From Book Review to the Canonization of Literature

Blog / Essay

July 28, 2018 — by Zen Hae

Last updated on July 28, 2018 at 12:47 pm

If we visited a bookstore recently, we can easily get the latest literary books from new authors. Those books were written by authors who, apologetically, I know almost nothing on their writing’s history. It was like they were born this early morning, when we all slept soundly.

In the world of literature, which feels like a jungle, those authors do not only compete among themselves to get readers, but also competing against the older authors, whose names were already renowned—that if we mentioned their names, a frown will form on our forehead, followed by reverence that couldn’t be interpreted as anything else but they are ‘The god’s chosen’.

A competition with the later might be imbalance. Nonetheless, do not be upset, they might become the winner. Meaning, they could get even more readers than those authors who sacrifice their life only for the glorification of words. If necessary, they will come with their kind of ‘united loyal fans’ who will treat them like an idol on the stage.

For sure, I am happy with the development of Indonesia literature in recent years. Since it’s not only the demand of society to read that rise—which can increase the value of literary books—, but also the number of people whose dream is to become a literature author. This can be seen from literature writing courses, such as Ayu Utami’s Kelas Menulis dan Berpikir Kreatif (Writing and Creative Thinking Class), that were never short of enthusiasts.

What is lacking, or non-existing at all, are people who would review or analyze the literature works. Whether they are called literature documentators, critics, lecturers, enthusiasts, or book reviewers; they share more or less the same responsibility: to note on the literature dynamics, to discuss important literary books, to review the biography of the authors or the literature themes developing in the national and international literary treasures.

In the past, people like H.B. Jassin or Korrie Layun Rampan have done those roles diligently. In another word, they were the firsts to pave the road of the canonization of Indonesia literature; by systematically mapping Indonesia literary works and reviewing those that according to them were important literary works in that era. When Jassin and Korrie were gone, the need to have literature canonization ought to be reconsidered.

The basic principle of literature canonization is the aesthetic of the works itself and its ability to be eternal in readers’ mind. The book ‘The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages (1994)’ Harold Bloom explained “Who reads must choose, since there is literally not enough time to read everything, even if one does nothing but read”.

From hundreds of authors in western canon literature, Bloom only chose and discussed 26 authors, from William Shakespeare as the center of the canon to Samuel Beckett. All of them were concluded to get their relevances and how every canonical author started their ‘misreading’ of the predecessor until they found the original pronunciation in the shadow of ‘the anxiety of influence’.

Of course, for around one century years old, modern Indonesia literature provided sufficient materials for canonization project. There would probably a debate about when the start modern Indonesia literature is; was it started since the generation of authors from Balai Pustaka, or the existence of the Cina Peranakan (Chinese descendant) ones; was it from leftist nationalists or Bumiputra authors sponsored by the colonial government? Moreover, if we stretched the timeline to pre-Indonesia era, there were lots of literature works to consider and choose, such as Serat Pararaton or Kakawin Nagarakretagama.

Ideally, canonization is the choosing of the best literature works of the national literary treasures—in the context of Harold Bloom it’s the western literature—in which when we read those works, it would describe the glory, diversity, quality attainment, also the influence interplaying from one author to another, not only between national authors but also with the international authors.

Canonization, immediately, could help literary teaching. Students, especially with the support of creative teachers, can get the big picture of the best literary books they should read. While for the teachers, canonization could work as a test of ‘literature reading’, as long as it is implemented in the school. If the teacher should choose books to read during one semester, they could just refer to the literary works that have been canonized.

Without any reference of canonical literary works, literary teaching that has been complained since long time ago could get worse. Let’s imagine if in literary teaching, there’s a need to have, for example, poem citation; a lazy and knows-it-all book redacteur could very well use their own poem as an example in the school book, as I’ve found before in my children’s school book. The redacteur stamped their name, which was changed to resemble as a poet name, on it.

Or, they cite worse literary works for examples. If this condition runs for a long time at school, we can imagine on how the literature insight of our students all these times. For the next generation, we cannot compromise, we must give them our best. The subpar literature works that does not belong to canonization, sorry, they cannot be used as examples for literary teaching. Exceptionally, they could be used as examples, if the objective is to show the subpar literary works within national literary treasures, which should be avoided for the sake of happiness.

Since canonization concludes the livelihood of many people and is about the representation of national literature treasures, appropriately, the responsibility falls to government, especially Kementerian Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan (Ministry of Education and Culture). The government can point out ‘independent curator council’ to choose what considers as canonical literatures. As far as I know, recently Badan Bahasa dan Pusat Perbukuan (Language Council and Libraries) have arranged a canonization project. Unfortunately, because one thing and another, it was stopped halfway.

While we wait the continuation of canonization project, I need to send one or two jabs on the latest condition of our literature publishing.

Several times we complain on the lack of literary criticism, moreover a good one. If this kind of writing only becomes monopoly of literary critics, which become more rare these day, while academic literary criticism only develops in university as if it is not directly related to the development of the existing literature, actually we could still hope on literary book commentary or review.

Out of Indonesia—once again, out of this country—the existence of media, like The Times Literary Supplement or The New York Review of the Books, which publishes book review and news of best books from various genres, is still an important reading. In it, we get review, and also a comparative commentary or even literary criticism. In Jakarta on early 2000s, there used to be The Jakarta Review Books publication—if not mistaken, it was initiated by literature writer and book store owner Richard Oh—but as I remembered, it went on not more than four editions. Afterwards, it disappears.

Nowadays, some media still provide a page for book review, at least once a week. For me, it gives two important functions. First, it might be beneficial to discuss or review a book from both good and bad side. By reading that book review we can get a comprehensive portrayal about a book. Then, we can decide whether we want to buy it or not.

Secondly, a practice to literary criticism. Basically, in a book review also exists part of literary criticism. Therefore, before coming to a perfect literary criticism, book review could be the best place to start. By disguising as book review, literary criticism—even if it is short and concise—can revive themselves and live sustainably, also greet the readers even more.

As long as the book review is good, please do not neglect their existence anymore.

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Translated by Ainun Ika Pratiwi, edited by Ellen S Kusuma.

This is a slightly different version than the previously published in Beritagar, on Monday July 22, 2018, Dari Ulasan Buku ke Kanonisasi Sastra. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of IDWRITERS.


Zen Hae. A poet, short story writer, and researcher who actively explores literature. He graduated with a degree in language and literature from IKIP Jakarta and has served as a member of Jakarta Arts Council (DKJ 2006-2012). Author of “Rumah Kawin” (short stories collection, 2004) and “Paus Merah Jambu (poetry collection, 2007). The latter won the Best Literary Work 2007 award from Tempo magazine and was one of the top five works at the Khatulistiwa Literary Award 2007.

Ainun Ika Pratiwi. A fresh graduate student of English Literature of Maulana Malik Ibrahim, Malang. She likes travelling and exploring Indonesia. Now, she dedicates herself in Kampoeng Sinaoe Sidoarjo as an English teacher.

Ellen S. Kusuma. Senior Editor at IDWRITERS. A writer who loves fiction-reading more than she writes. A food lover and travel junkie. A cultural studies student for life.



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