The Engage Event panel discussing what makes a great writer continued with the third panellist, Peter McDonald, an expert in 19th century literature and the perception of literary texts.
McDonald points out that in order to wonder who is a great writer, we must first find out who is asking the question. Who, when, where, and why is someone asking what makes a great writer? After all, what’s of cultural and literary value is always changing. McDonald discussed some of the people who make these decisions today:
- Literary agents- They have to work out what might be great or become great, and therefore sell well if represented by an agent.
- Prize judges- Judges allot the economy of prestige, and decide which texts will get media attention.
- Editors and reviewers- They decide what gets space in publications like the Times Literary Supplement.
- Critics- Critics decide which texts will be discussed and debated in literary circles.
- Writers themselves- Writers acknowledge great texts by deciding with which other writers they will engage, talk, or emulate in their own works.
- Librarians- While libraries like the Bodleian profess to accept all works without value judgements, most librarians have to decide what their library is for, and select a limited number of books that serve that end.
- Ordinary readers- Ordinary readers decide which books to buy and to read.
Of course, who asks these questions and how they asked them has changed throughout the centuries.
We have to be wary in discussing great writers of creating a forced dichotomy, assuming either that there is a single scientific, objective mechanism for determining a great text, or that great works are so subjective that no debate can be admitted.
The final panelist was Ankhi Mukherjee, who studies Victorian and modern literature, and just wrote the book What is a Classic? Mukherjee began by consider great writers’ affiliation with other writers. How are they alluded to or mentioned in literature? What books appear in literature, and what do they represent?
Dan Rush says that a great work is ‘one that weathers a variety of tectonic shifts’ in the literary world. Mukherjee described such works as a sort of portable property, able to return repeatedly and in different forms.
But how does one determine the literary cannon? Before he turned twelve, V S Naipul was critical of the literary cannon, and created his own anthology. A library speaks of a life that is richer and more exciting than one’s own, and creating a library means creating one’s own literary cannon Mukherjee says it is useful to think of the cannon as a five foot shelf of books, a portable university, or a museum display case of the world’s best books. By the nature of creating a collection, the collector’s love of hoarding requires a cautious expending of literary credit, since only a finite number of works can be chosen. It is important that such collections take heed of the political and social obligation not to restrict the cannon only to western literature.
Mukherjee finished by reminding us that great books beget great books, encouraging future writers. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Orhan Pamuk said, ‘I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries.’
To sum up, the panel raised questions about the multiplicity of the great text, potentials for re-reading, the ways we read at different points, the relevance of different historical and political conditions to a text, where a text is read, the authority of different texts or cannons and what they represent, and whether we are more comfortable thinking about great texts than great writers.