The Thursday Three #35

1. Thomas Sowell, the renowned economist and conservative thinker, has retired from column writing.* He also turned 87 not too long ago, as did Harold Bloom,** who is one of the greatest literary critics of all time. As the years pass, I keep wondering who will replace these brilliant minds.

Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you. —Harold Bloom

Much of the social history of the Western world, over the past three decades, has been a history of replacing what worked with what sounded good. —Thomas Sowell

2. Three songs I’m obsessed with: Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” because I was daydreaming and came up with an awesome idea for a music video for it, Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” because all of a sudden the radio started playing it a lot and I don’t think I had ever heard it before, and Julia Michaels’s “Issues” because it describes a nice mix of dysfunction and commitment.

3. Here’s a picture of a double rainbow (although you can barely see the outer one). Trust me… there were two.

*I highly recommend Sowell’s The Vision of the Anointed (1995).

**I highly recommend Bloom’s How to Read and Why (2000).

All the Good Ones Are Taken

Ideas, not men. 🙂

There’s this book by Harold Bloom that I’ve been meaning to read for some time now called The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. In it, Bloom postulates that “poets are hindered in their creative process by the ambiguous relationship they necessarily maintained with precursor poets.”*

That’s what’s cool about being a writer. There is a connection between you and the reader, and possibly an even stronger connection between you and future writers. You are the master, they are your apprentice.**

As an amateur writer with legions of much greater writers preceding me, I don’t feel any anxiety about trying to produce something new and original because I have already accepted the fact that I simply won’t be able to. All the ideas are taken, especially the good ones. I do not have the skill of Faulkner or Hemingway or even Stephen King. I think I can safely say I am better than Danielle Steele, but even that may be presumptuous.

A common piece of writing advice is something like “read from the works of many different writers, not just those in your favorite genre.” So if you follow that wise advice, you will absorb what those previous writers have written whether or not you are consciously aware of doing so. That knowledge of what you have read in the past will somehow find its way into your own writing, and it will do so whether you want it to or not.

I know I may be totally missing Bloom’s point (and that’s why I should probably read the book before writing about it), but I feel like having anxiety over the influence of past writers, like all other things about which you can feel anxious, is a waste of time. I believe most published writers, whom Bloom would undoubtedly consider to be inferior, would agree with me. After all, they are still publishing and people are still reading their work. Their work may not be remembered or hailed as great 500 years from now, but that’s no reason to stop writing. So if it makes you happy, write. If your writing makes someone else happy, all the better.

*For this post, I’m going to talk about fiction instead of poetry because I think the “anxiety of influence” can extend to novelists also.

**That totally wasn’t a Star Wars reference.

Preserving the Western Canon

As I’ve written about a few times before, I have a love-hate relationship with Harold Bloom (the literary critic), or rather, a love-hate relationship with his views on literature. I like how he wants to preserve what he considers the “Western canon” (the great literary works of the ages), but I don’t like how he seems to think that most modern writing and literature is garbage and that very little of intrinsic beauty and literary worth is being written nowadays. (Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon are two of the modern literary greats, whereas J.K. Rowling and Stephen King are horrible writers.)

I recently read about how schools in North Carolina (in accordance with the national Common Core State Standards) are going to be changing their reading curricula to contain less fiction and more nonfiction, among other sweeping changes, in order to make the United States more able to compete against other countries in the future. Is that a good thing or not? I’m not quite sure. I think most people would argue that learning about fiction is useless, since only a few students will grow up to become authors or English teachers. These days, a lot of emphasis is being placed on the sciences and engineering, because so much of the important work deals with technology and new scientific/medical discoveries.

Back to how Harold Bloom and his Western canon relate to all this… of the fiction that is actually being studied in schools, how much of it is works from the Western canon? I know that in public school, we had to study Shakespeare, Dickinson, Chaucer, whose works are in the Western canon; but we also focused on fiction like The Giver, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Tuck Everlasting, and Where the Red Fern Grows, which are not in the canon at all. Bloom (and those who follow his school of thought; one of my college professors did) believes that less emphasis being placed on works by the former authors, and more emphasis is being placed on works like the latter ones, and that this is a tragedy.

I’m divided. In the elementary and middle grades, it’s fine to talk about modern fiction, like the above-mentioned novels. After all, how many 5th graders will be able to fully comprehend Shakespeare? But in high school and college, students should be more equipped to understand and analyze complicated works like Proust, Faulkner, Joyce, and other items in the Western Canon. Bloom and his followers mention that more college curricula are beginning to require modern works of “literature” to be taught in the classroom, and that the Western canon is fading away from academia.

So… is the Western canon becoming obsolete? Perhaps those works aren’t quite as “timeless” as they seem.