A Better Personal Canon
by Tim Waldron
I used to worry that my personal canon was woefully incomplete, that it was undeveloped, and maybe that it just kind of sucked. After living with that anxiety for many years I made peace with my canon’s shortcomings and came to understand that type of dread was part of the search for better reading material. In an interview with Terry Gross in 1997, David Foster Wallace explained how he one day, sick in bed, made a list of everything he wanted or had an interest in reading. By the time his list reached fourteen pages he decided to get rid of his television. I have two TVs, and Netflix. In my lifetime I will not read all the books I want to read; my personal canon will never be complete. But I keep at it, just the same.
A book like Infinite Jest is a good example of some of the issues my personal canon faces. Do people actually read the thing, or do they just use it as an objet d’art? In this way, Infinite Jest is both ubiquitous and esoteric. The novel sits on countless bookshelves and coffee tables, but rarely finding owners that tackle the prose. For this reason Infinite Jest remains a loaded entry to anyone’s personal canon. To evoke its title is to be judged, it doesn’t matter what your opinion of the work may be. Lovers of the novel love it with such reverence that they are perceived as cultish, while the detractors hate it with such absolute ire that they won’t entertain a moment of its extolled virtues. There is no middle ground (and it is not alone in this regard). That type of line in the sand is rarely drawn among the average cinephile. Assert that you love The Godfather and at worst you get a resounding meh. Tell someone Infinite Jest is one of your favorite books, and you’re a douchebag. The point being, your personal canon can’t be built for others.
Thinking back, that might be where many of my old anxieties came from. That I wasn’t building the right canon, with the right books. If the right people told me I was reading the wrong books, I don’t know what I would have done; probably nothing, but the fear lingered and the anxiety built. Of course it is just a simple matter of realizing that it’s all seasoned to taste; my canon is too peppery for some, and not salty enough for others. Struggling with your own personal canon helps you get a better idea of what to pick up in the future. There are still false starts and abandoned books along the way, but there are less of them. In recent years, more books have sunk their hooks in me than I have put down. And that is all I am really after, for the wheels to be rolling along the tarmac one minute and then miraculously and almost without effort they leave the earth and are in the air. To be lost in a narrative, to forget that I am even reading. The books that do that aren’t easy to find, and if you don’t cultivate a better personal canon, much time can pass between them.
One of the great things about graduate school is the amount of reading you have to do to keep pace. Even with two TVs you end up increasing your normal rate of consumption and giving your personal canon a much need growth spurt. Even better, getting the chance to work with writers whom you admire and getting to know what books made them. With no more effort than a few easy conversations you end up with fifty new-to-you books that become essential. One such conversation, over a few after class drinks, led me to Gordon Weaver’s work. I started with A World Quite Round a collection of three novellas. Each section dealt with art, language, and truth in ways that resonated deeply. The third novella, “The Parts of Speech”, was particularly engrossing to my grad school brain. The story shows what Weaver identifies as the factual seeds of a story, and then reveals the fictional tale born from those facts. He writes, “All fictions are lies, however much truth goes into the making of them.” Much like John Barth’s “Welcome to the Funhouse,” Weaver leaves craft lessons amongst the prose for those writers who desire them. For everyone else the lessons disappear into story.
In the construction of my own personal canon I never found myself to be much if a completist. There were outliers though, and Weaver is becoming one of them. I picked up his novels, Give Him a Stone, which was written as his Ph.D thesis under the mentorship of John Williams. It is a stunning work that follows the story of a absentee father who kidnaps his son for a cross country road trip. The portrayal of the father and his flaws is so honest that it is disarming. It allows the reader to care for what in a lesser author’s hands would make for an unlikable character. Impressed by not only the liveliness of Give Him a Stone, but also by the exquisite craft of the prose, I meandered over to Williams’ Stoner. Stoner is mind-blowingly amazing and near-perfect. It is a novel that I’m happy to have in my personal canon and wield it like a two in a game of asshole. Where I can somehow still feel judged when offering my opinion on Infinite Jest, Stoner has the opposite effect. Your opinion of that work will not shake mine; in fact, I may judge you.
After the pleasant detour into Williams’s work I moved back to Weaver and his novel Count a Lonely Cadence. Any fellow inside kids that came of age in the ‘90s and had HBO will no doubt remember the Charlie Sheen-starring, Martin Sheen-directed film Cadence. Adapted from Weaver’s novel, the movie played day and night for a summer and while not a great film, it was preferable to New Jersey’s mid-summer 98% humidity. To say the book was better than the movie is both obvious and boring, but there it is. Sheen’s adaptation is pretty good, the Korean War was tossed aside for Vietnam and some of the more meaningful observations on race, class, and rebellion were muted; perhaps in an attempt to make the movie more palatable and funnier to audiences. The film and the novel do make nice companions though. I generally have a high tolerance for film adaptations, if only to hate-watch them.
Sadly, Weaver’s work is all but out of print now. However his contributions have made such a footprint that his work is readily available via used bookstores and online vendors. Weaver was the founding editor of the Mississippi Review, editor of Cimarron Review, an O. Henry Award winner, included in Best American Short Stories. He published four novels, ten short story collections, and a fifty-volume (he was general editor) masters of the short story series for Twayne/G. K. Hall. Despite this impressive output, it seemed the availability of his work would only become scarcer, but recently one of his novels was brought back in to print. The Eight Corners of The World, originally published in 1988, was given a new life by Serving House Books this past May. The novel is a comic masterpiece, and the finest single example of Weaver’s skills and talents I have yet read. The Eight Corners of The World gave me that wheels-up experience every time I opened it. The story is exotic and thrilling, while being sad and lovely, funny; but not obvious. It is a cumulative example of Weaver’s work, showing off the techniques he touched on in previous novels and stories: cinematic and camera like movements of narration displayed in the prologue to Give Him A Stone, the unique world view of an ESL narrator, first seen the novella “The Interpreter” from A World Quite Round, and the main character’s preoccupation with tattoos in Count a Lonely Cadence is reconstituted as an epic obsession for the narrator of The Eight Corners of The World. Of course, none of this information is necessary for ones enjoyment or understanding of The Eight Corners of The World. These connections are admittedly overly fetishized, but they are important to writer/readers, like myself. These connection help quell the anxiety that curating a personal canon produces by clarifying your ideas and deciding what makes for good reading.
Finding good books, works that feels like they are yours, like they belong to you in some way, makes you want to share those works with others. Your personal canon becomes a finger print through the collection of ubiquitous and esoteric works you add to its ranks. The books that are over taught, that everyone has read can make for a quick community and evolving conversation. Using the big books that are either overly praised or unfairly torn apart gives those conversations and our recommendations context. It helps you become a better proselytizer of those lost and underappreciated books. Work like Weaver’s makes our personal canons unique and worthy of mention. I’ll say Vonnegut, Heller, Bender, Cole and maybe that will set something off in you that will make you gravitate to Weaver’s work. Or maybe you tell me that you hate all those writers and you’re more Yanagihara, Oates, Gay, and McInerney. To wit, I’m in, but still give Weaver a try. The passion people have for books, how they love to love them, and even how they love to hate keeps the writing and reading communities alive. That passion can be infuriating, but if channeled correctly can be overwhelmingly positive. It has brought Weaver’s work back into print, led to a few nice conversations IRL, and hopefully will lead to better personal canons–free from anxiety, never fully complete.
Tim Waldron is an online fiction editor of The Literary Review. His short-story collection World Takes is published by Word Riot Press.