Profiles in Literature: Debating the Canon!

Greetings, literature-loving dharmiacs!  Last week we discussed the bizarre and wonderful Oulipo, who helped free us from notions of rules and rule-breaking by refocusing our attentions on structure and organization.  This week we’re going to take a step back and throw ourselves into one of the largest debates around literature: the canon.

What is the canon?  It’s that generally accepted corpus of books that we consider “great”, even if there’s a bit of variation about the specifics.  It’s why our high school reading lists are similar without being identical – Homer, Shakespeare, Twain – and why certain books get the deluxe leather-bound treatment centuries after they’ve been written.  But the canon is also a  problematic concept, and today we’re going to talk about why.

History of the Canon:

I’ll touch on a few major points, and I apologize for the sweeping generalizations – but we have a debate to get to!

The word “canon” comes from the ancient Greek kanon, meaning “rule” or “model” – this was itself a likely derivative from the Hebrew word for “reed”.  If that sounds unlikely, consider that reeds were used for measuring, and the slow drift of the term from literal “rule” to metaphorical becomes clearer. 

The notion of a literary “canon” – the word was first used in this context around the 18th century – was specifically Christian: the accepted religious texts of a particular sect.  Because the different Christian sects differed in aspects of dogma, each had a core set of Biblical and non-Biblical works that reflected their beliefs – which is why we today have different “versions” of the Bible. This isn’t to say other religious groups didn’t have core texts (like the Jewish Tanak), but the application of the word “rule” to fundamental texts was a Christian phenomenon.

As European society secularized, so did the notion of fundamental texts.  Building on Renaissance trends, secular humanism and the Enlightenment brought a renewed interest in non-religious philosophy and ancient culture, and by the 19th century a “well-educated” person was expected to be conversant in everyone from Homer to Marcus Aurelius (notice the class issue here: “well-educated” already implies a certain degree of wealth and leisure).  These texts had already been mainstays in monasteries for centuries – the Dark Ages were hardly so Dark as usually portrayed – but that the non-religious were also reading, studying, and building on these texts was the most significant development in post-Renaissance Europe.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the canon came under some serious scrutiny for its narrow focus.  A renewed interest in Eastern culture, a challenge to the primacy of classical literature, and a new focus on power and historically underrepresented groups all led to a powerful challenge to the canon: an overturning and critical reevaluation of the hierarchy of literary texts.  Two major questions arose: 1. Why is one text ‘better’ or ‘more necessary’ than another? and 2. Who gets to make that decision?

With that grossly oversimplified history in the background, let’s discuss the place of the canon in contemporary culture and education.

Criticisms of the Canon:

When we talk about the narrow focus of the canon, we’re really talking about three phenomena: geography, social dominance, and cultural dominance.

    1. Geography: the Western canon is, after all, a collection of texts that have been fundamental in the Western world.  We can argue about whether our schools should start with or primarily focus on Western texts, but there’s no doubt whatsoever that Asia (especially) is massively understudied in this country.  One of the broader canons, by professor Harold Bloom, admits African and near Eastern literature into the fold by virtue of their origins in the same ancient texts – but even that is a lot broader than what is taught at most schools.  In the meantime, the canonical work of, say, China and Japan goes almost completely unnoticed in this country.  The obsessively Western focus of the canon prevents even the more popular and vital texts of Asian literature – anything from Genji to the I Ching – from gaining a foothold in American culture. 

    2. Social dominance: this is the arena in which the canon has been most successfully fought, since the bias is so obvious.  Texts by female, gay, or minority authors have a much more difficult time gaining acceptance into the canon, which is made up predominantly by the exclusive Dead White Male club.  Over time, certain authors have managed to overcome that hurdle and become part of the “accepted” literature: Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Ralph Ellison, etc.  But even then their “acceptance” (I can’t use the word without quotation marks, since it’s practically pejorative when viewed from this angle) treats them as exceptions rather than acknowledge the consistent blind spot towards literature created outside of the dominant culture.  The uncritical Stamp of Approval on these authors also robs their literature of its anti-authoritarian bent: if it’s been granted access into the ivory tower, it’s no longer a threat to the ivory tower.  This is closely connected with…

    3. Cultural dominance: the notion of what constitutes “good” literature also leads to a partially-artificial gap between what’s popular and what’s quality.  Sometimes this gap is ludicrous: the debate over whether comic books make acceptable reading material at schools should have finally been put to rest with the critical drooling over Maus, but the notion that graphic novels cannot be “great” art smacks of elite narrow-mindedness.  Lovers of science fiction know this all too well, as do enthusiasts of pulp fiction, erotica, fantasy, or anything that makes the Bestseller list.

These are three basic areas for criticism, but 2 and 3 carry an even stronger implication that I want to highlight here: no matter what the canon includes, it is by nature an exclusionary process.  The attempts to add certain authors or representatives of certain genres are tiny band-aids on a much bigger issue.  The canon is authoritarian by nature.  Even though it changes with time and context, it nonetheless creates a notion of what is at the center of discourse and what lies on the periphery.  Articulating a canon means defining a culture according to a narrow set of criteria, leaving everyone else out in the cold. 

Competing notions of canon also have strange results.  What inspired me to write this essay was an acknowledgment of the shaky canonical status of Japan’s bestselling novelist Haruki Murakami.  In his own country, Murakami comes under enormous criticism for his Western-leaning literature; in the West, he’s lauded for the Japanese-ness of his literature.  When the West incorporates him into the canon (as he’ll likely be, in the company of people like Borges and García Márquez), will it be as a “representative” of Japanese literature?  What does it mean to give an author that “official” Stamp of Approval in a way that runs dissonant to his appreciation in his own context?

Defenses of the Canon:

The canon’s primary defender in contemporary culture is, again, Howard Bloom.  Bloom dispatches with the political, cultural, and social aspects of debate and argues that only a single criterion should be applied to literature when determining its status for canon-hood: aesthetics.  If a work is excellent, it is excellent, regardless of its origins.

I feel quite alone these days in defending the autonomy of the aesthetic, but its best defense is the experience of reading King Lear and then seeing the play well performed. King Lear does not derive from a crisis in philosophy, nor can its power be explained away as a mystification somehow promoted by the bourgeois institutions. It is a mark of the degeneracy of literary study that one is considered an eccentric for holding that the literary is not dependent upon the philosophical, and that the aesthetic is irreducible to ideology or to metaphysics. Aesthetic criticism returns us to the autonomy of imaginative literature and the sovereignty of the solitary soul, the reader not as a person in society but as the deep self, our ultimate inwardness.

There’s a naïveté to Bloom’s assertion that aesthetics exist on an objective plane, uninfluenced by politics or social issues, but to his credit this stance has enabled him to create a larger and more inclusive canon than is usually articulated.  Quality knows no national, sexual, racial, or economic boundaries.

I would defend it on a few other grounds:

    1. Preservation.  Popular culture is much more fickle than elitist culture, and while we usually deride the latter for its closed-mindedness (and rightly so), we don’t often acknowledge the one benefit of their closed-mindedness: the elites are consistent and they work to preserve works that might otherwise have been lost in the noise of history. 

    The canon ensures that something survives, and that something is usually pretty valuable.  Without a notion of canon, it’s highly unlikely that something as ancient and initially difficult as Homer’s Iliad would find its way onto contemporary bestseller lists – how many young people enthusiastically pick up thousand-page epic poetry?  (of course, some do, but I’d argue they do so because the work holds a certain reputation – thanks to its canonical status).  Popular taste shifts rapidly, whereas the canon is slow to move.

This is both a positive and a negative: critics of the canon compare it to a museum, dusty and cold and uninviting.  There’s no active engagement to treating literature like museum pieces, behind glass panels and inaccessible to the public.  It’s a good point, although the reverse may be even worse: popular culture treats literature as a disposable commodity – here today, garbage dump tomorrow.

For example, take a look at the bestselling novels of 1920s.  How many of those titles do you recognize?  Notable among the ones not there: James Joyce’s Ulysses, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, E. M. Forster’s Passage to India, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Proust’s Time Regained, etc.  That’s not to say the canon doesn’t making glaring errors as well, but at least defenders of the canon frequently look backwards to history and sometimes unearth forgotten works: popular culture is all about the present (again, we can reverse these values: popular culture is more vital because it’s in touch with the Now, canonical literature is a cadaver.)

    2. The Great Conversation: another major defense of the canon is the recognition that works of literature are not created in an artistic vacuum – they usually refer to other works of literature (either explicitly or implicitly), and the exploration of these relationships creates a complex web of relationships that situate certain texts in the center.  That is, the canon is a natural result of artists referring back to other works with such a frequency that those other works become vital.  Robert Maynard Hutchins coined the term “The Great Conversation” in 1952 to describe this web of relationships, and it was a favorite literary motif of Borges.

    Living outside the canon, we would have trouble understanding the dense allusions that Shakespeare makes to the Bible, or that Joyce makes to Shakespeare, or that Pynchon makes to Joyce.  By exploring these relationships, we find that the Bible is one of our most frequent points of research, as is Shakespeare, as is Joyce – the canon forms around us simply by the nature of this web of influence.

The examples I just gave are all themselves canonical, so it’s like an enormous Ouroboros.  Does this hold true in traditionally non-canonical literature?  I’m no expert here, but I’d suggest that it does: either by direct allusion or by reacting against “central” texts.  It is impossible to write anything in the English language that does not have to grapple with the influence of Shakespeare in some form, either directly through allusion or polemic, or indirectly through subconscious appropriation of Shakespeare’s language.  The bard’s got a death-grip on our words. 

    3. Quality: this is likely to be the most contentious defense of the canon, but there is something to be said in support of Bloom’s claim that quality matters.  While I’m very open to the notion that quality can appear anywhere (I am, after all, a connoisseur of zombie films), I cannot accept that quality is a purely subjective idea.  That may be conservative – if not reactionary – of me to suggest, and I’m prepared for the criticism.  But when Leo Tolstoy, in one of his hyper-religious fits, argued that he’d found King Lear worthless and substandard art, I cannot agree.  In his take-down of Tolstoy, George Orwell argued the opposite of me: “Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion.”  I’d counter to Orwell that survival is a mark of quality, since lasting appeal is a often a marker of quality.

But that’s a rabbit-hole we don’t want to descend, at least in so short an essay. 

Summary, Debate Topics, etc.

Notice that my defenses of the canon did not address the criticisms of the canon, and that both these exist alongside each other in a sort of perpetual tension.  We could debate these qualities endlessly, but ultimately we have to address the real-life implications: what is the place of the Western canon in our education system (since that is where the canon becomes a matter not of choice but of cultural inculcation)?

Some specific questions I’d like y’all to address:

* Does teaching canonical literature in our schools give our students a much-needed foundation for further reading, or does it deprive them of the great diversity that exists in literature that has not been granted canonical status? 

* In addition, does teaching the canon (as in the popular Great Books courses that popped up in the university system over the past few decades) foster an authoritarian mindset towards literary history, or does it lend coherence to an understanding of how literature has developed over the centuries?  If “yes” to both, how do we reconcile those opposing tendencies?

* How does one design a course in literature with an eye both to the merits and deficiencies of the canon?  If you believe that either the merits or deficiencies don’t exist (that is, you’re either extremely pro- or anti-canon), what would your ideal literature course look like?

I would love to hear your thoughts, and thank you for reading.


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    • pico on October 17, 2007 at 00:06

    you’ll notice that my series doesn’t stray far outside canonical literature – that’s partially a result of my reading habits.  As always, if anyone would like to volunteer for a segment of this series, especially in one of my blind spots (see the essays I’ve done, and you’ll notice where my gaps are), I’d be more than happy to turn over a segment to you!

    In the meantime… Thoughts on the canon?

  1. Does teaching canonical literature in our schools give our students a much-needed foundation for further reading, or does it deprive them of the great diversity that exists in literature that has not been granted canonical status?

    Yes, I think it provides the foundation needed for understanding literature and the human condition. And, if the canon is taught with an openness to outside influences and discussion to why these books are considered culturally important it allows for critical thinking skills to develop to challenge what is canonical and why.

    The danger is, when only the canon is taught and it is taught poorly that a student may only read what is presented as canon and be alienated from the study of literature in general. Poor teaching will do more to ruin a student’s love of literature, than teaching canon ever will. The canon, taught well, should encourage a student to seek literature out beyond the confines of the “great books”.

    My general formula for literature course is a ratio of 3:1 canon to non-canon. But what is canon and noncanonical is often subject to debate. What 20 years ago may have been considered outside of the canon, now has become canonical in its own right or, at least, part of a shadow canon.

    I think ignoring canon in literature is like ignoring history in U.S. foreign policy – a disaster in the making.

  2. First, as to literature of the East, China, Japan, etc., one problem (which could well have been influenced by the West’s cultural dominance and/or Asian reluctance to accept Westerners) is that there were few good translations of Asian classics available for many years.  Arthur Waley did much to repair that, imo, and nowadays there’s no problem getting good translations of Asian works.

    As far as the Western Canon, well when it comes to education, I think as many people are turned off by it as turned on by it — and that has a great deal to do with how the classics are taught.  In public schools particularly, there is a very conservative bent to school boards (not to mention publishers of school textbooks) which strongly affects HOW teachers can teach these books.

    One thing I have always thought idiotic is that we don’t teach children foreign language from the beginning of their schooling — it’s so much easier to learn other languages at a young age, and reading classics in their original language would seem to me to be much more enjoyable than in translation.  Well, that’s off topic, but what the heck.

    I certainly don’t see why the Western canon can’t be taught alongside the classics of other countries, I think that is way overdue in this day and age.  Both are valuable, neither should be discarded.

    As far as diverse American (Western) literature, by women, people of color, GLBT, etc., that’s a tougher issue for me to grapple with.  For although it makes sense to be limited at first, to give a young reader a base from which to then branch out on his/her own and find their own favorites (as was my own case), it can also delay for years (if not forever) the enjoyment and knowledge one can obtain from these books.

  3. And that subjectivity is often, as we see in today’s political world, influenced greatly by majority opinion (even if said majority is merely a monetary one–Clinton, Obama, Romney, Giuliani, etc.). 

    That being said, the majority opinion itself is highly suspect, and easily manipulable.  I remember reading once, somewhere, and I don’t have a source for it now, that up to 60% of people polled will, if they know which way the trend is going, actually lie about their opinion so as to be a part of the majority.  This is a good reason for banning live election coverage, but again, I digress (fuckin’ politics is ruining my ability to talk about books, for chrissakes).

    I was, though I’m not the best example of one, an English major in college, and taught High School IB English for seven years before selling my soul to the IT world for a liveable salary.  I remember wonderful, heated debate (especially in the Feminist Lit classes I took–god those were fun) about the canon…how it was phallocentric because it didn’t include Virginia, Georgia, Jane, Kate, etc..  My thought at the time was, this too, shall change. 

    I had a professor (a big Dryden,Swift,& Pope fan) who once said that a ‘classical education’…ie, one in which you read all the great works that ever existed, hasn’t been possible since the mid 19th century, as the canon has grown beyond the logical limits of one person’s ability to get an education and still have enough years left to live to put that education to use.  He, too, was quoting someone, but alas, I don’t have my notes with me.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents on the subject (rambling though it is)…I agree that those of the canon used each other as references, and that some circular logic is involved there, but that, too, is to be expected.

  4. In addition, does teaching the canon (as in the popular Great Books courses that popped up in the university system over the past few decades) foster an authoritarian mindset towards literary history, or does it lend coherence to an understanding of how literature has developed over the centuries?  If “yes” to both, how do we reconcile those opposing tendencies?

    If we only study the reaction or the rebellion without studying the causes, then we are depriving ourselves of only half the picture of literature. In many ways, I think what is outside of the canon is written in relation to what is considered canon. The idea that the canon is authoritative or authoritarian is the challenge used by those wishing to expand or replace what currently is canon by their own view of what should be canonical.

    But really, what I think the canon should be is a very broad footprint of common literary knowledge, a shared culture understanding of who we are as a people, what we have thought, and what we believed. It simply cannot be limited to poetry and literature either. Far greater understanding can be gained by placing works in context of the time they were created and what else was being created at that time – art, music, science, politics, economics, etc.

    By not teaching literature in a vacuum and by not focusing overly on literary theory, I think a greater understanding of literature can be achieved. In my experience, it is theory, not canon that alienates students. What is worse? Besides, what is worse? An “authoritarian” mindset or no interest in literature whatsoever.

  5. How does one design a course in literature with an eye both to the merits and deficiencies of the canon?  If you believe that either the merits or deficiencies don’t exist (that is, you’re either extremely pro- or anti-canon), what would your ideal literature course look like?

    My ideal literary course is a 3:1 focus on cannon and noncanon as I mention in another comment. The way deficiencies are overcome is by teaching critical writing and thinking skills and by placing works in context of their time and how they have been used and viewed over time.

    The ideal literature course is less about literary theory and the politics of academic paper publishing, and more on the human condition that led the author or a piece to set something down for us to read.

    The ultimate problem is a few literature classes cannot meet all the needs of literary cultural understanding. So, what works are the most important to understanding who we are?

  6. another major defense of the canon is the recognition that works of literature are not created in an artistic vacuum – they usually refer to other works of literature (either explicitly or implicitly), and the exploration of these relationships creates a complex web of relationships that situate certain texts in the center.  That is, the canon is a natural result of artists referring back to other works with such a frequency that those other works become vital.

    Or as John Gardener said (and I paraphrase, for lack of the book nearby) the important arguments are old arguments.  Not just in the realm of literature, but in the context of being a human being, what the fuck this all means or can mean or might mean.  In that sense I think there is a canon — those narrative arguments about human experience which have stood the test of time — but of course it’s cross cultural, and each individual will find different areas of this huge body of work spark their imagination and heart. 

    Anyway, liked this, as always…

  7. recommended!

    OK I have a bias:  as a 1974 high school graduate who was immersed in feminist anti-canonical writings in college, I am here to tell you, it didn’t get it.

    I had to wait for a trip to Kenya for a (failed) documentary, when I lived for most of a year with first-generation literate Kikuyu girls and other indigenous Africans.  This, deepening every irony and making the sword of retelling yet sharper (quickly disintegrates into any kind of propaganda), that that indigenous 1 percentile lived among the religiously “non-educated” (too worldly) Islamic population of mostly Arabic decent.  It turned out that only the indigenous Catholicized Kikuyu could man the government over their erstwhile Arabic slave captors of what used to be the reverse Ellis Island of Arabic slavery (Lamu)in Africa for the previous 700 years (until the British came, whom I do not want to cite as “saviors”)… because the Islamic people were averse to anything other than madras education.  Catholicism (I am not catholic, definitely not a fan of state religion or the pope, and with respect to Catholic readers will leave it at that) had oddly “liberated” the former slave class and set them above the scions of their erstwhile Slavers.  Go figure.  Such was the power of literacy of any stripe.

    In such an ironically incomprehensible environment, I unlearned much, if slowly.  First off feminism did ZILCH to prepare me for this.  A lot of feminist “anti-canonical literature” had to do with smackdowns against men (BTW Stonemason here is a girl) which held no merit in a society where women are chattel.  My take on “anti-canonical feminist literature” since then is that it is the stuff of fantasy… most of which would never have been written had those authors come to a third world nation to learn about women’s lives and their theories of male dominance. 

    Bear me out… suffice it to say that the invention of the tampon and birth control was the telling plot point turn of women’s lives, not smacking down men.  Not to mention the Catholic (here we go again) proscription of the tradition of clitoridectomy.  Believe me, I asked around, and no other voices were raised against the practice in 1985.  When I came back to the states, people didn’t believe me about clitoridectomy (hah, like feminists had written of it).  I had to tell people to look up “infibulation” in the dictionary.

    It intensified:  after 8.5 months living with the girls (my Swahili was then nominal but most were fluent in English), I left Kenya the week of the 1985 international women’s conference.  Nairobi was abuzz with an imported agenda from the west, women pouring in from everywhere.  Summary:  I heard a refreshing “confession” from one of the singers of the group “Sweet Honey on the Rock,” admitting her thorough humiliation at how they had come with agendas instead of coming to listen

    I am working on an essay about that right now.

    If I have anything to contribute here, it is that starting out from a negative premise (as much feminist literature did) does not bring issues forward.  So much of what I read in college had to do with elimination of “white male dominance” canon instead of reasoning with literary history.  Likewise painting (I am originally a visual artist), in which education has degenerated into a lot of methodical rule-breaking by people who never learned the rules in the first place.  As someone who might vomit the next time I hear “oh you’re a real artist” (i.e. I can really draw) again, I must say the bar has been lowered to the ground in arts, people asking “what is art” instead of “what is an artist.”

    Maybe that is a valid question in literature:  what is a writer, not what is literature?  I don’t know.

    I like the idea that aesthetic resonance is a key criteria.  It is like good painting, which functions like narcolepsy, a sudden dream that spirits you away to a new unknown dimencion without announcing any method or retalling of how you got from point a to point b.  Or like music… most people need to know nothing to feel irritated when instruments are grossly out of tune.  We have an innate sense of things.

  8. I’ve been reading back through the ones I missed.  The one about Job I actually recommended to a co-worker of mine who is currently going through his own religious crisis as it were.  I don’t think I’ve commented yet, but I really have been enjoying these.  I’m going to pick up some of Haruki Murakami’s works, I’m kind of sad I hadn’t heard of him earlier.


    I think there are certain books you need to read to build a foundation and understand the references in other literature.  I’ve read my fare share because of this very reason.  There is also some merit to the idea that certain books are referenced in American culture so often that it’s necessary to understand their origins for societal reasons.  ie, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, Catch 22, The Great Gatsby etc.  Adding more popular literature like graphic novels, could keep interest current which is something most teachers completely ignore.  I think teaching all types of literature is important, although I personally could do without as much John Steinbeck.  Of Mice and Men and The Pearl were quite enough for me.

    I hope you are teaching somewhere, this would have been great to learn in a class!

  9. Well, I sell used books, and spend the money to collect more books that I then sell to collect more books.  I don’t make any net profit but my collection gets older and more classical every year. I feel like I’m preserving Western civilization in the event that it needs to be revived some day.  That seems more likely every year.

    No doubt there are some great books outside of the canon that nobody reads anymore.  But if they haven’t deteriorated too badly, they may eventually wind up on my shelves.

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