Liberating The Canon Enlarge
Liberating the Canon, Isabel Waidner ed. 2018. Published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe

Isabel Waidner’s anthology of contemporary innovative literature sets its scope wide, on multiple levels: an international ensemble of writers, and material that in form and content spans the possibilities of genre. It’s a mix, as all anthologies should be, albeit at times a chaotic one—readers may find themselves switching gears and reading strategies at a neck-snapping pace. This isn’t necessarily a flaw; Waidner has curated a challenging collection which gains intensity as it proceeds. 

That said, I was thrown by the introduction, in which Waidner makes a number of ambitious claims regarding the genesis and purpose(s) of LTC. Can it really be claimed that ‘aesthetics and politics have never come together in UK literature’? This feels like an unsupportable assertion—but some of Waidner’s more blustery claims might be better off with contextualising; it may have been more convincing, perhaps, to suggest that it is the aesthetics and politics of literature by and for people whose lifestyles fall outside the cultural mainstream that is left unexamined. And while I am the last to suggest that innovative literature should obey some sense of ‘propriety’, Waidner’s wholesale, single-paragraph cut-and-pasting of email exchanges with some of the authors is basically unreadable, and offers little insight into what is to come.

Thankfully this is the only weak point in the book, and I hasten to iterate that it is as a curator that Waidner really shines, refracted by the sheer quality of the texts and writers included in the book. Juliet Jacques’ ‘Holiday Camp’ is an entertaining story of sexual awakening – though it verges on the unlikely, as the main character discovers his transvestite desires, is ‘caught in the act’ (to abuse a phrase) by his sister, picks up a ‘professional’ drag queen at a pub, goes home with him, has sex (again, for the first time), runs into some homophobes and gets home safely, only to be discovered again as a cross-dresser (this time by his parents, who react badly) – all in one night. Eley Williams’ tone in ‘The Flood and the Keeper’ is wonderful; lines like ‘stiff little paragraph’, and the linguistic flourishes—including a joke about punctuation—stand out in a lovely, extended experiment with the sentence.

An anthology that can expand a reader’s perspective is doing important work, and Mojisole Adebayo’s script is a reminder that any canon of innovative literature ranges wider than simply the poetic or prosaic. Its inclusion supports another editorial question about the nature of anthologies: why not include dramatic texts? Why not mix genres? It feels rare to find this degree of play in a general anthology, and perhaps it shouldn’t be—the challenge of shifting reading strategies brings the reader to some important ideas, often by virtue of the shift(s) themselves. Simply put, it’s hard to get comfortable in this book, and, even this early, I was beginning to feel the political valences of such an approach.

Rosie Šnadjr’s ‘Bingo the Drunkman’ is very funny, in the best Steinean fashion. Here, language and reference pile up into a mash of unexpected cross-connections. Joanna Walsh might win the prize for best title: ‘I Wish Someone Loved me the Wasn’t Capitalism’ is simply perfect. Walsh’s defamiliarised teapots, and the ending of her prose poems, are sincerely pleasing. Jay Bernard reminds us that it’s 2018 in two prose poems/microfictions that highlight the fact that writing is more than ink-and-paper, but digital as well. I’m tempted to call this a moment where we can see the ‘hypermateriality’ of language, but then again, it might be Liberating the Canon inclining me towards hyperbole; in this sense, I am forgiving of Waidner’s introductory salvo—this is a book that makes me want to make pronouncements, too. 

I could go on sketching the contours of the many excellent pieces in this book: Timothy Thornton’s focussed and challenging excerpt from ‘Birds, Magic, and Counting’; Jess Arndt’s paranoid, disjunctive, and suggestive ‘Serape’; Mira Mattar’s fantastic opening line to ‘Never the Shade’; Richard Brammer’s ‘Neoliberalism’ (a kind of Fluxus-goes-to-university instructional performance score); Nat Raha’s inspired use of the strikethrough, or Sara Jaffe’s exquisite ‘Baby in a Bar’—an excellent short story that combines paranoia, embodied gender issues, and the peculiar safety that only being a stranger in a pub can bring. 

And perhaps this moment in Jaffe’s story brings the most valuable aspect of LTC. Waidner states that a contemporary and relevant literary 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).’ The jumble and jostle of this book, its unwillingness to play by the rules, the difficulties it presents—these are not flaws, but an integral part of the experience. We’re all strangers in someone’s pub, full of our own narratives, inchoate feelings, and predilections. Reading LTC is an exercise in radical, inclusive empathy, and I’m better for having read it.  Truth is, the one note I made many times in reading this book was a version of ‘I’m so old-fashioned!’—although I’m always glad to find out I’m behind the times, so I know how far I need to go to catch up. Ultimately, this is a book that presents the rough and tumbling and uneven road that lies ahead; the kind of road that pioneers and adventurers like best. 


Nasser Hussain is a Lecturer in Literature and Creative Writing at Leeds Beckett University. He published his first full collection of poetry, boldface, with Burning Eye Press in 2014. His work has appeared in a number of poetry journals and anthologies, most recently in Wretched Strangers (BoilerHouse press, 2018), His current poetic interest in is mass transit, and his next book, SKY WRI TEI NGS (Coach House Press 2018) is a book of poems written entirely from IATA airport codes. Tweet him @nassershussain