Much of my thinking for my doctoral thesis centres around the unstable concepts of tradition and gender. Yet since my writers are all so contemporary, I’ve been wondering recently about new ways to consider the purpose of my work in building, consolidating or interrupting the traditions the work presumes.
Much of the work available in Irish studies (and elsewhere else) in recent decades focuses on recovering dismissed writers. One critic puts it like this:
‘In the final quarter of the twentieth century […] the literary canon has itself been transformed, with the (formerly) non-canonical at times acquiring a greater cachet than the canonical.’
David Johnson, The Popular and the Canonical: Debating Twentieth Century Literature, 1940-2000 (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 201.
I don’t disagree with this, and no one could argue that this kind of work is not stimulating, challenging and necessary. Another work I was reading recently set out a mission statement from the outset;
‘It is the occulted comic voices of women that this work represents, bringing them back to disturb and interrupt the writing of the Irish canon’.
Theresa O’Connor, The Comic Tradition in Irish Women Writers (Gainsville: The University Press of Florida, 1996), p. 2.
Which again, is all very well and good. However, as someone who works on contemporary literature I feel my own work is set apart from this kind of study. My work isn’t about bringing them back, really, if anything it is about bringing them forward.
Perhaps that is a way of thinking about contemporary literary criticism; excavation of literary tradition is of course very important but that sticking your head in the sands of time would only ignore the new literature currently being built around us and perhaps permit it to perpetuate the problems we are only now recognizing in the past. We need to build up as well as dig down.