Criticism — From the March 2014 issue

What Is Literature?

In defense of the canon

( 2 of 5 )

Although it’s pretty to think that great books arise because great writers are driven to write exactly what they want to write, canon formation was, in truth, a result of the middle class’s desire to see its own values reflected in art. As such, the canon was tied to the advance of literacy, the surging book trade, the growing appeal of novels, the spread of coffee shops and clubs, the rise of reviews and magazines, the creation of private circulating libraries, the popularity of serialization and three-decker novels, and, finally, the eventual takeover of literature by institutions of higher learning.

1 In addition to Trevor Ross’s penetrating study, see also Jonathan Kramnick’s Making the English Canon, John Guillory’s Cultural Capital, and the excellent anthology Debating the Canon, edited by Lee Morrissey.

These trends have all been amply documented by a clutch of scholarly works issuing from the canon wars of the Seventies and Eighties; and few critics today would ever think to ignore the cultural complicity inherent in canon formation.1 Consider, for example, the familiar poetry anthology. As Barbara Benedict explains in Making the Modern Reader, the first anthologies were pieced together less out of aesthetic conviction than out of the desire of printers and booksellers to promote books whose copyrights they held. And because poets wanted to see their work anthologized, they began writing shorter poems to increase their chances for inclusion.

2 But it was literature with a small paradox at its center. Because each set was “complete” at the time of publication (though volumes might be added later), it was a hierarchy without levels. Wordsworth, for one, resented Bell’s edition of The Poets of Great Britain because Abraham Cowley and Thomas Gray held the same pride of place, simply by inclusion, as Chaucer and Shakespeare. 

By the early 1800s, according to Thomas Bonnell, author of That Most Disreputable Trade, uniform sets of poetry or the “complete works” of writers were standard publishing fare; and because the books looked and felt so good — The Aldine Edition of the British Poets (1830–52) was bound in morocco and marbled boards with gilt on the front covers and spines — each decorative volume seemed to shout “Literature.”?2 But it would be small-minded, as well as excessive, to claim that commerce alone drove the literary enterprise. Simply because anthologies or serialization influenced the composition of poems and novels didn’t mean that writers tossed aesthetic considerations aside. Canon formation continued to rely on a credible, if not monolithic, consensus among informed readers.

’s most recent book is Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic (Oxford). His essay “The Worst of Times” appeared in the November 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

More from Arthur Krystal:

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content