What makes a work canonical? This is a question that, with proper research, is easily answered. According to Ankhi Mukherjee, as she writes in The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory, canonical texts are “a constellation of highly valued, high-cultural texts that have traditionally acted as arbiters of literary value, determining the discipline of literary studies as well as influencing the critical and cultural reception of literature” (“Canons”). Is George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo considered part of modern literary canon? How is Saunders’ literary merit marketed or manufactured? These are more difficult questions to answer, and ones that will be explored in turn throughout the course of this essay.
Canonicity, writes Mukherjee, “implies the formation of a corpus … the making up of a list of books requisite for a literary education, and the formation of an exclusive club, however painstakingly contested the rules of inclusion (and exclusion) may be” (“What is a Classic?” 1029). She expanded on this definition in a later piece, explaining further that the canon “serves as a memory system, which receives, retains, and orders selective works,” and “involves not merely a work’s admission into an elite club, but its induction into ongoing critical dialogue and contestations of literary value” (“Canons”). The modern literary canon, therefore, can be described as a constantly growing group of texts, written over the past few decades, and considered to have some sort of literary value elevating them above what most would consider popular literature. But the larger question is whether or not Lincoln in the Bardo is considered part of modern literary canon, and how and by whom such a distinction is made.
In recent years, there has been much controversy over which works should and should not be deemed canonical, especially in regards to literary awards or prizes. That being said, Lincoln in the Bardo is certainly a work that has much critical dialogue and literary value surrounding it, one such example being that, for this novel, Saunders won the Man Booker Prize in 2017. In a Chicago Tribune piece on Saunders’ reception of this award, the chair of judges, Lola Young, explained the panel’s choice of awarding the prize to Lincoln in the Bardo, saying that the novel “was ‘unique’ and ‘stood out because of its innovation, its very different styling’” (Alter). Such a description brings to mind, in the words of Harold Bloom, one of the six “virtues” that categorize a canonical work—“‘strangeness,’ a singularity that is not easily assimilable into an existing order” (Mukherjee, “Canons”)—suggesting that the text might be making its way into canon. This occurrence would have certain implications, due to the fact that this novel is peculiar in the way it manages to be a high-brow literary work while also a work of popular fiction. One such implication would be that even Lincoln in the Bardo, which is considered popular fiction and is discussed in publications such as TIME Magazine and The New York Times as such, can also be categorized as a high-brow literary work that is written about in scholarly publications and other academic circles and is part of literary canon.
Because of such works as Lincoln in the Bardo, that are blurring the lines between popular fiction and modern literary canon, there is much controversy surrounding the addition of these new works to the canon and whether or not there should be alternative canons. In the words of Mukherjee, “The opening of the syllabus of canonical works to new contenders is not without controversy and fierce contention” (“Canons”). This begs the question, who gets to decide which works are deemed canonical and which are not? The answer to this seems to be the literary critics of the time, and this power that critics hold, as Jane Tompkins argues in her work on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literary reputation, is rooted in power relations, politics, and cultural influences. She explains, “a literary reputation could never be anything but a political matter….works that have attained the status of classic, and are therefore believed to embody universal values, are in fact embodying only the interests of whatever parties or factions are responsible for maintaining them in their preeminent position” (618). Tompkins goes on to further outline how no work of literature exists in a vacuum and that therefore, the circumstances surrounding a text do not prevent the reader from seeing the work “‘as it really is,’” but rather are what make the text available to readers in the first place (620). This occurs by “giving readers the means of classifying a text in relation to what they already know” (Tompkins 620), which can be seen in the literary career of Saunders; he wrote Lincoln in the Bardo after publishing three short story collections and then releasing a fourth titled Tenth of December. This last book of short stories, however, was the one to become a “major literary event” and establish Saunders as “a Major American Writer” (Alter).
In fact, part of the reason for Saunders’ literary fame is that he was the second consecutive American author to win the Man Booker Prize after Paul Beatty won for his novel, The Sellout, in 2016 (Alter). According to Alexandra Alter’s piece on Saunders’ win, this caused some backlash from critics, who “complained that the prize has been Americanized…. [In 2017], three of the six finalists were American, which prompted another round of criticism that emerging British and Commonwealth writers were being overlooked.” In response, Lola Young dismissed this notion by replying, “‘We don’t look at the nationality of the writer… We’re solely concerned with the book, with what that book is telling us’” (Alter). The Man Booker Prize, established in 1969, awards the winner £50,000 as well as a guarantee of worldwide readership and an increase in book sales, and states its goal, listed on the official website, as “[promoting] the finest in fiction by rewarding the best novel of the year written in English and published in the United Kingdom” (“History of The Man Booker Prize”). Until recently, the prize was “restricted to novels written by authors from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth nations,” but in 2014, “the contest was opened to any novel written in English and published in Britain” (Alder). Literary critics who opposed this expansion expressed their worry that the Booker “would lose its British character,” and that the “Americanization” of the prize was a “lost opportunity” to learn about previously unknown works that hadn’t been as successful (Alder). Despite this controversy, however, George Saunders’ current success in the literary world cannot be denied; in a May 6 news post on the Man Booker Prize website, he is described as “the reigning Man Booker winner,” and this title, and the literary prowess that comes with it, will most likely be following him for a long time to come.
What made Lincoln in the Bardo popular and literary enough to be recognized as a Man Booker Prize contender in the first place? Was it one single factor or a combination of multiple factors? Jane Tompkins writes in “Masterpiece Theater” of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s contemporaries and critics that “they were able to identify [his work’s] merits because they already knew that it was good and were looking at it with certain expectations in mind….once the editors had a reason for seeing Hawthorne’s work as exceptional, they began to see it that way” (621), and perhaps this is what occurred with Saunders’ novel as well. Although Lincoln in the Bardo was his first full-length novel, he had already been established in the literary world as an author of short story collections such as CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Tenth of December. A 2016 article published in an edition of Studies in American Humor wrote that Saunders’ fiction “identifies vice and folly with withering exactitude; he does so in wildly imaginative and dramatic fictional worlds, but, rather than stories ending with the emergence of some amorphous sense of correction, Saunders’s stories instead propose the empathetic development of his audience” (Neeper 280). This quote is a concise summary of Saunders’ short fiction and of its appeal to both high-brow literary critics and average readers alike, which may play a part in explaining the later popularity of his novel. He had already been recognized as a talented writer, and therefore it was not much of a stretch to assume his first novel would be successful as well.
But, as Tompkins outlined, no work of literature exists in a vacuum, and therefore other aspects come into play when it comes to making a text widely known, and one of these other aspects is the author’s personality—and how that personality is portrayed and marketed to an audience. George Saunders’s focus on empathy, both in his personal life and in his literary works, is a great example of this. In 2013, a commencement speech he gave at Syracuse University on kindness went viral after a transcript was posted on The New York Times website, and was eventually turned into a book titled, Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. This focus on kindness and empathy, however, was more than a simple marketing ploy for popularity or to boost Saunders’ book sales—it seems to be a philosophy that the author frequently makes known when discussing his life, his writing, and other writers he admires, and it is very much present in all of his work, whether short stories or longer novels. When reading his texts, what readers come away with is “a new or renewed attentiveness to unironic empathy for the characters harassed and oppressed by the miserable failures that their lives have become…. In place of the ‘disinterested postures of postmodern irony,’ we find Saunders’s commitment to affective values of empathy and his insistence on tolerant acceptance” (Neeper 285). This focus on empathy and making the reader feel empathetic for even the most morally corrupt of characters is an exercise in emotion as well as a testament to the strength of the writer, and is something that Saunders does consistently in his work, Lincoln in the Bardo included. But it must be noted that in doing so, he is not attempting to push upon his readers any moral or lesson; his fiction, Neeper writes, “only intends to place us in proper relation to our flawed fellow humans” (287). The rest of the article on Saunders’ short fiction, empathy, and postmodern satire ends by emphasizing how “he challenges readers to care, to enter into the ‘other mindedness’ of individuals and in so doing to ‘soften the heart’ of readers” (Neeper 297), and this is precisely one of the things Saunders is most well-known for, both within high-brow circles of literary critics and within circles of more average, everyday casual readers.
So why does canon matter, and additionally, why does it matter whether or not Lincoln in the Bardo is a part of it? I propose that literary canon matters because the works that are part of it are seen as “better” or more worthy of reading and analyzing than other works when that is not necessarily the case. I also propose that literary canon is very much a product of its time, and because of the history of canon, especially in the United States, the canon is filled with many more white male authors than any other group of people, and this is evident on almost any high school English class syllabus. It is only in recent years that the canon has been expanding to make room for more diverse authors and more diverse narratives, and this is important for everyone who reads literature because literature and the act of creating it allows for everyone’s voice and experience to be heard. Lincoln in the Bardo may also have been written by a white man, but the uniqueness of its narrative and format and the success of the novel may pave the way for many more different types of texts to become part of the high-brow literary world and show critics that new works that break the mold can be just as—if not more—important than all the works of classic literature we have today.
Alter, Alexandra. “George Saunders Wins the Man Booker Prize for ‘Lincoln in the Bardo.’” The New York Times, 20 Oct. 2017. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/17/books/george-saunders-wins-man-booker-prize-lincoln-in-the-bardo.html/.
Finch, Charles. “Review: George Saunders’ Remarkable First Novel, ‘Lincoln in the Bardo.’” Chicago Tribune, 10 Feb. 2017, http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/sc-lincoln-in-the-bardo-george-saunders-books-0215-20170209-story.html/.
“History of The Man Booker Prize.” The Man Booker Prizes, http://themanbookerprize.com/fiction/history/. Accessed 7 May 2018.
Mukherjee, Ankhi. “Canons.” The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory, edited by Michael Ryan, Wiley, 2012, http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/wileylitcul/canons/0/.
—. “‘What Is a Classic?’: International Literary Criticism and the Classic Question.” PMLA, vol. 125, no. 4, 2010, pp. 1026–42.
Neeper, Layne. “‘To Soften the Heart’: George Saunders, Postmodern Satire, and Empathy.” Studies in American Humor, vol. 2, no. 2, 2016, pp. 280–99.
Tompkins, Jane. “Masterpiece Theater: The Politics of Hawthorne’s Literary Reputation.” American Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 5, 1984, pp. 617–42.