The Anti-Canon: Rant and Reflection by Jarred McGinnis

The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the friends of Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…

Lots of Johnsons and Willies, both Big and Blind.

Canon. What a silly idea and in so many ways. Such a backward-looking reactionary way to approach art. Swathes of kids each generation lost to the faith of words because they are taught to think a book has to look like something dead white guys made in mahogany lined libraries between attacks of gout. Two centuries of posh folk with emotional constipation is plenty. Silly also because ‘Canon’ smacks of someone telling you a book is important rather than giving a person the tools and time to figure it out for themselves.

Then again, I am one of those filthy colonials savaging this isle’s sacred tongue. Well, as sacred as a language can be that is the bicycle of Western Europe ridden by every invading army with a Cog and some vocab to spare. I only have a vague sense of what the ‘Canon’ is. I haven’t taken an English Literature class since high school. I didn’t have to. The US has something called AP, Advance Placement. It’s where you can take a class in high school and earn University credits. It’s a great deal for a kid whose options are either scholarships or joining the Navy. At eighteen I made the choice to piss about and move about until I finally settled down in Austin Texas to study philosophy (with a scholarship). The works from canon I’ve come to know, appreciate and sometimes love come by the same mechanisms of fate as works of anti-canon. To discuss a work in terms of canon feels more like an exercise in brand awareness[1]: Shakespeare, Eliot (either George or T.S.) etc. It’s not hard to agree with everyone that the sky is blue, the grass is green and Big Willie S. can turn a phrase or two.

So what is the Anti-canon then?

If by canon, we mean, very boringly, the selection of works ‘generally’ agreed to set the standard and to be of the highest quality. ‘Generally’, people have very boring, safe, uninteresting tastes. So let’s interpret anti-canon to mean those books that set the rule for fiction for me personally. Inevitably, my anti-canon will overlap with canon. No cooler-than-thou hipsterism for me, no sir. This brings me to another problem with canon, anti or otherwise. It changes all the time. The influence of books waxes and wanes, personally and generally.

Uncle! Half way in and I still haven’t named some books. Sorry. Here are the first books on my shelf that I notice and satisfy the criteria of works that set the standard and are of the highest quality:

Brotherhood of the Grape by John Fante. Huge influence on Bukowski who would have been part of my canon (and still is a bit) when I was a teenager. Poe Ballantine, who I’ve only discovered recently, could be there as an honourable mention.

The Atlas by William T. Vollmann. Anything by him really. He’s not in print in the UK which seems insane when you see how prolific he is. I suspect he’s part of the US canon but who knows. Or, as I said before, who cares. Read him. Be angered, enamoured and enthralled by him. Another mind boggler is how Percival Everett’s Erasure is out of print here. Consistently he is the most perceptive writer about the buttfuckery-backwardness that is race in America.

Geek Love by Kathrine Dunn. She’s definitely part of my personal canon and probably permanently. This book understands the Grotesque as a literary style better than any other. Grotesque at its heart is about empathy. More writers should remember that. Never punch down; not these days.

I feel like I’ve been disappointingly mainstream here. What if we push anti-canon a bit further and look for works that come from outside the tradition that nonetheless contribute to literary tradition. E.g. Throw in Tao de Ching in between Romans and 1 Corinthians. I’m very much a fan of outsider fiction. There is an honestly, or a lack of artifice, that I find refreshing. I’m thinking books like Travels with Lizbeth by Lars Eighner or You Can’t Win by Jack Black. Maybe Jean Genet who started out as an outsider then was adopted into the literary fold. For me these authors are a good reminder to question all the rules everyone seems so eager to pound into writers so we all write the same MFAish simulacrums of canon until all our prose says nothing but says it perfectly well. Give me the kid (e.g. Evasion by Nigel Davis) who is flailing about trying to get that grit from rattling around in his heart to tide me over until I come across that deadly creature of a writer who has something to say and knows how to say it well or in a new way. Something much rarer than publishers’ marketing budgets would have you believe.

Maybe we can stretch the anti-canon even further. That which isn’t even prose and yet sets the standard for the possibilities of prose and is of the highest quality. Here I recommend the song by Tom Waits; ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’. Yep, it’s a poem. Yep, it’s a song but transcribe Wait’s box of gravel voice, chop and tidy the line breaks and tell the unsuspecting world that Denis Johnson is onto flash fiction. No one would be the wiser. Jesus once said, 'short stories are the Blues without the chord progressions'. Blind Willie Johnson has a song with no lyrics but the title "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" is enough to make Hemmingway reach for his never worn baby shoes. That title is a great example of the economy of the short story. How you can create a world in the fewest strokes of the pen. In eight words (relatively unremarkable ones at that) and we know the loneliness, sadness, fear and desperation of the protagonist before Johnson hits his first note. There’s a reason we humans shot that song into space on Voyager to explain to the nearest alien what a bummer it is to be human. They have been warned!

 

Jarred McGinnis was one of the guys behind The Special Relationship and its 4-day live reading of Moby-Dick at the Southbank in 2015. His short fiction has been commissioned for BBC Radio 4, and appeared in journals in the UK, Canada, USA and Ireland. In addition to writing fiction, he holds a PhD in Artificial Intelligence. He is http://wickedtomocktheafflicted.com

 

[1] Ever notice how the ‘Canon’ of the 20th century has a lot of thin books (Gatsby, To Kill a Mocking Bird). Hmm, I wonder if they are in the canon because they are the only books people managed to finish and can talk about at dinner parties.