Liberating The Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature, Ed. by Isabel Waidner, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018.
"If there were a literary avant-garde that were relevant now, it would be what the queers and their allies are doing, at the intersections, across disciplines. This avant-garde would be inclusive, racially and culturally diverse, migrants galore, predominately but not exclusively working-class, transdisciplinary, (gender)queer and politically clued up (left)." - Isabel Waidner
Liberating the Canon is an edited anthology capturing the contemporary emergence of radically innovative and non-conforming forms of literature in the UK and US. Historically, sociopolitical marginalisation and avant-garde aesthetics have not come together in UK literature, counterintuitively divorcing outsider experience and formal innovation. Bringing together intersectional identity and literary innovation, LTC is designed as an intervention against the normativity of literary publishing contexts and the institution 'Innovative Literature' as such. More widely, if literature, any literature, can act as a mode of cultural resistance and help imagine a more progressive politics in Tory Britain and beyond, it is this.
Edited by Isabel Waidner, Liberating the Canon includes contributors working at the intersections of prose, poetry, art, performance, indie publishing and various subcultural contexts:
Mojisola Adebayo, Jess Arndt (US), Jay Bernard, Richard Brammer, Victoria Brown, Seabright D.Mortimer, SJ Fowler, Juliet Jacques, Sara Jaffe (US), Roz Kaveney, R. Zamora Linmark (US), Mira Mattar, Nat Raha, Nisha Ramayya, Rosie Snajdr, Timothy Thornton, Isabel Waidner, Joanna Walsh and Eley Williams.
Liberatingthe Canon: Intersectionality and Innovation in Literature by Isabel Waidner (3:AM magazine)
So I’m sitting here at looking at my copy of Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature and feeling sick when I think about whether or not I can, or should, write about it. Which makes it sound like I did not enjoy the book. Or that it is not worth reading. I did. And it is.
But, can I talk about the way it also twists me up inside? That a book that I should connect with on a level beyond the written word leaves me wondering if there is a space for me? On the back cover (which on my copy is terribly warped after a fall on snow-covered ice landed me with a concussion) editor Isabel Waidner is quoted:
If there were a literary avant-garde that were relevant now, it would be what the queers and their allies are doing, at the intersections, across disciplines. This avant-garde would be inclusive, racially and culturally diverse, migrants galore, predominately but not exclusively working-class, transdisciplinary, (gender)queer and politically clued up (left).
I like the sound of this. But is this what the queers and their allies are doing? Possibly. I am the ineptest (gosh I didn’t even know “ineptest” was a word, but Word suggested it and I kind of like it) queer writer ever because, off the page, queer is the loneliest reality I’ve ever known, and the many queer writers included here seem to have lives in which their queerness is essential, not accidental. And that makes me feel as alienated as my real life adventures in queer spaces do. I’m awfully pasty white and ordinary, and although my mother’s family were, at one time, potato famine refugees from Ireland, and I was not born in the country where I live, I am a migrant on an axis other than the here-to-there displacement in space. The only true migration I have ever made—the one that I am always making—is the one from female to male.
And I am not even certain how to think about “working class.” If it’s about wage-labour, a blue- and pink- collar, and sometimes white collar existence, then for the exception of about one decade of my life, I’m your man. But I’ve always preferred to think of myself as under-employed, as if the status was temporary, collarless. Over-educated. Just barely keeping my head above poverty level. You know: What are you going to do with an arts degree? Or two? When things are good where I live, blue collar workers can haul in six-figure incomes. Classless, misfit, my work-life fits into no definable category.
At 57, I’m not even under-employed any more. I’m not employed at all. And too old to start over. (Which leads me to wonder, while we’re being all diverse and intersectional, where disability lies in this re-invigorated literary avant-garde.)
But, enough wound-nursing and equivocating. Back to the task at hand.
I do love the idea of literature that is innovative, experimental, and breaks boundaries especially in my arena, that of the essay/memoir. And, did I mention that nowhere in Isabel’s detailed and entertaining introduction (check it out, if you want, at 3:AM) does that over-used term “genre-bending” appear? The writing she invites the reader to envision, “itself must transgress the various structures through which the avant-garde literary canon has perpetuated itself and its exclusiveness.” Okay, now we’re talking. She goes on to say:
To reiterate, the writing needs to work across various systems of oppression (intersectionality), across formal distinction (prose and poetry, critical and creative, and the various genres), and across disciplines. Same goes for publishing, editing, reading, referencing and designing curricula. Change literature (or what is defined as such) and the discipline will diversify. Diversify the discipline and the literature itself will change. Liberating the canon depends on inclusion and formal innovation in equal measures. The two are interrelated.
And the question then becomes: Just how liberated is this canon? How much of a meaningful advancement have we made toward this ambitious goal by the selections gathered in this anthology?
Honestly, I am not so sure. (Maybe I am.)
I already tend to read a fair amount of innovative literature, and have admitted to a hunger for work that pushes the confines of literary style and form, so the more experimental pieces really, uh, turn me on. The contributions from Mojilsola Abedayo, Joanna Walsh, Isabel Waidner, Timothy Thornton, Mira Mattar, Nisha Ramayyar, Richard Brammer (cheating I skipped this having already the entire book from whence it came) and Nat Raha were, for me, standouts. The most explicitly trans pieces were my least favourite, pushing subject more than form, but as an idiosyncratic, fickle reader—a body dysmorphic, ex-gender dysphoric soul—I am looking for a transvant-garde that speaks to trans in a way that would make me say “HELL, YES.”
This canon still needs to be loosened a little further, I suppose. Or rather, the liberation is just starting.
This book could be considered a primer. An Anglophone primer. An anthology of primarily UK based writers with a few US contributors tossed in for good measure. How about round two? With a glance to Canada (where I am), Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, and desi (South Asian and diaspora) writers.
Ah, one can dream. But if this book can exist, anything is possible.
So, there you have it. I have written about Liberating the Canon without really writing about any of the varied pieces contained within. You’ll have to read it, if you dare. Or desire. Or are simply curious.
It’s worth the risk.