Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Hotel New Hampshire, by John Irving

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As I dig into the craft of writing, certain questions of The Canon continue to puzzle me. The Canon for me was established in high school as this set of writers who had Made It, who had done more than merely create Literature but had indeed shaped it, altered its course, defined what we high school students were destined to read.

Then, for anyone who reads a book after high school, The Canon becomes a much fuzzier reality (though still very, very real). Some rebel against it--if it's Canonical, it ain't cool; many in this crowd will defend Watchmen to the end as if no one has accepted it as Literature. To so many people who think like this, anything with Literary Merit must be boring, self-indulgent, and never intended to sell more than ten copies. Some other people struggle to alter The Canon's definition; an entire branch of Academia is dedicated to finding J.R.R. Tolkien a place in The Canon. (I happen to agree with them.) And some expand The Canon to include anything Literary.

This is where John Irving's writing puzzles me deeply. His work is Literary--probably every single review or endorsement mentions somewhere its Dickensian qualities. Yet he sells incredibly well, has several books adapted to film, and has even won an Oscar. And the content. Literary my arse!

But why not? Why shouldn't a story that includes incestual lust, motorcycle-riding bears, an Austrian brothel-slash-hotel, and a baseball-bat-wielding blind man named Freud be acceptable Literature?

Apparently, it is. (Though try describing this book to anyone, anyone, and they'll think it's all kinds of messed up. Also, if you recommend it to your remarkably picky selective English friend, he will probably be speechless for the first time.) At least, it's not shunned the way genre fiction is.

(Note how genre doesn't get the Winnie-the-Pooh capital letter treatment. Think of your snottiest college professors, and now think about how they would say "genre fiction." It deserves a leering italic font!)

I don't mean to come across like a complete relativist here, but I just wonder why we value some works over others. The Hotel New Hampshire may not be Irving's best-known book, but some lucky kids get to read his writing in high school. Yet this book has moments that make Tom Robbins say "Daaaaaayum!" And I'm pretty sure, no matter how rock-star popular Robbins is, he will never be considered as Literary as Irving.

The Canon will never be fully decided or even understood. But contemplating it cannot but be a healthy activity for the book-minded folks of the world.

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