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Dialogues with / and Great Books

The Dynamics of Canon Formation

David Fishelov is an associate professor of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of Metaphors of Genres: The Role of Analogies in Genre Theories (Penn State University Press 1993), Like a Rainfall: Studies on Poetic Simile (The Magness Pres 1996) (in Hebrew) and Samson's Locks: The Transformations of Biblical Samson (Haifa University Press 2000) (in Hebrew). He has also published numerous articles on genre theory, figurative language, the Bible in modern literature and Eighteenth Century literature.

What is the source of a book’s perceived greatness and why do certain books become part of the accepted canon? This book presents a fresh perspective on these questions, revisiting prevalent approaches that explain a work’s reputation in terms of its aesthetic qualities (“the beauty view”) or as the result of dictates by social hegemonies (“the power view”). Fishelov argues that the most important source of a book’s perceived greatness is the number and variety of echoes and dialogues which it generates with readers, authors, translators, adaptors, artists and critics. Part I (“What Is a Dialogue? What Is a Great Book”) provides useful distinctions between different kinds of dialogue (genuine dialogue, dialogue-of-the-deaf and echo-dialogue), develops theoretical arguments (why the dialogic approach is not circular), and empirically tests intriguing cases (why has Candide, and not Rasselas won the race for literary fame?). Part II (“Genuine Dialogues with Great Books”) presents in-depth readings of literary and artistic dialogues with well established canonical works – including Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, Swift’s distortion of More’s Utopia and some modern adaptations of Ovid’s Pygmalion – and provides an opportunity to examine the process by which dialogues contribute to a work’s reputation.

Innumerable illustrations of Robinson Crusoe, an operetta based on Voltaire's Candide, DeMille’s cinematic version of the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, a contemporary song that quotes lines from Horace – also illustrate the vital role played by artists outside of the literary field in making certain works stand out as masterpieces.

Through its special blend of theoretical arguments, empirical methods and sensitive interpretations, Dialogues with/and Great Books offers a stimulating invitation to re-think the concepts of Literary Canon and Intertextuality, as well as the intricate connections between the two.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-368-3
Hardback Price: £55.00 / $69.95
Release Date: December 2011
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-518-2
Paperback Price: £22.50 / $34.95
Release Date: December 2011
Page Extent / Format: 232 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No



Part I: What Is a Dialogue? What Is a Great Book?
Chapter One: Real Life Dialogues
Different Factors and Two Basic Levels
Types of Dialogue (and Monologue Too)
Dialogues: The Passive/Active Scale
Two Words of Caution

Chapter Two: Literary Dialogues
Genuine Literary Dialogues
Echo Literary Dialogues: Reading
Echo Literary Dialogues: Translation, Adaptation
Literary Dialogues-of-the-Deaf
One Table, Two Clarifications

Chapter Three: The Battle of the (Great) Books
The Beauty Party
The Power Party
The Two Parties: Another Angle
Choosing Between the Two Parties

Chapter Four: The Dialogic Approach to Great Books
Many and Diverse Dialogues
The Dialogic Approach: Some Facts for a Change
The Booker Prize and the Limitations of Institutional Power
The Race for Fame: Candide, Rasselas and QWERTY
Objections to the Dialogic Approach
Models for Literary Dialogues: Ladder, Tree, Ponytail
Dissemination: The Pyramid Model

Part II: Some Genuine Dialogues with Great Books
Chapter Five: The Sacrifice Scene – Kierkegaard and Levin
Kierkegaard’s Abraham: Imaginary Poetic Variations
The Satirical Version of Hanoch Levin

Chapter Six: Samson – Jabotinsky and DeMille
Jabotinsky’s Samson: A Secular National Hero
DeMille's Samson: A Christian, Forgiving Lover
Jabotinsky and DeMille: Two Genuine Dialogues

Chapter Seven: Jesus Christ – Monty Python and Saramago
Monty Python’s Hilarious Parody
Saramago's Serious Re-telling
Parody and Re-writing

Chapter Eight: Horace in Pushkin, Owen and Diderot
Horace’s Glorious Monument in Pushkin
The Glory of Dying for One's Country: Owen vs. Horace
The Motto for Le Neveu de Rameau as an Association Generator
Anger and Excitement in Horace’s Satire 2.7
Excitement and Self-Acceleration in Le Neveu de Rameau
Quotes: Form, Function and Genuine Dialogue

Chapter Nine: Juvenal's Satire X – Johnson and Swift
Juvenal's Self-Propelling Explosion in Satire 10
Johnson’s Taming of Juvenal's Explosion
Swift's Narrative Variation on a Theme
Johnson and Swift – Form and Spirit

Chapter Ten: Pygmalion – Ovid, Shaw & My Fair Lady via Molière
A Non-Declared Dialogue: Molière's L’Ecole des Femmes
Shaw: Pygmalion as a Sculptor of Speech
My Fair Lady: Back to Ovid’s Pygmalion
The Complex Chain of DTs (Dialoguing Texts)

Chapter Eleven: More’s Utopia – Bacon, Swift and Voltaire
Bacon's Scientific Utopia
Swift contra Utopia, or Sat-opia
Voltaire’s Short Comical Version
Different Stands and Structural Variations

Chapter Twelve: Robinson Crusoe, the Variety Principle Revisited
Robinson Crusoe and the Dialogic Approach
Some Versions of Pseudo-Dialogues
Versions of Genuine Dialogues
A Concluding Image

Concluding Remarks


In this outstanding study of literary greatness, David Fishelov adds depth to the existing theories of reception history and intertextuality. Recognizing the essential role of parody, re-writing, and adaptation in canon formation, Fishelov gives novel readings of familiar and less familiar dialogues — ranging from Kierkegaard and the Binding of Isaac to Coetzee’s Foe and Robinson Crusoe, and even including Monty Python’s parodic treatment of the New Testament. The theoretical discussions and the close readings are enlightening and clearly written.
Ken Frieden, Syracuse University, New York, author of Genius and Monologue

This is one of those books that may change the perspective from which you view the literary endeavour. It explores how do literary works of art become canonical, or even acquire the status of a masterpiece. Dissatisfied with the prevalent conceptions that trace the text’s reputation either to its inherent aesthetic qualities or to extra-textual socio-cultural forces, Fishelov regards the process as far more complex. The two approaches not only offer merely a partial solution each, but also need to be viewed in the perspective of a ‘dialogic’ model, where the magnitude and variety of interpretative interactions between a text and its readership hold the key for explaining canonical status. A systematic presentation of types of ‘dialogic’ interactions in the form of allusions, adaptations, and parodies, among others, is complemented by detailed discussions of a few interesting dialogues with some well-established canonical texts.
Reuven Tsur, author of Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics, Winner of the Israel Prize in Literary Theory. Professor Emeritus, Hebrew Literature, The Cognitive Poetics Project, Tel Aviv University

Against contemporary theories, that emphasize the hegemonic role of critics in the process of canon formation, Fishelov’s original book reminds us that inner literary and artistic ‘dialogues’ (in the form of allusion, translation, adaptation) are vital in transmitting certain texts and in promoting their status as ‘classic’. Fishelov shows the intricate ‘dance’ performed perpetually by the literary tradition and illustrates it by presenting ‘dance partners’ like the Biblical Samson and DeMille’s Hollywood production; the Pygmalion story in Ovid, in Shaw’s play and in My Fair Lady; More’s Utopia and Swift’s satirical portrayal of human ideals in Gulliver’s Travels. Fishelov’s astutely selected landmarks of the Western Canon and his nuanced and elegant discussions deepen our understanding of the enduring impact of these texts on modern culture. Professors and students of ‘Great Books Courses’ will find his approach and the critical tools and distinctions he offers not only stimulating but also quite useful. In fact, his book could serve as a textbook for such courses.
Nili  Gold, University of Pennsylvania

The study of literature and influence embodies the virtues of an uncomplicated approach. Contemporary treatments and collections of Western literature such as the Norton anthologies have expanded to the point of being unwieldy; works on intertextuality (for example, Graham Allen’s Intertextuality, CH, Jun ’01, 38–5414, and Mary Orr’s Intertextuality: Debates and Contexts, 2003) offer a buffet of specialized theories. All these works, though valuable for their inclusiveness, fail to address the basic needs of students of literature. Fishelov (Hebrew Univ., Jerusalem) abandons intertextuality as a meaningless concept and correlates the “greatness” of a work with the amount of dialogue it generates. Literary dialogue largely takes the form of the reworking of ancient and classic myths: Søoren Kierkegaard’s version of the sacrifice of Isaac; the Gospels retold by Monty Python; Thomas More’s Utopia echoed in Voltaire’s Candide. Fishelov’s argument is, in essence, a more practical version of Northrop Frye’s archetypalism; Frye would never have discussed Google searches as a form of dialogue. By using perennial narratives and stylistic modes (such as Juvenalian satire) to approach classic works, Fishelov provides a wealth of insights that further comprehension of those works while presenting them as part of an ancient and enduring conversation. Highly recommended.

David Fishelov’s Dialogues with/and Great Books: The Dynamics of Canon Formation (2010) and the collected volume The Canonical Debate Today: Crossing Disciplinary and Cultural Boundaries (Papadima, Damrosch, D'haen, 2011) are books which break new ground on debates surrounding the literary canon and the processes of canon formation… Dialogues with/and Great Books is generally well written, well informed, with a relevant bibliography, and a strong collection of examples either visual or verbal, either microtextual or paratextual which unveil unexpected dialogues. The latter is, to me, one of the assets of the book as it brings in and crosses different types of dialogues illustrated by surprising correlations and comparisons.
Marta Pacheco Pinto in Comparative Literature and Culture – CLCWeb

You can find the detailed review in the following link:

“In this book David Fishelov aims at contributing to the study of the literary canon (the ‘great books’ of the title are more or less synonymous with literary masterpieces) by integrating it with intertextuality... he goes on to make some preliminary suggestions about how the amount and variety of dialogues generated by a literary work can be measured empirically with the help of databases. He also offers some thoughts concerning how the body of dialogues generated by a great book is structured. Notable among these structures is a pyramid model consisting of a wide "base" of relatively simple and passive echo-dialogues, a base that progressively "narrows" (i.e., the quantity lessens) as we move "upward" toward more active, energy-consuming, and non-predictable dialogues... Fishelov raises the possibility that a superior status in the scale of "greatness" may result not from the superiority of an intrinsic set of qualities but rather from a self-propelling dynamics of success, based on the work's already established fame.” Eyal Segal in Poetics Today

The full review can be located in the following link:

The great interest of his [Fishelov's] new approach lies precisely in his attempt to present canon formation as a “dynamic” process constantly in the making… Such an attempt to seize this “dynamics” is therefore difficult but extremely inspiring, as it touches upon something essential to our representation of literary greatness. As well as shedding light on the diversity of these dialogic interactions Fishelov draws significant distinctions between many forms of literary dialogues… As Fishelov suggests, popular forms of dialogue are part of the rich fabric of textual interactions, and should not be dismissed as useless by-products of literary history... Because it propounds a new model to analyse canon formation, Fishelov’s study is an ambitious book. But while the “dialogic” model requires good knowledge of the theoretical background on canon formation, it also relies on a distinctly empirical approach (“real-life dialogues” and search results on the Internet), which make it more accessible... Always proceeding methodically, Fishelov grounds his developments on close readings and meets the reader half way. Dialogues with/and Great Books should be on the reading list of every course on “Great Books” or “Canon Formation”, but would also make a very stimulating read for anyone interested in this central topic.
Marie Laniel in Cercles, Revue pluridisciplinaire du monde anglophone

The full review can be located in the following link:

Fishelov's project is of great value. By proposing a quantitative solution to an impossibly complicated problem it fashions a meaningful return to the question of the canon. Though the empirical model presented in the study raises potential objections, the writer repeatedly shows an awareness of the possible limitations associated with the filters and other search tools available to us at present. The need to perfect the method notwithstanding, the book may certainly be read as a pioneering study into a new way of thinking about aesthetics, literature, and classroom curricula in the twenty-first century — and as such is sure to draw much interest in years to come.
Yael Levin in Partial Answers

The full review can be located in the following link:

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