Revisiting the processes of literary canon formation: A Nigerian perspective
Only very recently the world woke up to the curious news of the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to American lyricist, Bob Dylan. The fact that the Nobel Committee or the Swedish Academy as it is sometimes called thought it worthwhile to give the Award to a popular music icon, and not a writer of formal written literature has set the whole world scratching its head and wondering why this unprecedented deviation from the established norm.
To set the record straight, though, the Bengali-born Indian poet, musician, painter and film composer Rabinadrath Tagore had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913, not for his music, it has to be emphasized, but for his over fifty volumes of poetry as well as his short stories and novels. Crucially, the Nobel committee has said that Bob Dylan has been awarded the prize because of his “great poetic expressions to the great American song tradition.” The great uneasiness that this is generating is due in large part to the subsuming of song within the category of literature, the collapsing of popular culture with High Culture (read: written literature with the capital “L”).
The immediate lesson or/and implication is for us to put on our thinking caps and seriously begin to re-think and re-conceptualise our age-old conventional understandings of literature qua Literature, for there is no telling what the future of literature will be in the wake of Bob Dylan as Nobel Laureate. We live, indeed, in interesting times.
To stretch this line of thought a teeny-weeny further, we ask: Is music now Literature? Will King Sunny Ade, Commander Ebenezer Obey, Sunny Okosuns, Lagbaja, Majek Fashek or Baba FELA (the avatar of African spirituality comparable only to Bob Marley) one day be rewarded with the hallowed diadem as Nobel Laureates in, not music but in Literature? If the Nobel Committee is the body trying to stage a seismic, tectonic paradigm shift in our traditional conception of Literature, the rest of us must see it as our bounden duty to also try to stake out the authorized province of Nigerian Literature.
And, as in everything, there is good literature and there is bad literature. According to Chinua Achebe in his important essay entitled The Truth of Fiction (1978), in seeking to hammer out a typology of fiction, we must recognize the following, namely: (a) Beneficent Fiction and (b) Malignant Fiction. Whilst the former sponsors superstition and mind-deadening appeal, the latter inspires, ennobles, humanises and lights the fires of the redemptive imagination, empowering humankind to rise above the recrudescence of mortal frailty.
It is, however, difficult to separate malignant fiction from beneficent fiction, a situation similar to separating wheat from chaff. And, to do so, there is need for a canon of literature to be established in Nigeria. What, then, is a canon? A canon is a cross-disciplinary concept which cuts across disparate academic fields such as Religion, Law and Literature. The Greek word “Kanon” signifying “a measuring rod or a rule, was extended to denote a list or catalogue, then came to be applied to the list of Books in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament which were designated by the church authorities as the genuine Holy Scriptures” (see M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 2005, 29).
Thus when we talk of a canon, we are referring to “major writers”, that is, major Nigerian writers in our case, and, to be included in the canon of Nigerian writing, a few factors must be addressed – what is referred to as canon-formation processes.
Speaking about Western Literature, M.H. Abrams contends that, in considering the conditions on which a writer is canonised, inter alia, the following must be in place:
“a broad concurrence of critics, scholars and authors with diverse viewpoints and sensibilities; the persistent influence of, and reference to, an author in the work of other authors; the frequent reference to an author or work within the discourse of a cultural community; and the widespread assignment of an author or text in school and college curricular.”
Abrams recognizes the fact that the boundaries of a literary canon remain indefinite and disputable, and it is this factor that is at the root of all the brouhaha, all the agonistic, teeth-gnashing, fight-to-the-death struggle over canonisation. Every scribbler, every apprentice-writer wants a place in the canon. If Abrams’s conditions appear a bit sweeping and generalised, and, therefore, unsuitable to our own situation, then, we need to think up culture-specific, uniquely Nigerian conditions or criteria a writer must meet in order to qualify for inclusion in the Nigerian canon.
We need to bother our heads about such matters as the purpose of Literature, the cultural priorities in our society, that is, socio-cultural values of collectivism, diversity and neighbourliness, among other things; the nature of Nigerian art: how does it relate to the utile et dulce principle? Does the past or tradition count in the forging of a canon in our society? Or, do we look instead to the outside world as universal touchstone? Let us return to the question of the purpose of Literature.
According to Peter Barry in Beginning Theory, the first thing, naturally, is “an attitude to literature itself; good literature is of timeless significance, it somehow transcends the limitations and peculiarities of the age it was written in, and thereby speaks to what is constant in human nature.” Additionally, the timeless universality of art is based on the socio-cultural desiderata such as the basic unifying values of diversity, communalism, humaneness and compassion. Talking about the nature of Nigerian (African) art, it has been argued that it is fundamentally utilitarian and functionalist, without, of course, discounting the formal or aesthetic architectonics of art. But should there arise a debate over which element takes precedence over the other, the primacy of content predominates. It is this apparent primacy of utility over aesthetic excellence that has made many western critics accuse African literature of being essentially anthropological, sociological and ethnographic. Art reflects society. In our agrarian, pre-technological and “pre-modern” (by comparison, that is) society, what should our literature be purveying? Science-fiction? Gothicism? Marvelous/Magical Realism or exactly what? We need to seriously ask ourselves these questions so as to have a clear and reasonable sense of purpose and relevance.
As posited earlier on, we also need to ask ourselves whether or not the past or tradition count for much in forging a canon. Does our literature quarry folklore in an uncritical wholesale manner or does it simply expropriate it for symbolic commentary on reality and experience? What use can be made of early Nigerian literature, that is, the writings of our pioneer authors, including the likes of Achebe and Soyinka? And, since we are living in the age of globalisation with its accompanying death of distance, do we therefore “clone” America and Europe, a Fanonian Black-skin-white-masks scenario?
This situation is a bit interesting in that too strict an adherence or fidelity to place or context can be, in the last analysis, counter-productive. Love of country with the promotion of its ruling ethos might create a totally embarrassing result. Let me explain with an anecdote. Mark Zukerburg, the effante terrible of New Media and Founder of Facebook recently visited Nigeria and was predictably feted by the Nigerian authorities and was held up to the Nigerian youth as exemplum of excellence. This vicarious gloating by Abuja has not gone down well with many who ask if Zukerburg were a Nigerian, raised here in our society, would those who control our collective destiny have encouraged him and his ilk to achieve greatness? Is it not the United States that shaped and nurtured him and thousand of young Americans like him?
Accordingly, is the crème de la crème of Nigerian Literature both creative and critical, not produced overseas? By the same token, are many Nigerian writers based here not churning out anaemic and flimsy stuff owing principally to the scorched-earth, dystopic hell-hole they have found themselves in? Where are the schools, the infrastructure, the enabling environment to spark creativity and sustain growth? To be sure, while anomie elsewhere may provoke inspiration for the composition of great art for their foreign counterparts, the surfeited gloom in Nigeria spawns instead dry-as-dust, lifeless attempt at artistic mimesis. Irokos do not sprout in deserts, cacti do.
The point is that the toxicity of the Nigerian environment adversely affects its literature, making it largely inadmissible to the canon, if there was ever one. The Nigerian writer, like his/her compatriots, is up against a phalanx of formidable obstacles, standing in his/her way to excellence. How does s/he rise above the nature of the society, a post-colonial multi-ethnic society cursed forever with the cancer of ethnicity?
Can s/he turn a blind eye to the noxious pall of negativities enveloping his/her society and elect instead to write with a pan-Nigerian vision? Can he or she, as Peter Barry argues in Beginning Theory, produce works of “timeless significance”, works that “transcend the limitations and peculiarities of the age [they were] written in?” Not likely. The reason for this pessimism is because right before our very eyes, we are witnessing the victimisation of merit, the lynching of excellence and the concomitant celebration of mediocrity and tawdry bilge. Take, for instance, the politics of literary awards and prizes in Nigeria. Do the very best win these prizes?
Can the judges, these honourable arbiters of taste, in all good conscience claim they are not influenced in their verdicts, year-on-year, by considerations other than literary-aesthetic and moral/ethical? Can they claim that they are guided by the constitutive elements or the core values of international best practices? Are they not, in the quiet of their soul, influenced by extraneous yet egregious factors of “political correctness”, ethnic balancing, federal character, North-South equilibrium, the sanctity of the “Big Three” (WAZOBIA) and religious considerations? He who pays the piper calls the tune.
Do these revered eggheads not do the bidding of their paymasters, that is, the event organizers/sponsors? Or do the literary unions’ leaders surreptitiously replace the chosen lists of winners with their own favoured candidates, thereby rendering the selection process null and void? We would not have been losing sleep over that, but to just shake our heads and say: let the dead bury the dead.
But it is much more serious than that, since we are talking about canon-formation processes. As we all know, in our country, one of the quickest ways of becoming a celebrity is by winning any kind of award, either by hook or crook. And, since we have to vilify and pillory virtue and, on the other hand, extol and laud vice, most people would stop at nothing to achieve celebrity status. But more specific to our purpose here, any work of imaginative art declared the best in a literary competition, thus making it a “masterpiece”, goes straightaway into the canon. It becomes a permanent staple on the reading lists of all Departments of English Studies across Nigeria and beyond. Therefore, imposing mediocre or third-rate kitsch on the unsuspecting society is similar to changing election results in an unholy hour and sentencing the nation to sectarian bloodbath and the ensuing humanitarian catastrophe of Rwandan proportions. Fair is fair, judges of literary awards and prizes owe the country a duty to be veritable gatekeepers of taste and propriety and must see to it that their chosen winners are publicly identified and celebrated. They must resist any form of inducement to adjure the truth, being mindful of the verdict of posterity and the overall health of society.
In having an enduring and respectable canon of literature in Nigeria, publishing firms have a role to play. It is with nostalgia we all recall the days of yore when our old writers were published by the best publishers in the world, the likes of Macmillan, Spectrum Books, Random House, Faber and Faber, Longman, and Heinemann. These firms were and are still run on values of best practices.
What do we have these days? A one-man publishing outfit in which he alone is editor, sub-editor, proof-reader, manager, type-setter, page-planner, critic, everything! He does not even have a degree in English! Being a journeyman hustler, he manages to hoodwink desperadoes to part with their hard-earned money in order to see their manuscript in print.
Every year in the month of May, publishers and booksellers in Nigeria converge on the campus of University of Lagos for their annual convention and one wonders what their brief is, whether or not they bother about the finer niceties of taste and propriety, whether or not they seek to prosecute quacks and mountebanks in their ranks, whether or not they consider themselves as stakeholders in the canon-formation process. Or are they driven solely like most capitalists, by the profit motive? Just to balance the books? Then what happens to what our children are fed on in schools? Does anyone really and truly care? Talking about schools, it is a fact universally acknowledged that when it comes to the formation of canons, schools and universities rank the most important agents. Michael Schudson posits that:
(U)niversity humanities departments have (always) been promoters of their favourite artists and authors. More than most departments in a university, humanities departments are, perhaps necessarily, employers of scholars engagé, people deeply involved in making the very thing – elite culture – that they study. Furthermore, Schudson quotes Herrnstein Smith who describes how university humanities departments help canonise iconic writers like Homer:
“…the value of a literary work is continually produced and reproduced by the very acts of implicit and explicit evaluation that are frequently invoked as ‘reflecting’ its value and therefore as being evidence of it. In other words, what are commonly taken to be the signs of literary value are, in effect, also its spring. The endurance of a classic canonical author such as Homer, then, owes not to the alleged transcultural or universal value of his works but, on the contrary, to the continuity of their circulation in a particular culture. Repeatedly cited and recited, translated, taught, and imitated, and thoroughly enmeshed in the network of intertextuality that continuously constitutes the high culture of the orthodoxly educated population of the West… that highly variable entity we refer to as ‘Homer’ recurrently enters our experience in relation to a large number of and variety of our interests and thus can perform a large number of various functions for us and obviously has performed them for many of us over a good bit of the history of our culture.”
All told, we in Nigeria need to get it right by first and foremost clearing the deck. By that we mean a proper review of our recent writing is imperative as we seek to evaluate them vis-à-vis the output of their precursors, the likes of Soyinka, Achebe, Munonye, Amadi, Okpewho, Iyayi and others. In a monograph entitled The Muse of Power and the Apologues of Pain: Literature in the Forest of a Thousand Dystopias, Femi Osofisan muses on the prevalence of pain, the blanketing of our world by anomie and gloom and how this is refracted in our recent literature without, in his considered view, a humanising ideal, quite unlike what we encounter in the works of our earlier novelists, notably Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. In order to drive his point home, Osofisan cites Achebe’s view of the function of Literature:
“Literature gives us a second handle on reality; [it enables] us to encounter in the safe, manageable dimensions of make-believe the very same threats to integrity that may assail the psyche in real life; and at the same time [provides] through the self-discovery which it imparts a veritable weapon for coping with these threats which they are found within problematic and incoherence selves or in the world around us.”
Osofisan bemoans the dispiriting state of Nigeria, saying that:
“For in response to this widespread fog of despair, in faithful and accurate mimesis, our contemporary literature has become a ringing echo chamber of pain and woe. The shriek of anguish lengthens with the appearance of each new writer, like an elastic bond stretching from Ken Saro-Wiwa to Ben Iweala, from Isidore Okpewho to Helon Habila, from Elechi Amadi to Festus Iyayi, to Onukaba Adinoyo-Ojo, from the defunct nightmare-land of Biafra to the killing fields of Sule Egya’s yet-to-be-published faction…” . Femi Osofisan contends that “still the distinction seems proven, that one of the prominent markers between our literature nowadays and that of the proceeding century is this indulgent focus on the motif of pain.” Hence, he goes on to recommend that, “Literature mirrors reality, but not disinterestedly. Its ultimate surreptitious goal is in fact to transcend that reality, and turn it into a telling code for the yet-unseen times of the future. By forewarning of the dangers ahead, it can help to preempt them. However, in order to do that, to serve, that is, as both prognostic chronicle and prophylaxis, the writer him-herself must be gifted with, and demonstrate, a vision of uncommon profundity and unwavering resilience.”
In brief, Osofisan would want our writers to slough off the straightjacket of ennui and dare to dream Utopia. This agonistic labour of love or/and artistic gesture of faith is what he calls “a humanistic ideal”. There is a good deal of truth in Osofisan’s position on the didactic potentiality of the novel, if what the theoreticians of the genre say is anything to go by, seminal figures like Mikhail M. Bakhtin, Terry Engleton, Georg Lukacs, E.M. Forster, and Ian Watt. In The English Novel: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton states that:
“The truth is that the novel is a genre which resists exact definition… it is less a genre than an anti-genre. It cannibalizes other literary modes and mixes the bits and pieces promiscuously together. You can find poetry and dramatic dialogue in the novel, along with epic, pastoral, satire, history, elegy, tragedy and any number of other literary modes… The novel quotes, parodies and transforms other genres, converting its literary ancestors into mere components of itself in a kind of Oedipal vengeance on them.”
A “melting-pot, a mongrel among literary thoroughbreds”, the novel, as Bakhtin reminds us, is characterized by permanent tentativeness, shot through as it is with an openness, an unfinished character that perennially admits into its lineaments new [read: novel] forms.
It is always, as a genre, work-in-progress.
Accordingly, would-be writers should be glad to take advantage of the inherent structural incoherence, the figural flux of the novel, and, like clay, mould and create alternative universes of meaning, works of timeless significance. And unlike F.R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition that simply canonises few writers, like Hardy, James, Lawrence and Austen, with Emile Bronté as an after-thought, our own canon must address salient issues such as cogency of subject-matter, excellence in craftsmanship, universality of vision, timelessness of relevance, moral earnestness, regenerative/redemptive design, spellbinding and memorable constellation of characters, among others.
To achieve this, the relevant government agencies, school authorities, the media, writers and literary critics, writers’ bodies, publishers, students, parents, everyone of us must take an interest in determining works which get canonized in Nigeria. But, while we are at it, let us keep a wary eye on the activities of the Nobel Committee, lest we miss the bus.
Dr. Anyokwu teaches literature in the Department of English, University of Lagos.