Personal canons (1)

Recently I made a passing remark about how there wasn’t so much a literary canon as canons. A modernist canon; the capital C canon of US academia; the canons of Russian or French literature.

Guy Savage commented that what was important was one’s personal canon. That got me thinking. What is my personal canon?

I can say what my canon used to be. In my teens and twenties I read mostly sf and while some authors may have been demoted in memory I remember pretty well which ones I really rated back then.

My personal canon today would have little overlap with that earlier canon. My tastes have changed. Still, I thought rather than just post about what my canon is now I’d post about two canons: then and now (ignoring the many intermediate canons I must have had along the way). I’m going to do it in two posts and the second post will also talk a little about how and why my tastes changed.

The list

Back in the ’80s and ’90s if I’d had to list the authors I thought best and most important it would probably have looked a bit like this:

Greg Bear
Gregory Benford
William Burroughs
Raymond Chandler
Philip K. Dick
William Gibson
Joseph Heller
HP Lovecraft
Larry Niven
Damon Runyon
Robert Silverberg
Clifford D. Simak
Bruce Sterling
Jack Vance

Most of those are SF writers. Most of them were also independent of the particular book. My canon consisted of authors, not works.

The genre writers

Gibson and Sterling are of course the main creators of the cyberpunk genre (I’ve reviewed some Gibson’s here actually and still rate him, though he no longer gets onto my canon list unless I was doing an sf-specific one).

Benford, Bear and Niven were all hard-sf authors (though Niven isn’t hard sf by modern standards). Benford and Bear wrote rather physics-heavy works while Niven was fonder of slightly more space operatic stories. Benford is the only one of them I’d still read today (which is a comment on my tastes more than it is on them).

What those five authors had in common was a rigorous approach to logical worldbuilding. That was important to me then. I liked my sf to be serious and coherent. I looked down with the haughty condescension of the fan on what I regarded as lesser genres – soft sf in particular.

Silverberg was never really about coherent worldbuilding. His novels tended to be more offbeat and character driven. Dying Inside for example is about a man with telepathy who is coming to terms with his gift fading as he enters middle age. The Stochastic Man was about a man who develops the ability to see the future – a future which is as fixed and unchangeable as the past.

Simak was different again. He’s a writer I fear rereading in case I no longer love him. He wrote what was referred to as pastoral sf, a genre consisting mainly of him alone. His novels had a warmth and humanity in which the real subject was never science but us. For that reason his novels haven’t aged in the way Niven’s have. Niven’s science was the science of his day and much of it was wrong. Simak’s humanity is the same humanity we’ve always had.

Dick doesn’t need much introduction. His novels played with fractured realities and the nature of sanity and still hold up pretty well. He also wrote a lot of straightforward pulp sf which I actually rather enjoy but which is mostly brushed over by those seeking to promote his literary credentials. Still, if Banville can write crime why couldn’t Dick write Our Friends from Frolix 8?

Vance wrote fantasy novels so wittily crafted that they’d be my main refutation (alongside M John Harrison but I hadn’t read him back then) of those who regard that genre as fundamentally unliterary. It’s not – it’s just that the number of literary authors within fantasy is exceptionally low. Lovecraft’s weird horror tales remain one of the great loves of my life. One that in part I’d struggle to defend, but love is not love that’s wholly rational.

All of those sort of fit together. Hard sf; character driven sf; fantasy and horror. There’s four authors left on that list though. Burroughs, Chandler, Heller and Runyon.

The world beyond genre

My grandfather on my father’s side, Jim, introduced me to Runyon (and to many other authors). I haven’t read the stories in an age, but unlike Simak it’s not because I’m afraid they may not hold up to an adult eye. It’s because I read them so much that I still remember them with remarkable clarity.

Runyon wrote short stories about 1930s and ’40s Broadway. The stories are exceptionally funny, occasionally maudlin, and far better written than most people realise. He’s easy to imitate badly, but hard to copy. For me Runyon is a hugely underappreciated talent.

I’ve no idea how I encountered Chandler but I do remember his impact on me. The plots didn’t interest me nearly as much as those of the sf I read (probably because plot isn’t Chandler’s gift) but the language and attitude were a world away from the more distant worlds of writers like Niven or Silverberg. I read every novel Chandler had written and was astonished by the lucidity of their prose.

As for Heller, perhaps we did Catch-22 in school? I can’t think why else I’d have picked it up but it blew me away and still does. Structurally it’s fascinating. The chapters oscillate through time – always around the same fulcrum. Whatever happened to the Snowden’s of yesteryear? Yossarian can’t bear to think about the answer and nor can the novel, each time it comes close the next chapter veers away in time just as Yossarian’s mind does within the fiction. Extraordinary.

I went on to read Good as Gold and Something Happened, both of which I loved though not as much. What strikes me as odd now is that the Heller sat alongside the Simak and the Sterling. I think I saw the Heller as sui generis and my love of sf was so great that I just wasn’t that tempted to see what else there might be that had the kind of rewards the Heller offered.

That leaves me with Burroughs. I do remember how I encountered him. An English teacher gave me a copy of Naked Lunch and suggested that I try it. I found it difficult but rewarding and went on to read pretty much everything Burroughs wrote. I even read a fairly lengthy biography of him.

Burroughs led me to the other Beats. Ginsberg still speaks to me to this day. Kerouac perhaps less so. I read On the Road but I never loved it as much as I told everyone I did. I reread it a decade or so later and it was still more duty than passion.

I read other Beat writers, but I don’t now remember them. I wore turn-ups on my jeans and thought myself rather clever for having discovered them not realising that they’d never been lost. Secretly I enjoyed Martin Amis more, but his accessibility made him less cool (though in fact I only started reading Martin Amis because one of the cool kids casually mentioned that he was reading him).

So, that was my canon that was. If I took longer I’d think of more, but there’s limited value to that. Next post I’ll talk about my canon that is. Only three writers from the above list are still on it…


Filed under Personal canon, Personal posts

22 responses to “Personal canons (1)

  1. Nick

    Which ones ! What a cliffhanger !

    I really love Chandler myself and am still going through them – one between two difficult/serious books.
    K. Dick is quite a reference of mine too.
    I’ve got to admit I haven’t read most of the others. As for you, my sf reading days are mostly beyond, although some authors still have a special place in my heart (Asimov, Clarke… the obvious ones).

  2. Your teen self and my teen self would have had difficulties to talk to each other, about books at least. I’ve been thinking about my canon too. Here would be my list for teens and twenties
    – Romain Gary
    – Marcel Proust
    – Françoise Sagan
    – Philippe Djian
    – Jean-Paul Sartre (L’existentialisme)
    – Milan Kundera
    – Quino
    – Franz Kafka (The Castle)
    – Agatha Christie
    – Daniel Pennac
    – Paul Eluard
    – Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary)
    – Jacques Higelin (Love Letters From a 20 Years Old Soldier)
    – Jim Morrison (Poems)

  3. kimbofo

    Fascinating post…

    My late teens / early 20s were dominated by blockbuster horror fiction authors (Herbert, King, Koontz) coupled with Booker-nominated novels (I funded my university studies by working in book shops for 6 years). It was at this time I also discovered Irish writers — Roddy Doyle, John Banville, Patrick McCabe etc — which is something I developed much more intensely during my 30s. I still read a good deal of Irish fiction — John McGahern and Jennifer Johnston would definitely be in my personal canon.

    And having left Australia, I now tend to read quite a few novels about my homeland. Strangely, I had no interest in these books when I lived there. I’d add Randolph Stow, George Johnston and Richard Flanagan into the canon.

    There’s loads more, but I’d need to think about it… Funnily enough I never think of myself “well read” because my interests are so niche.

  4. It’s funny what one forgets. Had you asked me at the time Asimov and Clarke would have been near the head of that list. I read everything I could of both.

    Linda Grant on twitter commented that there were no women. I’m not actually surprised by that – sf and the beats were both pretty male dominated fields. Still, it reminded me that I was also a big CJ Cherryh fan which I’d forgotten.

    And then there’s Walter Jon Williams and the wonderful George Alec Effinger… Still, there’s a limit to how much interest lists of sf authors can have (and I suspect it’s a limit one soon reaches).

    I also sometimes interpolate something lighter between more serious books. It’s a good way to keep things fresh.

    Bookaround, you were so much more literary than me back then. There’s plenty there I’ve still not read.

    Herbert, King and Koontz, I’d forgotten that too. I used to read those fairly heavily plus the frankly fairly dreadful Guy N Smith. Doyle and the Irish writers came later, though I remain very impressed by Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and by The Van.

  5. Enjoyed your early personal canon, Max. You may have moved on, but the list has merit. I can pick five writers from there whom I would like to read.

    There are also authors I probably wouldn’t read again but pursued singlemindedly at one point (Niven). I can’t be sure if I have read Simak or not. I seem to recall reading compilation books of prize winning sci-fi (short stories and novellas) and may have encountered any number of formerly esteemed sci-fi authors, whose names now escape me, in that way.

    A notable omission from your list is Asimov. You must have read some…?

  6. Wow, I have only read Heller of your list (and a Chandler story or two). Gibson is on deck. I am looking forward to seeing which three are on your current canon.

    From my teens, it was mostly J.R.R. Tolkien, Tom Clancy, Mark Twain, C.S. Lewis, and Jane Austen. There were others, of course, but probably no more than a book by each and I no longer remember who impressed and didn’t. Wait, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was a huge favorite though I did not seek out anything else he wrote (except a short story, I think), still haven’t. In my late teens and early 20s, I started in on legal thrillers (Grisham, Turow, chiefly), Dickens, and assigned undergrad authors. Beyond that, I started paying attention to literary awards.

    By the way, in a bit of blogging serendipity, The Reading Ape has compiled his personal canon of 100 American novels published in the years 1891-1991.

  7. I’m intrigued by this project — mainly because I don’t really have canons, either past or present (I like too many books and authors), but I love reading about others.

    So I will offer the authors that I remember reading as a teenager, since they are so different from yours:

    Aldous Huxley — I’ve re-read a number in the last few years and can’t understand why I read all of them then.
    Dostoyevsky — re-read these as well recently (still have The Brothers Karamazov to go) and he was and is an inspiration.

    John Updike — the first “dirty book” I read (Couples) was discovered by my mother, who denounced my taste and accused me of being smut-driven.

    J.D. Salinger — I was a subscriber to the New Yorker and loved his short stories there, went on to the rest of his fiction. Still one of my favorites.

    Hardly a canon (and you will note that sf and crime/mystery eluded me even then), but your project has sparked some memories.

    I promise a much more thoughtful comment to Part Two of your project.

  8. Oops. I missed your earlier remark on Asimov. Apologies.

  9. By the way, I also remembered: Anne Rice. I skipped Interview with a Vampire, but read The Vampire Lestat, Queen of the Damned, The Witching Hour, The Feast of All Saints, and a few more of her works. This was late teens and early twenties. She would have been a part of my canon then.

  10. leroyhunter

    Nice post Max. Funny to look back, isn’t it?

    Reading your list, I don’t share any of the SF, but the stuff I do share, I do almost exactly. I had an obligatory Universal Tolkein Binge when I was 15/16 but otherwise never really took to fantasy / SF.

    Catch-22 – yes, for years I thought is was the greatest book ever written. I never moved onto Heller’s other stuff though, and having finally read Something Happened last year I’m glad – it would have been wasted on me as a 17/18/19 year old. I find that happened a lot, trying stuff before I was ready for it.

    Chandler, he’s still one of my reference points. I refused for years to read Hammett as I decided he couldn’t possibly measure up. Foolish, but I was so in love with Marlowe and his world. A girlfriend gave me a Runyon collection for my 21st, and happily my liking for Harry the Horse et al survived the eventual break-up. I read On the Road out of a sense of duty and preferred Burroughs, possibly because his cameo in Drugstore Cowboy coincided with my reading. Junky is I think a lost masterpiece of some kind.

    Otherwise…I realise now I was a huge re-reader when I was young, if something grabbed me I exhausted it with revisits. Some things survivied the habit, some didn’t. Wodehouse, Saki, Waugh I still rate highly. Flann O’Brien and Joyce are still on my top rung. I went on a huge DeLillo kick thanks to the Oswald-crime-glamour of Libra, I still read him but it’s habit now rather then love.

    The other thing I notice about my younger self was how much history I read. I still read quite a bit of non-fiction, but I used to devour large bios and accounts of wars etc. which I can’t imagine carting around now. Probably reflects that the way I read has changed as much as anything else. There’s a subliminal sales pitch for a Kindle in there somewhere…

    Really looking forward to part 2!

  11. Well, I certainly share the experiences of plenty of horror gruel. Guy N Smith! Ha! How about Shaun Hutson (terrible, really bad), Mark Morris (worse), Dan Simmons (worse still) and so on. Stephen King, though, will always be one of my writerly heroes. He’s basically my entry point (him and Roald Dahl anyway) to reading things at length and with a reading head on, as opposed to your Sue Townsend (who I still love, perhaps largely nostalgically) and Raymond Briggs, which never felt like reading. I still recall reading IT and not actually noticing the size of it in particular, and being fairly enraptured etc. So even though I wouldn’t really bother with any new King stuff I owe him a big debt of gratitude.

    The first ‘literary’ book I read was The Magus by John Fowles and I remember being staggered by how impressive the dialouge exchanges were. I bought it on the basis that I really liked the font and that it looked ‘serious’. And the feel of a hefty book in the hands…there’s nothing like it, is there?

    And from there, for a few years:

    Thomas Harris
    Clive Barker
    Ian Banks
    JD Salinger
    Kurt Vonnegut
    Ramsey Campbell
    Philp K Dick
    Martin Amis
    Ian McEwan
    Raymond Carver
    Peter Straub
    Tom Wolfe

    They were pretty much it for a while.

  12. Much more literary ? I didn’t think so at the time. Oddly, I’ve never been tempted to go for a degree in literature.
    All the comments here tend to prove Daniel Pennac right with his “10 Inalienable Rights of the Reader”. We all needed to read “easy” or “not-so-literary” books as a step for more challenging works. So let teenagers read Twilight, Harry Potter, Narnia or whatever vampire stuff they’re attracted to. They’ll eventually move to something else later.

    The list I gave is made of the books that changed me or my vision of life and writers that I was enough interested in to read several of their books. I forgot Yves Simon. I’m a little afraid to re-read him now, I’m not sure I’d still like him.
    Except for Chandler and Burroughs I haven’t read any of the writers you listed. Out of curiosity, which ones have you never read in mine? (apart from the obvious like Jacques Higelin)

  13. Good question. My teens/early twenties canon is pretty eclectic as I wasn’t, really, a genre reader:

    My favourite easy reading writers were:
    – John Wyndham (the only SF writer I read and I think I read everything of his I could get my hands on)
    – Nevil Shute (I read everything he wrote)
    – Joy Packer (a South African writer I’ve never heard of since)
    – Margaret Mitchell but just for Gone with the wind. (What can I say, I was a girl!)

    My favourite “serious” writers were:
    – Jane Austen
    – Albert Camus
    – Thomas Hardy
    – DH Lawrence
    – Patrick White

    Most of these I was introduced to at school but I became enthused and read more of them on my own.

    But all this was quite a long time ago … and is based on memory which may in places be a little faulty.

    I look forward to your next post Max…

  14. marco

    While Sci-fi and Crime had the lion’s share, I did read everything that came my way and didn’t really think in terms of canons or favourite authors. Science-fiction writers I liked at the time and still enjoy now were Frederic Brown, C.L. Moore and Fritz Leiber.
    I’ve tried to compile my current personal canon and narrowed it down to a list of roughly 50 names, each one of which has written at least a work that still resonates powerfully with me. Interestingly my list still has a strong presence of sf/f authors, (12) none of which I knew at the time (and if I had, I doubt I would have liked them).

  15. LaurencePritchard


    Interesting you mention two canons, hadn’t really thought about it that way. I can add another canon? That makes a bit of an armory, I suppose, but here goes.

    Stephen King
    James Herbert

    16 – 30 ish
    William Burroughs
    Hubert Selby Jr
    Charles Bukowski
    P K Dick
    Derek Raymond
    Thomas Bernhard
    Sam Shepard
    Bret Easton Ellis

    More recently:
    Philip Roth
    Cormac McCarthy
    Saul Bellow
    Richard Yates
    W. G. Sebald
    Georges Perec
    Flannery O’Connor
    Marilynne Robinson
    Lydia Davis
    Natsuo Kirino
    Junichiro Tanizaki
    David Foster Wallace
    David Sedaris
    Haruki Murakami

    What’s changed? I actually read more novels now, as I used to read (and go to) plays much more in the past. I haven’t read a lot of Burroughs and Selby recently, but there’s no real reason for that. I was never really into The Beats as a whole, just select writers. I too was underwhelmed by Kerouac’s On the Road, and have never read anything since. I also read a lot more women writers and genre stuff now too.

    Look forward to seeing your next list.

  16. Thanks for all the comments everyone.

    Most of you I note were much better read than me. I’m reminded that I was also a huge Wyndham fan, that god help me I also read Shaun Hutson (who I really wouldn’t recommend to anyone) and that thanks again to Jim I was a big Orwell fan. Funny how one forgets these things.

    Kevin, a subscription to the New Yorker? I think I was reading Heavy Metal magazine in the newsagents. I’d be interested in your thoughts on Huxley. I came to him later and still have miexed views to a degree.

    Interesting 16-30 list Laurence, there’s a theme of sorts there I think.

    Bookaround, actually I’ve read surprisingly few of them. I’ve not read any of:

    – Romain Gary
    – Françoise Sagan
    – Philippe Djian
    – Milan Kundera
    – Quino
    – Daniel Pennac
    – Paul Eluard
    – Jacques Higelin (Love Letters From a 20 Years Old Soldier)

    I actually read a lot of Christie as a teenager but I can’t think now why. I think she’s a terrible writer. I don’t think she was ever canon, just convenient, but that may be my self-esteem gently editing my memories.

    The second post will follow likely in a week or so. Recalling my early canon wasn’t that hard though it’s interesting how much I forgot (Orwell for example). Working out my present canon is much harder.

    That task has got me thinking quite a lot about what I read and how I prioritise books. One thing I’m finding is that there are authors who on the strength of one book belong to any present-day personal canon I could draw up but who I’ve only read one book by (Edith Wharton for example). It has me thinking a lot more about how I approach my reading generally.

  17. Pingback: My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: March 3, 2011 « Hungry Like the Woolf

  18. Pingback: Personal canons (2) | Pechorin’s Journal

  19. Somehow I missed this Max. I’m going to reread and respond more later.

  20. Max: After reading the 2 posts, I started thinking about what I’d put in my persoanl canon. The British writers poured forth and dominated, then French, Russian and American. I then thought about writers from countries other than these 4 and of course had to acknowledge huge gaps. I think unless we have some compelling reason, we most likely fix on lit from our own countries. I haven’t read everything ever written in English but I’ve picked over the bones and discovered great favourites along the way. I think I’ve read almost everything Thomas Hardy ever wrote, most of Trollope, the Brontes, Austen blah blah. I have a weakness for 19th C. I’ve discovered that I’m not that interested in some writers after trying a book or two. I have a lot of modern favs too–again mostly British.

    In recent years I’ve been scratching the surface of French and Russian. Starting to become very interested in German, but it’s pitiful really the showing of foreign books in my canon–simply because I haven’t read enough. Yet, anyway. Thanks to some of the smaller publishing houses that’s changing.

    I think I mentioned somewhere or another that someone told me Don Quixote was the only book in Spanish literature. How peculiar that our ignorance should be reflected so confidently. I knew when I heard the words spoken that the statement was incorrect, but I couldn’t pull any title out of my hat. Shameful really considering how much I read, but there you go. Can’t read ’em all. I have a few 19th Spanish and Portugese classics on my shelf now, so one of these days….

    I think the internet is a marvellous boon when it comes to adventures in fiction. Reading blogs is a tremendous asset, and it’s great to find people with similar tastes.

  21. I find the same Guy. I can name off the top of my head one Portuguese author (Eça de Queirós) but for all I know Portugal has a rich literary tradition (I honestly don’t know whether it does or not, that guy won’t have come from nowhere though).

    For me too the smaller houses here have been a boon. Pushkin has really helped with the Central Europeans and they’re not alone in that. The resistance generally to translated fiction though makes it hard (other than via blogs) to hear about these writers.

    The problem in part is that tv coverage of books is basically nonexistent and newspaper coverage light – and so struggles to focus on much beyond the big Anglo-American names. Given that it’s no surprise that we tend to know best writers from our own traditions.

  22. As I just admitted on my blog, I’ve read my first Dutch novel. Shameful. Where to go from there? Well I have a pointer, and that was one of the reasons for starting a blog in the first place. I think we get into reading ruts.

    Oneworld Classics is pumping out some good new titles on the Russian side of things, and like you I find myself drawn to Central European titles more and more.

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