20 January 2012

Writing Adrift

There's a great essay on the NYRB blog by Tim Parks about the current emphasis on disparate great writers of the world than on any serious study of context - i.e. the universal over the specific.

One of the functions of a canon or a national tradition has been to provide a familiar group of texts, stretching from past to present, constitutive of one’s own community and within which a writer could establish his position, signalling his similarity and difference from authors around and before him. Nuance is more telling than absolute novelty; the more the similarities, the more what difference there is will count. Hence, it might be more useful for a young English writer to be building up a knowledge of, say, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, Anthony Powell, Barbara Pym, along with the writers they drew on and the later generation they inspired, than to be mixing Chinua Achebe with Primo Levi. This is not of course a reflection on the stature of these writers—it’s simply an observation that many of my students have read so disparately that they have little awareness of a body of texts tackling their own culture and within which they can place their writing.
Worth a read.

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