My reply to Andrew Seal has ignited a debate—although, to be fair, more of it has been conducted at Blographia Literaria than over here. Probably because of my well-known conservatism.
After telling his readers that he had visited my blog to reply to me, not too intemperately, he hoped, Seal said ruefully:
Both these unfortunate ideas are the consequence of party-spiritedness in criticism. Two decades ago, when I was a new hire at Texas A&M University, already pigeonholed as a conservative because I had published essays and reviews in Commentary and the New Criterion, a public forum on the canon was arranged in the English department, and I was invited to represent one side. Trouble was, I did not view the debate over the canon as an either/or. I had published an essay in the Sewanee Review in which I argued that “the canon is a bogey, an invention of critics’ overfevered imaginations,” and that “the entire debate over the canon has been misconceived.” The various lists and bibliographies that have been mistakenly called canons, I tried to show, are arbitrary; they are selections without a larger principle; they are founded not on a distinction but on convenience. (I am perfectly aware that my own list of the best American fiction, 1968–1998, fits these requirements. No canonical listing can claim to be the final selection, because the very character of canonical-listing precludes finality. My list was intended as a convenience for those who might wish to begin reading the era’s fiction.)
I still believe much of my twenty-years-old argument, although I am sure that I would frame it far more devastatingly today. Not that it would make any difference. I was and am reputed to be a conservative. In the public forum at A&M, no matter how many times I repeated my claim that the canon is a monster hiding under the beds of terrified English professors, I was heard to be saying something like “How dare you neglect Milton for Toni Morrison!” (The irony only deepens. I have been guilty, in public, of confessing my uncompromising loathing for Milton. When I took a seminar on Milton in graduate school—one of the best classes I took—I sought refuge in a paper on the history of Milton criticism. Because I have also publicly argued that Philip Roth is the greatest American novelist since 1968, I have been accused, by an antagonist who wished to demonstrate my self-evident unfitness as a scholar, of neglecting Milton for Roth!) As a conservative, I am identified with positions and propositions that I have sternly repudiated, in print, with iron logic and soul-swaying rhetoric. And it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.
Far more important than resolving to “diversify” our literary knowledge by reading more gays and women and men who are not white would be to rout the spirit of party in criticism altogether. And among other things, this would entail that critics bid farewell to the doctrine of “contemporary literature from marginalized groups.” Literature does not come from groups, marginalized or otherwise, but from individual men and women; and it is a product, not of the immutable racial and sexual identities they receive at birth, but of innumerable choices. Literature is a realm of freedom, including the freedom to dissociate yourself from antipathetic ideas, even those espoused by a group with which you otherwise identify.