Wole Soyinka: The Pan-African Literary Practice
The debate over the canon did not fully resolve the debate about the masterpiece. The term “masterpiece” seems to have survived the fraying of the canon, especially in art criticism, and more so in editorial criticism, perhaps because unlike canon, masterpiece retains the considerable appeal of being a concept of pure aesthetic judgment, referring to works that demonstrate real mastery of a craft through the production of new standards. In the age of mass production, however, the term is sometimes used to imply bestseller, which falsely suggests a correspondence of artistic and market value. Both canon and masterpiece are signals of a more durable status than bestseller; they resonate all the way up and down the ladder of culture. It is this status of consecration, authority, and hegemony, the sacralization of a group of texts and authors, whose fixity or closure is guaranteed by the reproduction of their enabling values that would come into crisis in the 1980s. The crisis was a product of the erosion of consensus within the culture, which is the fundamental basis for the formation of the canon. The literary culture writ large is underpinned by the patterns of consumption that have been threaded by established models. The critical query in this chapter is not a reprise of the old question of how great models are constituted, but a study of the reverse impact they have, once they are constituted, on literary production and the agenda of publishers and editors. It is my argument in this chapter that the object of editorial criticism, of its preferences, judgments, and choices about the manuscript, is the replication of the cultural work and standards of great models. While T. S. Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” was more interested in how the ideal order that existing great models constitute is incrementally extended and simultaneously modified, I am more interested in the practical application of the notion of great models or “the masterpiece” in the decisions of editors and readers. I argue that masterpieces dominate the culture in their moment, and also cast a long shadow forwards on what is produced or producible in their aftermath. The dominance they project over culture is, paradoxically, not entirely their own. What makes them succeed is that they answer a need already present in the culture, which though in a sense is external to them, they yet fulfill in advance. The potential of masterpieces to shape the field of production is subject to the precise requirement that preselects and exalts them.