a great sense of scale, which isn’t the best quality when we’re so prone to making grand proclamations about entire populations of people. For example, a common refrain since the 2016 US presidential election has been variations on “we now live in a country where nearly half the people voted for Trump”. Now and then someone will point out that, with 60 percent turnout, it was more like a quarter. But that’s still not right. It was 46.1 percent (vote share) of 60.2 percent (turnout) of 71.6 percent (eligibility) of the US population in 2016, or just under 20 percent. This isn’t to minimise the horror of the election result or Trump’s presidency in any way. Every evil thing, every atrocity, that has occurred in the past two years still happened, and, if anything, it just makes it more fucked-up that it didn’t even take a majority to happen.

That’s why it bothers me when I hear this “we now live in a country…” thing, whether about Trump or Brexit or any of the other awful election results of the past several years. If your main political opponents actually comprise less than 20 percent of the country, but you react as if it was half, you can’t possibly be responding in the most effective way. Accuracy matters, especially with something as high-stake as the fate of democracy, and it’s frustrating to constantly see well-intentioned people be so sloppy with reality. Not that low stakes should let people off the hook: standards of research and fact-checking in entertainment journalism are in the gutter and it drives me up the wall. And while it’s obviously not as significant as the rising tide of fascism (though it’s often presented as comorbid with it), when it comes to misrepresenting the scale of a social problem, there’s little critics and journalists have fucked up more than their coverage of “fan boys” and their allegedly toxic effects on society.

Normally, I find articles like this difficult to write, because it requires me to cite specific examples of bad writing and I don’t enjoy going off on other writers, for the most part. But this one will be super easy, because, for once, I can shit on the writing of someone whose writing I already constantly shit on.

This is a callout post. For myself.

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Behold the Man Who Is a Bean

Behold the Man Who Is a Bean

Night on a deserted street in London. Saint Paul’s Cathedral shines on the horizon. A beam of light shoots down from the sky and expands into a spotlight. A man falls from above and lands smack on the ground. He wears a tweed jacket and red tie, brown slacks and a white shirt. An angelic choir begins to sing in Latin.

Ecce homo qui est faba.

“Behold the man who is a bean.”

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Scenes from the Class Struggle in Medieval Europe

Scenes from the Class Struggle in Medieval Europe

The critical reception to 2001’s A Knight’s Tale is full of terrible, lazy takes deriding it as mind-numbing trash. They’re full of disdain for low culture that places the film’s detractors squarely on the side of the its villains, a comparison that seems utterly lost on the whole pompous lot. The presumed audience of the film – teenagers – gets as much scorn as the film itself. The reviewers then scorn the film all the more in turn for its “pandering”. There are tons of complaints about its anachronistic 70s rock soundtrack, though some of the same reviewers, like Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum, would go on to name Moulin Rouge one of the best films of the year.

Admittedly, A Knight’s Tale isn’t as good as Moulin Rouge: this isn’t one of those articles where I try to convince you a largely dismissed piece of trash is actually a masterpiece. A Knight’s Tale is a pretty good popcorn flick, well-cast and competently made, with a straightforward plot and some good set-pieces. Reviewers were fond of referring to it as a “Middle Ages Rocky” or “Rocky on horseback” with exactly the tedious predictability they accuse its plot of epitomising, which is weird for two reasons: first, because Rocky is a gritty minimalist drama, and second, because, somehow, the comparison never made them consider that A Knight’s Tale, much like Rocky, is a film about class.

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Against Relatability

Against Relatability

I once had a friend question how I could possibly like Bon Iver’s debut album For Emma, Forever Ago when I’d never been through a breakup. (That isn’t strictly true, but I’ve been with the same person for my whole adult life, so it’s much of a muchness.) I can’t remember exactly how I responded, but it was something like: just because I haven’t been sad over a breakup doesn’t mean I can’t relate to being sad. He seemed sceptical but didn’t push the point.

Roughly six years later, I have a better answer.

Fuck relatability.

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The Rashomon Effect Effect

The Rashomon Effect Effect

The “Rashomon effect” describes the tendency of witnesses to or participants in the same events to give mutually contradictory accounts of what happened due to the subjectivity and fallibility of human memory. It’s named after the 1950 film Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa, in which four witnesses to a murder give contradictory accounts of what happened. The term is bandied about a lot in pop psychology (and philosophy) articles, and one of its more recent applications is, of course, This Age of Trump, This Age of Brexit. In the aftermath of the two major political upsets of 2016, the mainstream media churned out hundreds of handwringing articles about the “post-truth world”, because it’s insufficient for cloistered political and media elites to have merely been wrong, their opinions and expertise are so important that if they were wrong, the only explanation was that the fundamental human ability to distinguish reality from fiction had completely disintegrated.

With its emphasis on an immutable failing of human nature – a fundamental inability to ever truly recall events accurately or, in effect, to know the world at all – it was inevitable that the Rashomon effect would be trotted out as a buzzy term to explain the new reality. Michael Wolff even mentions it in his insider account of the Trump administration, Fire and Fury. The appeal of the term is easy to understand: it describes a basic and insurmountable flaw, so it absolves everyone of responsibility to think about how and why falsehoods may have played a more decisive role in recent politics than in a supposed past era where people were more honest, or at least where the public was harder to hoodwink. I’m not saying they have done – I’m sceptical of the notion of a “post-truth world” – but if they did, I could think of reasons other than the Rashomon effect. Off the top of my head, it’s possible formerly authoritative news sources destroyed their credibility with the public by, among other things, helping the Bush administration manufacture the pretext for a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. I’m no expert, but I have to wonder if perhaps public trust in the media was damaged when literally no one lost their job over one of the most massive and systemic failures of journalism in recent times.

Of course, that’s just my interpretation, and here’s where I should be putting the obvious joke about how it’s just like in Rashomon, where everyone remembers things differently. But there’s a problem. Unlike most people who reference the Rashomon effect, I’ve seen Rashomon. And Rashomon isn’t about the subjectivity and fallibility of memory. It’s about lying.

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