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Who decides how to decide whom to revive?

June 30, 2011

David Ellard has a guest post at Russian Dinosaur on Mamin-Sibiriak (1852-1912), a writer from the provinces better known in Russia and in his own day. (His real name was Dmitrii Narkisovich Mamin; he is traditionally referred to by [real surname]-[pen name], like Saltykov-Shchedrin or Bestuzhev-Marlinskii.)

The whole thing is well worth reading. Here I want to weigh in briefly on a big question he raises: “if a writer has fallen into shadow, why should scholars attempt to resuscitate them?” To me the more interesting angle is not “why,” but “which ones.”

There will always be canons, and they will always be flawed. I can’t imagine a world where people who want to read something Russian pick randomly out of all extant books, nor would I want it. So Americans like me tend to start with Dostoevskii and Tolstoi because they’re prominent in the version of the canon that trickles down to us, just as Russians start with Pushkin. This means we spend more time reading masterworks and we have a common frame of reference (or at least overlapping frames). But it lets the biggest writers crowd smaller ones out, and a given scholar may wish people read more Gogol and less Tolstoi, or more Fet and less Pushkin, or more Mamin-Sibiriak and less Goncharov.

Humanities scholars have some power over canon formation. They can’t just declare which authors are prestigious, yet how (and, especially, whether) they write and talk about them can affect authors’ prestige. These opinions migrate from articles and informal chats to university lectures and perhaps magazine pieces for popular audiences. Or, increasingly, blog posts.

The collected works of Mamin-Sibiriak

But this is a case where great power doesn’t bring great responsibility. There’s nothing wrong with pleading for some forgotten writer for any reason at all, whether it’s that writers outside the capitals are understudied (as Ellard suggests), or that women writers are, or that particular genres or forms have been neglected. Maybe writer X is just a genius who was never appreciated for idiosyncratic reasons. If the scholar is persuasive, the edges of the canon will shift a little, and if not, no harm done. The only downside is when the attempt isn’t made: if Ellard didn’t try to bring Mamin-Sibiriak to Anglophone readers, maybe no one would. Some readers who are now curious enough to read The Privalov Fortune (1883) would instead have read a less interesting book that remains in the canon through inertia.

Scholars as a group, though, have (sometimes unstated) criteria for what proves that someone deserves to be promoted into, or higher up in, the canon. This is where, to me, it gets mysterious and bigger than us all. Literary critics can change our minds about this writer or that text, but it’s hard for them to change the meta-rules about what counts as a good argument. In a similar way I imagine it’s easier to rewrite history than historiography, and easier to revise scientific facts than the scientific method.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 1, 2011 11:55 pm

    “Literary critics can change our minds about this writer or that text, but it’s hard for them to change the meta-rules about what counts as a good argument.”

    True, but changing the meta-rules is not impossible. After all, a meta-rule revolution is what made possible the existence of books like Paula R. Backscheider and Catherine E. Ingrassia’s “British Women Poets of the Long Eighteenth Century: An Anthology.” And thank goodness, because that book really enriches my courses on 18th-century British lit. It’s shocking how uniformly male the older anthologies are.

    As for Mamin-Sibiryak, I’d be delighted if his reputation in the West underwent a change for the better, since my translation of one of his children’s tales will be published (if I’m lucky) in a literary journal very soon.

  2. xixvek permalink*
    July 3, 2011 2:02 am

    The meta-rules certainly change, but my feeling (and I may be wrong) is that explicit arguments for changing them tend to come after the fact, when the new meta-rule has invisibly taken hold. This is in contrast to a first-order change of the canon, where you and David Ellard and Russian Dinosaur really could cause us Anglophone readers of Russian literature to read more Mamin-Sibiriak and think of him as well as Chekhov when we think of that time after the deaths of Dostoevskii and Turgenev but before the modernists.

    Take the project of adding women writers to a once almost all-male canon. A revolution happened, but it wasn’t achieved by the almost all-male group of scholars in the first half of the twentieth century trying to change the criteria for who’s worth studying. What it took was female scholars entering the field and making arguments for including particular writers. They also argued for a new meta-rule about the importance of an inclusive canon, but this wasn’t what won the day – it was women becoming professors in the first place. At least it seems to me that that’s one way of seeing it; I’m giving a simplified version of a complicated story about which others know much more.

    Whatever happens to The Canon, I know I for one am curious enough to read some Mamin-Sibiriak, and I look forward to seeing your translation in print!

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