Defining the Canon of Literature, Part I

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 12:19 AM

In Eduardo's excellent second piece in the series On Porn: A Catastrophic Pastoral Failure, he touches on a separate, but touchy issue in the defense of the content in Arabian Nights. Works such as that one, which contain content that would be condemned as pornographic in pop fiction, are often defended on the basis of being great literature. The problem here is simple: what is great literature?

Let's consider the logic. The works of William Shakespeare are great literature because they exhibit the characteristics of the great dramas and poetry of literature. What are the characteristics of great dramas and poetry of literature? Characteristics, in the Elizabethan times, best portrayed by William Shakespeare. The logic, in other words, is cyclical. Many have argued because of this that literature is really just that thing which we choose to call literature.

I tend to dislike schools of thought that suggest that important definitions are merely arbitrary designs of the elite or general populous. The Intertextualist-Structuralist critics of literature are quite reverent in their view of literature, but nonetheless insist that for literature to be meaningful, one must be indoctrinated into literary thought. I cannot, they say, point to X, Y and Z and say this is why literature is literature. The Intertextualists in this regard remind me of the liberal theologians that came in force in the nineteenth century: they do not deny the usefulness of the terms, in fact, they appreciate them a great deal, but they destroy any inherent meaning that allows for the long term ability to support interest in the object they describe. In the case of religion, this problem came to light in the early to mid twentieth century when Karl Barth and other neo-orthodox theologians — whom we might call moderates — called for a return to orthodox foundations even while retaining the academic tools of the liberals.

The message is clear: if the foundation is arbitrary, people will rebel into either total rejection or a refreshed orthodoxy. There is no reason to go to church if the primary purpose of the rituals is to be a good person. I can be a morally good atheist, one might say quite rightly. Likewise, there is no reason to teach Shakespeare instead of some romance novelist's work if the primary reason we study Shakespeare is because he has been awarded the title of “literature” by the academic elite to perpetuate their existence. As the Historical and Formalist schools of literary theory gave way to Reader Response, Intertextualism, Post Structuralism and New Historicism, people have rightly increasingly found arguments for the study of the literary canon indefensible and promptly rejected the canon. A side effect of this change is to place a work such as Arabian Nights on the level of the trade paperback romance novel at the supermarket, and hence eliminate a roughly objective aesthetic justification of the one over the other.

Why read Homer, Aeschylus, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Marlowe, Johnson, Milton, Blake, Dickens or Hardy when Dan Brown or Tom Clancy appeals to our “modern tastes”? Is it possible to define and defend the literary canon? Would literature by any other name be indistinguishable from pop fiction?

These are important questions. Questions I hope to address.

Re: Defining the Canon of Literature, Part I
You have basically nailed the reason I avoid all such opinion-ated matters. What one finds great, others trash. What some consider art, others look to ban. To prove my point let take the extreme right. Local "christian" radio had this yahoo who would have some of the most extreme stances. So one day I decided to call in and see how far I could get before being cut off. The day's topic was rock music and how all of it, because any music played above a certain bpm (think metronome settings), was devil music. So I called in an asked him what he thought of a few pieces by Chopin and Paganni. "oh they are great, masters of their craft." I then pointed out that both of them are known to push the artists by their fast tempos. "oh well that's classic music so that's ok. Plus it has no singing." So then I asked if Jazz was ok. Again two thumbs up. So I asked about Satriani and Vai. Never heard of them. Explained how both played guitar instrumentals, some fast some slow. Devil music! Why? Because it has distortion. Then I guess Spyro Gyro is out. "No they are jazz so they're ok." I then pointed out the massive flaw in his methods so he cut me off. For the next 30mins he quoted scripture and talk about wolves in sheep clothing but refused to take another call, which according to his assitant was now filled will people looking for a reason why he just let me punch a massive hole in his opinion. Because in the end, that's all it was. Thanks but I'll stick with the sciences and math and their no opinion way of doing things. :mrgreen:
Posted by Mark - Aug 07, 2006 | 2:19 AM

Re: Defining the Canon of Literature, Part I
I think there is a "canon", but not in a totally rigid way. Great literature is something at the "top of the chart", for its era, and conceivably, could be knocked out of the "canon" in the future. But the "canon" is sticky, it's not a "loose canon" :) Great literature is at the top of the society, both in terms of respecting the thought of the "upper" classes - those with the education, values, family structures and thought patterns that are the tops of the era. Not necessarily the richest, or most powerful, or most "beautiful" (entertainment). But it is hard to build great literature on the shortcomings of the lower classes, either collectively, or individually. Similarly, great literature reflects the tops of other fields. No junk science (China syndrome, tarmac), or poor theology (helpmeet), or urban legends (O'Leary's cow). Like Moby Dick, it has to weave both a personal, internal challenge (call me Ishmael), and the technical description (whaling industry), or something similar. Great literature exercises the right brain, left brain, male brain, female brain. And so on. Like music, there are some "rules" - classical music with melody leading harmony leading rhythm. But, the rules can be safely bent. All disciplines have "opinions" - there are only a few "laws" of physics, but the collective opinion of the "elite" have a lot of weight. Moby Dick is in, romance novels are out, but Tom Clancy, and others in the middle may become "in"?
Posted by Mike O - Aug 07, 2006 | 12:35 PM

Re: Defining the Canon of Literature, Part I
Mark: that's pretty funny. That sounds like a worthwhile phone call. :lol: Mike: Good thoughts. I need to post some more on this...
Posted by Timothy R. Butler - Aug 08, 2006 | 6:20 AM

Re: Defining the Canon of Literature, Part I
Tim: Thanks for the link and your kind words. I did not post a comment before because I thought that this question is important enough, and something in the back of my mind kept telling me that I should look into Borges. Indeed, it turns out that Borges wrote in 1965 a famous essay named "On Classics", which is in the book known as "Other Inquisitions" (in Spanish, _otras inquisiciones_). I am not aware of English translations, but you can read the Google HTML version of a Word document containing the original Spanish text at this URL: This quote struck me: "Classic is not a book (I repeat) that necessarily has such or such merits; it is a book that the generations of men, urged by different reasons, read with previous enthusiasm and with a mysterious loyalty." Blessings, Eduardo
Posted by Eduardo - Aug 13, 2006 | 4:27 AM

Re: Defining the Canon of Literature, Part I
Thanks, Eduardo. That's a good quote (what else would I expect from Borges?). I will formulate a different position from that, but it is very good. It is also certainly true, I just hope to drill down into why that "mysterious loyalty" exists.
Posted by Timothy R. Butler - Aug 15, 2006 | 5:20 AM

Re: Defining the Canon of Literature, Part I
A classic book is not always a correct choice for the canon. The canon I believe is the learning circle of what is going to be taught. I can't really see pre-college teens learning about Harry Potter and Dan Brown. Although this is the problem with canon. Great books such as Harry Potter may not be included because it is percieved to be not as a momentous breakthrough in attitudes and beliefs. For the canon to recognize all great works, it would need to be catagorized and split.
Posted by Sam - Dec 10, 2007 | 1:52 AM

Re: Defining the Canon of Literature, Part I
Quite true, Sam. It's pretty much impossible to include everything. But, I think it can cover the truly momentous works that change the flow of works after them.
Posted by Timothy R. Butler - Dec 11, 2007 | 6:04 AM

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