Posts Tagged ‘ literature ’

Bloom’s Cult of the Bard

This is a response to a reading for HUCO617: Posthumanism– The introduction and first chapter of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

We were asked to read this selection while paying careful attention to how Bloom sets up Shakespeare as the origin of what we today call “humanism”, and to wonder, “What if Shakespeare never existed?  What if Bloom made him up?”

To start with, Bloom’s Shakespeare makes me think of the reverence and divine elevation of the title character in A Canticle for Leibowitz.  In the first part of Walter Miller Jr.’s novel, a novice monk uncovers some cryptic documents apparently written by the founder of his order, Leibowitz.   Over the centuries Leibowitz, a long-dead engineer, becomes a symbol for the preservation of knowledge.  Shakespeare and his works are also a symbol: for Bloom, he is a symbol of what it means to be human, and Bloom proselytizes about how significant his existence was in the promotion of that ideal.

If Shakespeare never existed, Bloom implies, our understanding of who we are as human beings– humanism, more generally– would be completely different, unfathomable.  I suggest that Shakespeare makes a convenient symbol for Bloom, just as Leibowitz was convenient for the Albertian Order in Miller’s novel… but if he had never existed there would have been someone else to take his place.

Bloom’s mistake is to present Shakespeare as existing in a virtual vacuum; he talks about influences on Shakespeare’s writing only in the context of how Shakespeare imitated existing forms, such as Ovid, to showcase his originality.  Bloom grudgingly admits Chaucer affected Shakespeare’s work (“He took hints from Chaucer…”), but Chaucer– who preceded Shakespeare by two centuries– began exploring the human condition in his Canterbury Tales in such a sophisticated way that it is still critically read for that reason today.  Shakespeare may crystallize several centuries of literary tradition and Renaissance thought in his plays, acting as a lodestone for generations of literary criticism, but he is hardly responsible for inventing humanism as a founding principle of western philosophy.  I’d contend the fact that Shakespeare so effectively summarized the prevailing philosophical bent of the European Renaissance has made it too easy for centuries of critics like Bloom to invoke his work as the culmination of western literary tradition.  Arguably, this position has stunted the growth of literary criticism, paying poor tribute to the many good creative works that have been written since, and we are only now beginning to grasp other approaches to criticism.

Another thought (and I have to say, I had many I’m leaving unmentioned in reading Bloom’s text): Bloom quotes T.S. Eliot in saying, “…all we can hope for is to be wrong about Shakespeare in a new way.  I propose only that we cease to be wrong about him by stopping trying to be right.”  This is a truism that should apply to all sufficiently sophisticated creative works, “literature”, not just Shakespeare.  The more closely you examine an object, and the more eyes you have examining it, the more it reveals.  We have had four hundred years to examine Shakespeare’s corpus– imagine what we could get out of four hundred years of interpretations of Joyce’s Ulysses?

Niche Publishers and the Condition of Canadian SF

I ran across this article by Robert Runté about the state of the Canadian economy (last Spring) and the role of new independent publishers in the evolution of Canadian SF, which I found interesting. Spec, Spring 2009


Publishers have been driven to this preoccupation with multi-million copy sales by market forces: to compete in a global economy, the major publishers have sought to increase market share by buying up the competition; but as independent publishers have been gobbled up by larger national concerns – which have in turn been bought out by mammoth global corporations – each level of consolidation has required the survivors to take on correspondingly larger levels of debt in their relentless acquisitions. The result is a need to achieve larger economies of scale to service this otherwise insupportable debt, and a rapid decline in the number of SF imprints as each merger rationalizes competing lines within its acquisitions down to a single imprint. Whereas the independent publishers of an earlier era could be satisfied with six to ten percent return on investment, that is not acceptable when debt payment alone can run several times that. Mid-list authors with sales of 50-60,000 copies are therefore no longer profitable to the remaining players; and new authors, untested subgenres, and boundary-stretching experiments are simply untenable. Consequently, the majors may no longer be publishing the best new SF.

So what’s a fan to do?

Runte goes on to encourage consumers to seek out the smaller, niche publications to support new and original Canadian SF.  I’m curious if, a year later, this is still as urgent or as valid a statement to make?  While I fully endorse Runte’s way of thinking, I also don’t see any major publishers necessarily turning away good authors. Then again, I think in terms of genre or spec fiction in Canada I get the general sense that there’s few enough venues to begin with (I could be wrong).

This article also reminded me that I really should finally get that subscription to On Spec, rather than trying and failing to find it on random visits to the bookstore/newstand.