Where does your writing sit in the literary canon?

You don't need to read every book ever written, but it's good to place your work in context and think about how it slots into the great literary timeline.

A bit of a different question this one, but it’s something I think you need to have in mind when you’re writing.
One of the things my English degree (and subsequent Masters) gave me was a good (though far from brilliant) understanding of the literary canon. And that’s helped me put my writing in context – I know what other writers I’m like and what tradition I’m writing in.

I think that’s a useful thing, but you might disagree. You might think that the only thing that really matters is the work itself. You know, what you actually write. Have a watch and let me know what you think – I’d be really interested to hear.

Watch this episode on Vimeo


Anonymous 22 March 2011 Reply

For some reason I’m getting all kinds of buffering problems today so I’ll have to try again tomorrow

iain@writeforyourlife.net 22 March 2011 Reply

Sorry about that – it might be Vimeo playing up. Let me know if you have any further problems and I’ll look into it for you.

terry@terrylucy.com 22 March 2011 Reply

I enjoy the videos, sir! Though the writing I do doesn’t really require the context and knowledge of contemporary literature, I find learning about such things helps a great deal and the more I write, the more I want to read and learn from others. Keep up the good work.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 22 March 2011 Reply

Hi Terry!
Yep, you don’t really need to know your Middlemarch for all kinds of writing, but it’s always handy to have the odd cultural reference up yer sleeve! And definitely, reading leads to better writing on the whole. Thanks for popping in, much appreciated and smashing to see you.

kevin_vorstermans@hotmail.com 23 March 2011 Reply

Again, a great and inspiring video. I have noticed that reading from writers who are writing the same genre as I am helps me improve my own writing. It’s always a challenge to be creative and original and with seeing and experiencing how other people do it, it becomes just that little bit easier. And of course, being the reader that I am I always just enjoy books of all sorts and genres. I also think it’s important to have some knowledge of literary history because literature has always been, and will always be, a very important part of culture. Anyway, I really enjoyed this video and I am already looking forward to the next one.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 23 March 2011 Reply

Thanks for the nice feedback, Kevin. You’re absolutely right, reading others does help you with your own work and can often provide the spark you need to either get going or keep motivated. I also agree that, culturally, a little Jacobean tragedy, for example, is always welcome!

Anonymous 23 March 2011 Reply

It’s working fine today, Iain. I think the real danger, especially in literary fiction, of not “knowing your place” as you put it is that a writer thinks, and even worse claims, they are doing something utterly original, that has actually been done plenty before. Yes, this makes them look a bit of a plank, but it also robs them of the chance to build on, converse with, and maybe develop, that history.
Of course, you can argue till you’re blue in the face about where to stop in terms of tracing threads and contextualising. I’ve been guilty of going way too far the other way. I think Denis De Rougemont is almost certainly right in his great book Love in the Western World that much of Western literature (and, directly, anyone who cites Swain or that kind of scene-building, obstacle-overcoming structure) can be traced back to the unifying trend of neoplatonism (via, of course, Hegel and Romanticism), but I also think there’s a second strand that can be traced to Neoplatonism’s opposite tendency – to fragment – that comes via the Desert Fathers, the ecstatics, via negativa and mystics through the likes of Celine and Joyce to the Beat and Brutalism.

And that latter path is where I come back to my first point. Every other day you’ll read some smaert alec saying the fragmentation of Modern narrative goes back not just to Joyce but to Celine and swaggering around like they’ve made a Really Clever Point, and you wonder if they’ve even heard of Meister Eckhart or St John of the Cross. It’s not just about a dry timeline, it’s about, like you say, knowing where you fit, understanding your literary ancestors as well as contemporaries and learning and borrowing from them.


iain@writeforyourlife.net 23 March 2011 Reply

Exactly! Your first paragraph is exactly the point I was trying to make (amongst others and a little rambling). Great comment – thanks!

dennisandsophiehill@googlemail.com 23 March 2011 Reply

I sometimes allow myself to talk as if i know something about writing. i nearly always end up realising that i actually know very little.
Not having a degree in literature I can’t claim to be educated.

I do have an opinion and it is this: When I write I want to write with my own voice and having all the baggage of what i have read does not help me.

I am not saying that i don’t read and don’t take inspiration from others, but at the raw cutting edge of putting down ideas i just want my story to tell itself. let it have echoes of other stuff if it does, but don’t get bogged down being clever about it.

Having said that Its not like i’m a successful writer. Yet. So what do i know. Only that when i write i don’t want to be trying to be clever. i just want to tell the story in the most effective way.

Of course if i need to sell it to someone who is impressed by ‘clever’ then it will be handy to reel off a bunch of cool facts and stuff.

Does that make me Naive? A plank? Probably. Ignorance was a commodity where i came from.

Thought provoking post Iain

iain@writeforyourlife.net 24 March 2011 Reply

Hi Dennis and thanks for the comment. It sounds like you’re being a bit harsh on yourself there! I do want to clarify that by having an English degree I don’t consider myself especially clever or high brow! And I’m also not saying that everyone should go out and get one – absolutely not. I just think that it’s good to have some sort of context when you’re writing. Or at least, before you begin to write. Like you, once I start I just want to tell the story in the best way possible.
Glad the post got you thinking!

ben@b3n3llis.com 27 March 2011 Reply

As 8Cuts mentioned, reading in your genre means avoiding the danger of repeating what has already been said but instead developing it, adding your own take. I often find this sparks off other ideas by either disagreeing or factoring in technological or cultural changes. Various sites related to your genre usually have a top 10 list of books which is a good place to start your reading.
Mentioning similar authors when quering agents is difficult as deep down it sounds like I’m comparing myself to them…but I realise it’s importance in establishing context and showing you’re well read in that particular genre.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 27 March 2011 Reply

Agree with all of that Ben, thanks for the comment. I don’t think agents think that you’re comparing yourself to an author if you mention them, although you do have to word it correctly. For example, don’t say, ‘I’m like Shakespeare, only much better.’ Generally though, it gives the agent a good idea of where both you and your book is at.

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