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A gentle cannon

Two jovial and slightly authoritarian guides to the literature will talk about "ordinary people" books.


[literary dissemination] Literary critic Marta Norheim has written Røff's guide to contemporary literature. The literature scholar Jon Treberg, Tone Selboe and Hans Erik Aarset have written World Literature.

In recent weeks, both works have received relatively much attention. Norheim's book because it – as the title more than suggests – is intended as an overview of contemporary literature. World literature because we have to go all the way back to Francis Bull's heyday to find a similar publication in Norway: a literary history in one volume.

If the two new books have anything in common with Bull's form of literary history, then it must be that they are characterized by optimism on behalf of literary dissemination. Here, there is no question of succumbing to the demands of the horde of consumer-friendly taste democrats. Here it is rather a matter of considering the dissemination of literature as a genre that has not been given once for all.

Dissemination is a historical category. The genre is changing, and so it looks like several of the genres we have been taught to call fiction.

Ordinary readers

We know that the novel of our time is not the same as the novel 100 years ago. At the same time, we know that the dissemination of literature – including what we like to call the writing of literary history – contributes to changing our ways of reading, and thus our view of the individual genre. Let's say that Francis Bull made a literary-historical genre choice when he described Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson as the greatest Norwegian of all time. Who agrees with Bull today? Who of us reads Bjørnson's works as a genre template for literary and human greatness?

Neither Norheim nor Haarberg & co come up with formulations that are reminiscent of Bull's panegyric Bjørnson portrait. Norheim develops a relatively sober style, and only exceptionally does she pass heavy taste judgments on contemporary literature. It should be noted that there is a limited selection of contemporary literary writing she deals with.

Norheim's book is a thematic and descriptive presentation of younger Norwegian contemporary literature, more specifically a presentation of Norwegian novel authorship that has established itself after 1990. In other words, this is not a book about Solstad, Fløgstad, Kjærstad and so on. Here are the other Norwegian novelist names that apply, such as Trude Marstein, Anne Oterholm, Thure Erik Lund and Karl Ove Knausgård.

"The idea is to enter the space between criticism and canon," writes Norheim. "The book is aimed at so-called 'ordinary readers', that is to say for those who read books in their spare time and do not have it as a job." This can be interpreted as an expression of the above-mentioned optimism on behalf of the literature dissemination. By emphasizing that it is in fact a point to talk about "ordinary readers" (in quotation marks, mind you), as well as by addressing this readership in clear text, Norheim makes an important literary-political contribution to the fight against cultural populism.

Not only does she assume that the "ordinary readers" can read – she assumes that the readers are in possession of certain knowledge, be it knowledge of genres, of literary history. In short: Norheim does not underestimate its audience.

Western cannon

The same can be said about the authors behind World Literature. This book also addresses the "ordinary". Haarberg, Selboe and Aarset choose to challenge – in order to further develop – the writing of literary history.

To a far greater extent than Norheim, the three authors pay critical attention to the genre issue itself. First, the more or less traditional form of literary history is made the subject of a genre theoretical investigation – here literary history emerges as a narrative and, we might add, referring genre. Secondly, the genre question is asked in connection with a number of the texts that the literary historical narrative is about.

About the Roman writer Martial (40-103 AD), we read: “Nearly 150 years after Catull, he developed an epigram form that was to become a pattern. Ben Jonson and Alexander Pope, Goethe and Schiller – they are all in debt to Martial. " The quote can serve as an example of how World Literature – with the subtitle "The Western Tradition" – presents genre knowledge as a distinctive form of literary historical awareness. A great genre is a pattern-forming genre. The great genre leaves clear historical traces behind, it is able to go in different and often conflicting directions.

We must of course comment on the title. Not primarily because the genre-historical project is emphasized by the subtitle, but because the authors implicitly criticize the singular form. This is about world literature, not world literature. One can say that Goethe, the author of the term world literature, is finally allowed to appear as a representative of a self-critical and anything but egocentric memory culture.

We know that we must uphold the knowledge of Western literature. But we also know that singular forms have a strong tendency to uphold the notion of the white man's cultural property rights. The "indeterminate" title of World Literature testifies to the existence of world literature elsewhere. Cannon is never established.

Just congratulations. Like Marta Norheim, Haarberg, Selboe and Aarset have given the literary communicator a wise and sympathetic face.

And there is more to come: Soon we will report the Norwegian canon, signed the four-leaf clover Erik Bjerck Hagen, Petter Aaslestad, Tone Selboe (again), and Jørgen Sejersted. Continuation follows, in other words.

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