The Literary Canon

16 November 2003 · 2 comments

Our book group discussion of Robinson Crusoe was one of the best that we’ve had in a while. Sometimes we read good books but have mediocre discussions; sometimes we read mediocre books and have good discussions. The discussion tonight was thoughtful and varied, though none of us thought Robinson Crusoe was particularly great. I get most out of book group when the discussion is engaging, regardless the quality of the book.

One tangent we explored for a few minutes was the idea of the literary canon. (The link leads to an excellent introduction to the notion of a literary canon, and covers much of what I’m about to discuss below.)

Most of us learned about the canon through high school or college English classes. The canon comprises that subset of literature which time and popular opinion have deemd most worthy of continued exploration. How does one decide what works appear in the canon, several of us wanted to know. In particular, Lisa and Aimee wanted to know why a book like Robinson Crusoe, which to our modern sensibilities is not of particular merit, remains an integral part of the canon despite its obvious flaws. Is it right that a substandard book remain part of the canon simply because it plays a particular role? (In this case, Robinson Crusoe is considered the first English novel.)

I would argue yes, a work ought to be considered for its historical significance as well as for its artistic merit. To draw a parallel, The Original Dixieland Jass Band‘s 1917 recording of “Livery Stable Blues” is part of the Jazz canon, not because it’s a good song (it’s mostly just a novelty record), but because it is the first jazz recording. It’s important for that reason. Joel mentioned ancient fertility fetishes, which are basically lumpy bits of pottery. They’re now highly prized and important pieces of art, yet if Joel were to create a similar piece, it would be worthless. Some of us believed that a work merits inclusion in the canon due to its historical significance.

There are, as most of us learn through our liberal arts educations, tremendous problems with the canon. Though it is an informal structure, it is a deeply flawed one. It comprises, in general, the work of Dead White Males. In this era of cultural revisionism, this is a Bad Thing. (And, to be honest, it is a Bad Thing despite the era in which we live — our tendencies toward cultural revisionism simply magnify the problem.) Where are the books by women? Where are the books by black writers? Where are the books from China or India or South America?

Some complaints can be addressed by noting that the literary canon, as it is commonly discussed, refers simply to Western literature. Nobody is claiming that Western literature is superior to Eastern literature, or that Eastern literature ought not be read. Rather, for one to be familiar with both Western and Eastern literature is rather much. If one were consructing a canon of world literature then sure, steps would be taken to be as representational as possible. However, when we, in the United States, discuss the literary canon, the implication is that we are discussing the Western literary canon.

That still doesn’t address the problem of lack of minority representation in the canon. This is a complex and thorny issue, and one that will be resolved in time. If the canon, as it stands, primarily comprises the work of Dead White Males — Jane Austen and George Eliot notwithstanding — how can reparations best me made? I believe that quality and important work by anyone ought to be included in the canon, regardless of race or gender. (See feminist questions about the literary canon.)

Aimee argued that if Robinson Crusoe holds a place in the literary canon simply because it is the first English novel, and if the book isn’t particularly good, perhaps it ought to be replaced by something like Aphra Behn‘s Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave. This piece of fiction, written by a woman, explores some of the same themes (e.g. slavery) as Robinson Crusoe, but is (apparently) better written, and was published some years before Defoe’s work. Why is Defoe’s book in the canon and Behn’s not? Ought Oroonoko be added now?

When can a work be added to the canon? When should one be removed? Kris argued that new works should be added, but that when something new is added, something old ought be removed. I disagreed strongly. I think there’s room in the canon for a great number of books, and that a work ought not be removed unless it has become completely irrelevant. “What about Animal Farm?” asked Joel. He is of the opinion that it has lost, or will soon lose, relevance and, not being a particularly great book, should not be considered a part of the literary canon. Again, I disagreed strongly (though in this case, more than in the previous case, it’s a matter of opinion).

Lisa noted that even formalized lists of the literary canon, such as Clifton Fadiman’s wonderful Lifetime Reading Plan change from time-to-time. Lisa own a recent edition of the book; I own an older edition. We’ve been meaning to compare the two to determine what books Fadiman has removed and which books he has added. (Mortimer J. Adler, of course, famously created his Great Books program, an attempt at a formalized canon. The Malaspina Great Books site has a copy of the original Great Books core reading list. Here is another Great Books site.)

Jennifer made an important and perceptive point: the canon is a basis for shared cultural experience, which allows us to have a prolonged Great Discussion. Using the canon, thousands and thousands of readers are able to select the same books — quality books — and from reading these same books, have a common ground for an ongoing discussion. When we read the great books, are reading of magazine articles and our enjoyment of films and music, and life in general, is enhanced. We better comprehend the liteary allusions all around us. It makes our communication richer.

All of us seemed to agree that the important thing is for each person to construct a personal literary canon, based on the common canon, from which he or she selects books to read. This list can include books a person has not read, but believes to important. For example, I’ve never read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, yet I consider it a part of the canon. (Here is one man’s attempt to construct a personal canon.)

What books are in the canon but do not belong? What books do you think ought to be considered a part of the canon? Does a book like Angela’s Ashes belong? Why or why not?

Other links of interest:

Send me others!


On 17 November 2003 (07:25 AM),
J.D. said:

Arguments about the literary canon are many and varied. For example, here is a letter for the most recent (December 2003) issue of Harper’s:

If Joyce Hackett [“The Reawakening,” Reviews, October] were to reread my article in Harper’s Magazine [“Say it Aint’ So, Huck,” Criticism, January 1996] about Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, she would not distort the point I made, which was that, in my opinion, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not as great as it has been portrayed by critics, especially those writing during the Cold War, and that Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not as bad as it has been portrayed by critics who dismissed it for decades as being unworthy of inclusion in the American canon. I did not write anywhere in the essay that Uncle Tom’s Cabin “was a greater novel than Huck Finn because it denounces the institution of slavery,” though I did remark that Stowe’s more uncompromising and complex analysis of slavery better suited my taste.

In a subsequent storm of letters to the editor, my right to like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and find Huck Finn boring was challenged in every way, but the fact still remains—a reader is free to prefer one novel to another, since the essential characteristic of being a reader is freedom of taste. If it is indeed true that my essay has been “widely taught and discussed in the academy,” as Hackett states, then perhaps it has achieved the only thing I intended it to achieve: more readers for a worthy and important novel, which is always a good thing.

The Great Discussion rages through the ages, as exemplified by this decade-long debate in the pages of Harper’s. It’s this kind of discussion that the canon fosters. It is a dynamic, living thing.

On 17 November 2003 (07:30 AM),
Dana said:

I think this is a part of a larger issue — what should an educated member of a society know and/or be exposed to? Does it need to be the same set of things, or are a few things from a set of recognized ranges important?

Not an easy question, really.

On 06 April 2005 (06:44 AM),
bilbo said:

I thimk literary canons are dumb! because at shcool our teacher is obbsesed with them and i think its gay.

1 Anne October 26, 2005 at 21:09

I disagree with Bilbo (who names his/her kid after a hobbit?). Literary canons, both Western and Eastern, examplifies the literature at the time. Modern standards should not be applied to them as the contexts surrounding the literature havechanged dramatically.

2 Ashleigh September 19, 2006 at 17:18

Literary Canon can be interesting. A course I study at my school shows the importance of literature on the whole, and through researching for the various assignments, I have found it to be amazing. Bilbo, I think you should take time to try to appreciate what your teacher is trying to teach you.

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