THE (so-called) LITERARY CANON
Put simply, the “literary canon” is a grouping of books that certain literary scholars consider to be the standard of literature. The word canon comes from the Greek term “measuring rod.” Concurrently, several literary movements during the 19th and 20th centuries and beyond sought to legitimize the Humanities as a subject comparable to others. Art, of course, has its place in the world, but methods included going so far as to compare and create a science (of a sort) to analyze language. These movements elevated certain works of literature to be the best, or in other words, the way literature should be. For the characters in The Book Club Play, this becomes a major sticking point. “What is worth reading?”
In theory, it sounds productive to have a standard to which to compare works, to reference and be inspired by them. In practice, it has created barriers, borders, and gatekeeping, all created by “certain” groups of scholars who write and then go on to legitimize themselves and marginalize others. The canon has always been overly Western, in its conception and continuance. The simple fact that literary scholars work primarily in the English language already excludes the majority of literature and art in the world.
The enforcement of a literary canon is also a positive feedback loop. For example, many of us who have gone through the U.S. Education system have read many of the same books: To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Shakespeare, so on and so forth. What a group reads, studies, and talks about reinforces sets of values, norms, and even styles of thinking and writing. Some scholars have even connected the proliferation of the novel to the idea of policing.
Consider hearing from Toni Morrison about this question, from which she uses the term “dead” and “looted” language to interrogate “limiting” language. Click here to read Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture, on the power of language, both oppressive and liberating
“…a dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis. Like statist language, censored and censoring. Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential. Unreceptive to interrogation, it cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences. Official language smitheryed to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege is a suit of armor polished to shocking glitter, a husk from which the knight departed long ago.”
In an article about the literary canon, English professor Stephen Berendt says, “Canons disempower. Only by empowering or re-empowering readers can any of us begin to disempower the canons themselves and put individual judgment back in charge.”
Representation, at its core, is the act of being seen or having kinship with characters/places/situations in media. Representation is not a matter of surface level aesthetics – diverse and inclusive media fosters belonging and is an active deterrent of stereotypes. The issues with the canon, a grouping of books elevated by a certain group (largely cis-white-male), bleed into issues of representation. If a book club chooses to only read “the canon” or “the classics” and those books are also chosen by an elite, gatekeeping force… the issue of representation gets compounded.
There is also a burden of representation often placed upon Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) who exist within predominately white institutions (PWI). Not only does this place the onus of individuals to try and capture the representation of an entire demographic, it is also forcibly limiting – people comfortable with whiteness get a range of expression, while BIPOC individuals asked to represent themselves and their community must balance these concerns. Lily runs into this issue in the Book Club Play.
THE DOCUMENTARY FORM & OBJECTIVITY
The characters in The Book Club Play are being recorded for a documentary film directed by someone named “Lars Knudsen.” The camera cannot be turned on and off – they have no control over the editing. In the script, Karen Zacarías prefaces the play with: “This play is stylized like a film documentary. The characters know that they are being filmed but forget sometimes.”
In general, the documentary film is known for portraying reality, documented as is. In other words: an objective view of life. However, many factors lead to this objectivity being broken.
This editing process is an overt understanding that the director of the documentary, Lars Knudsen, or in our case, Arlene Martínez & Jéhan Òsanyìn, have a hand in crafting what is real and what is not. This boundary, like the others in the play, becomes obsolete.
Directors of documentaries have often embraced this slippage of objectivity, and leaned into putting themselves as a filter for the documentary. One form this takes is the personal doc, a form of memoir; the docudrama, a fictionalized version of real events that uses documentary techniques; or perhaps most relevant to The Book Club Play, the mockumentary.
The mockumentary is defined as a fictionalized tale presented in documentary form, often used to comment, satirize, or explode both the documentary form itself but also the subject of the tale. The distance of fiction but the closeness of a documentary creates a dynamic tension that also turns the idea of objectivity inside-out.
As Orson Welles puts it in his own docudrama, F for Fake: “Art, [Picasso] said, is a lie — a lie that makes us realize the truth. To the memory of that great man who will never cease to exist, I offer my apologies and wish you all, true and false, a very pleasant good evening.”
COMEDY OF ERRORS
“THIS IS NOT A FARCE; IT IS A PLAY ABOUT REAL PEOPLE. THE FUNNY SHOULD COME FROM THE HUMANITY OF THE CHARACTERS.” – Karen Zacarías
This play is not a farce, but in many ways, we can consider it through the lens of a comedy of errors. A comedy of errors deals with the clash between juxtapositions: inside & outside, high & low, high class & low class, private & public. The characters struggle with knowing how to act in front of a camera, what to hide, and how to present. Keeping true to conventions of the genre, this failed struggle ultimately reveals their true feelings, desires, and wants. The pressure of putting up a front is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
If having an example is helpful, perhaps the most well-known and easily identifiable comedy of errors is Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
This genre is also known for showing how silly and limiting binary thinking is. For example, characters clash on what is “good literature” vs. “bad literature” (or in other words, high art vs. low art), the characters that play pundits are often marginalized individuals not considered “worldly” (read: low class) but read high literature (read: high class).
Breaking down the binaries allows us to accept the wholeness of every person and the world itself. The genre often pushes to break down these binaries and accept contradictory truths or nuance: that good people can do bad things, that bad things happen to good people, that class (or goodness) is not inherent, that our systems we have held as truths are actually folly.