individual talents of the past; or, to put it colloquially, where fietionrnis concerned, there is precious little “new under the sun.”rnEven so, Eliot was not saying—nor am I — that everythingrnwritten has to imitate or slavishly ape the past. Rather, thosernwho decide whether a contemporary form has artistic meritrnshould be measuring it against a standard of quality that a hugernnumber of people over a long span of time have established byrntheir patronage (if nothing else). But it is vitally important thatrnreaders be well read in the works that established that standard;rnotherwise, to put it in pure business terms, they are tr)’ing to assessrnthe worth of sonrething without knowing the parameters ofrnthe market.rnThis is where the dilution of the canon in the name of politicalrncorrectness hurts. Dredging up works that have not sustainedrna readership over a period of time and touting themrnmerely because of the idenhty of a writer erodes the standard. Itrnsuggests that works are valuable because of who wrote them, notrnbecause of their innate qualit)’ or originality, their staying power,rnand their capacit)’ to excite and amaze successive genera-rnHons of readers.rnFinding previously ignored writers and adding them to therngreater body of Western literature — heretofore, mostly arncollection of Dead Old White Guys — is a worthy enterprise, sornlong as the critical standard applied to such works is the samernthat woidd be applied to a forgotten work by a Dead Old WiitcrnCiuy. Again, breadth is more important than depth. The problemrnis that some of the replacements for the works of DOWGsrnthat one finds in anthologies are not as good —by a long .shot—rnas the stuff that was taken out to make room for them.rnOf course, one might argue that—traditional standards berndamned—deciding what is “good” and what is not is a subjectivernprocess, often colored by the evaluators’ personal priorities.rnBut that is precisely my point. If a reader decides that somethingrnis ipso facto “bad” merely because it appeals to a greatrnmany less-than-well-educated people, then hasn’t he appliedrnthe same sort of prejudice tiiat may well have excluded somernwriters from the canon all along? Isn’t this the same sort of prejudicernthat kept the novel from achieving literary respect forrnnearly 200 years?rnAt the same time such novelists as Trollope and Thackerayrnand certainly Charles Dickens were penning their fiction withrna close eye on what the public wanted to buy, numerous intellectualsrnand prominent citizens, including no fewer than twornAmerican presidents, proudly proclaimed that they had neverrnread a novel and had no intention of doing so. In that era, thernnovel was rarely if ever taught as a literar)’ form in universities,rnand the works of such writers as Balzac and Haubert were keptrnhidden in public libraries, reserved only for those brave enoughrnto ask for them by name. But the public called for more of thernkind of thing that gratified its sensibilities and satisfied its readingrnappetites. This, I believe, is what led to the elevation of thernnovel to literary form by such writers as Henry James, EdithrnWliarton, James Joyce, and William Eaulkner, as well as manyrnotiiers. William Dean Howells championed this cause fromrn”The Editor’s Chair” for years. But at the same time Howellsrnwas promoting the po|)ular novel, Henry James was castigatingrnmany of his American contemporaries (particularly MarkrnTwain) for pandering to low standards and base tastes. Jamesrnwanted literary quality to be the adulter of literary art; Howellsrnunderstood that other appeals were required to sirstain a readership.rnBut even the most common denominator of audiences demandsrnliterar)’ quality. Today, when people attend a popularrnfilm or play, I think they are seeking the same quality they mightrnfind in bona fide literary works, more or less. It may be that theyrnare merely seeking pure entertainment or escape, but there isrnample literary effort in that vein, too. Much of Shakespeare isrnfrivolous and escapist, and he was not afraid of the Elizabethanrnequivalent of blood-and-guts violence, gratuitous sex, and slapstickrnsilliness. He was not writing for Oxford dons and delicaternintellectual sensibilities but, by and large, for unwashedrn”groundlings” who paid a penny apiece to be entertained. Andrnhe was writing for a queen who had a remarkable sensitivity torngood humor and sentimental love stories.rnThat his works have survived over four centuries is substantialrnproof that Shakespeare did what he did better than most, but hernwas not the only person of his time writing good stuff. Still, fewrnof us would pay Broadway prices to see a revival of Ralph RoisterrnDoister or The Dutch Courtesan, although they are both extremelyrnfunny, well-written plays. And consider this: If Shakespeare’srnreputation rested entirely on Titus Andronicus, Timonrnof Athens, or Two Gentlemen of Verona, he probably would notrnhave survived as a literary figure. Certainly his name would bernno more fannliar to most of us than are those of Beaumont andrnEletcher or Thomas Marston.rnThe point is that every age has its Laverne and Shirley orrnBrady Bunch, or the comparatively easy humor of its Seinfeld,rnthe romantic melodrama of its Waltotjs, and the marginally sillyrnimaginative speculations of its X-Files or Star Trek. But oursrnhas also produced Twelve Angry Men, Requiem for a Heavyweight,rnThe Forsyte Saga, Upstairs, Downstairs, and I, Claudius.rnEvery age has also had its share of naysayers. SamuelrnClemens, whose satiric disparagement of James FeniniorernC]ooper is legendary, ])ronounced one library to be “excellent”rnon the basis that tiie librarians “had the good taste” to excludernall volumes by Jane Austen, “whom the British mercifully permittedrna natural deatii.” Readers were so outraged by E.M.rnEorster’s Passage to India that travelers passing through thernSuez Canal littered the surface of the Red Sea with copiesrnthrown overboard in disgust; incensed and overly pious readersrnburned copies oi Ulysses; and in the 1930’s, school boards acrossrnthe country banned Arthur Conan Doyle’s collected worksrnfrom school libraries because they were deemed “a popular distraction.”rnPaul Scott, author of the celebrated The Raj Quartet, whichrnincluded The jewel in the Crown (naturally filmed for PBS),rnonce told me, “The greatest curse for a contemporary writer isrnto be labeled ‘popular.’ It is in their unpopularity, their obscurit}’,rntiicir obhiseness that their worth is measured, not in theirrnappeal to a broad nunrber of people.” Scott lamented, “Thernworst tiling tiiat ever happened to John Eowles was to have publishedrnThe French Lieutenant’s Woman. He’d have been calledrna ‘great writer’ otherwise, not merely a clever romanticist.”rnThe same might be said of such “popular” writers as John Irving,rnAnne Rice, or even Stcj^hen King, who from time to timernaspire to write literar}- art—and sometimes come very close tornachieving it.rnTruman Capote, Nonnan Mailer, Gore Vidal, Erica Jong,rnMichael Crichton, and Ayn Rand all have said at one time orrnanotiier that tiiey were toni between the desire to be popidarrnand widely read (to say nothing of well paid) and the desire tornbe taken seriously by the academic arbiters of the canon. EdwardrnAlbee once remarked tiiat if he could exchange placesrnAPRIL 2000/19rnrnrn