Who decides how to decide whom to revive?
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.
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.