There is a very humorous scene in The Third Man, where the protagonist, Rollo Martins, is speaking to a group of book lovers about his writing and his opinion of other authors. What is so funny about this scene is that Martins is speaking about authors and genres that would be considered “lowbrow”. When asked about his favorite author, Martins replies with the author of Westerns and another of the panelists tries to pivot to a more refined poet (92-3). This got me thinking about the literary canon and acceptance of (other than highbrow) literature.
As someone who has taught high school English for over a decade, I have to say that I appreciate the existence of the literary cannon. I think that it is helpful to have a list of works that are deemed valuable to read and be studied. And I think that (for the most part) these are the works that should be taught through high school. When people have a common background of literature, it helps with allusion and understanding of many other things in society (history, politics, Saturday Night Live, etc). The canon makes modern satire much easier to understand, because a presumably large portion of the population are familiar with what/who is being satirized.
That being said, I don’t think that the canon is an exhaustive list of literature for people to read and I don’t think that all literature needs to be “highbrow”. I’m going to out myself as someone who read the entire Twilight series and liked it. These novels were not well written and lots of literary types like to make fun of Stephenie Meyer because of it. Meyer is probably okay with the criticism knowing that her franchise has sold over $6 billion worldwide. People wanted to read these novels; millions of people wanted to read these novels. It is unlikely that any of the Twilight series will ever be taught in any educational setting, but not all writing needs to be, and I think it’s wonderful that people are reading anything at all.
Getting back to the novel at hand, I enjoyed The Third Man and I appreciated its many levels of discussion and interpretation. I think that our class decided that this book would be “middlebrow” and firmly outside of the canon. All of that can be true, and I think that everyone in class got something out of studying this (somewhat forgotten) novel at the graduate level.
Greene, Graham. The Third Man. 1949. Penguin Books, 1977.