The Literary Canon: Who Makes the Cut?

A few days ago I got involved in a bit of a Twitter debate about the idea of a literary canon. Here’s the tweet that started it. (Matt is worth the follow!)

I found it interesting because, to me, the reality and importance of a canon is self evident. We have a set of books/writings that are considered to be classics and that ought to be taught.

What is the Canon?

Our word canon comes from the Greek word kanôn, which means measuring rod or standard. The term kanôn was initially used in Christianity to distinguish which scriptures were God-breathed and thus canon with those that were merely written by man and were therefore, apocryphal. Canon made its first, consistent foray into broader literature in 1768 when David Ruhnken used it to describe a selective list of writing (McDonald, 2007). And his use stuck. 

The literary canon is made up of works of literature that have been particularly influential and lasting. Generally there has been a region attached to the canon such as the Western Literary Canon or American Literary Canon. For our purposes, the modifier before canon is only signalling where the works became influential and lasting and is not particularly important. Different regions will have different, yet overlapping canons because while some works of literature will impact multiple regions, others have a more localized one.

What makes something “canon” is that it has been influential and lasting, not who wrote it or where it was written. This is how the Greek poet Homer made the list with his Iliad and Odyssey. And why The Brothers Karamazov by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky are included. They aren’t American or from the West, but their works greatly influenced American and Western thought and culture.

Entering the Canon

So, how does a piece of literature become canon? To enter the canon a work of literature not only must be influential and long lasting, it must also be continuously selected and reselected (Rabb, 1988).

However, beyond being “continuously selected and reselected”, the criteria for entering the canon remains vague, for better and for worse. For example, in a 1984 meeting by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies entitled, “Making and Rethinking the Canon caused quite a ruckus.

“The title of the seminar- provoked a striking lack of consensus about what kinds of topics or methods of inquiry would suit such a title. Questions about power and authority offered the only stable common ground. Other questions varied in focus and perspective. What are the principles by which the canon has been formed in the past and is re-formed in the present? How reliable are the processes by which works are included or excluded? Are we moving toward a narrowing or a broadening of the canon? How will questions of gender affect the eighteenth-century canon? What roles do exigencies of pedagogy and/or publishing play? How wide is the gap between adulation for a work and reading it? between respect or tradition and critical/ theoretical trends? What is the relationship between esteem for a work and its susceptibility to popular modes of analysis? What are the conceptual frameworks and categories by which we ascertain the “greatness” of literature? For scholars, critics, and teachers of the eighteenth century, these questions were, and continue to be, vexing” (Rabb, 1988).

Others have suggested that to become canon, or to be considered among the “great works” the literature generally must be something we can learn from, help us judge and shape personal and social values, move the reader to identify with the characters, define genres, push/expand genres, etc (Altieri, 1983).

So, entering the canon is complex. Not only do different people place different weights on different aspects, but some of them disagree on which aspects should be included in assessing the literature at all! I’d go further and say that the above is a non-exhaustive list of potential ways to determine canon. The fuzziness is frustrating, but there is no alternative. Any sort of ranking would produce a canon and suffer from its own shortcomings.

If you want to operationalize this, just apply the above “qualifications” to any literary criticism framework. They are not all equally valid, but most of them will get you to roughly the same place.

A good and relatively (not totally!) controversy free parallel to the literary canon would be the Hall of Fame for any sport, which is essentially a selective list of the greatest players. Let’s look at baseball. To enter baseball’s hall of fame, a player must receive at least 75% of the vote. That Babe Ruth or Mariano Rivera deserve their spot in the hall of fame is obvious. But the disagreements become clear if you look at who barely made the cut for example, Ryne Sandberg slipped in with 76.2%. Meaning that there were a relatively large percent of voters who thought he had a good, not outstanding career. 

Or, to court controversy, look at Pete Rose. His stats show that he deserves a place, but his gambling baseball games, including those he played in kept him out. Look at Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds today. Based on their play in the field alone, they warrant entrance into the hall of fame, but they are cheaters (steroids) and have thus far been kept out.

So while halls of fame (canons for sports) may have some specific rules like a minimum vote percentage, who gets selected is still subjective. Forming a canon is an inexact science with inexact boundaries. 

The Fuzzy Canon

Shakespeare obviously deserves to be included in the canon, anyone who doubts his place is as sane as one who doubts Michael Jordan’s place in the basketball hall of fame. The places near the peak of any canon are clear. But where does the canon start? Who makes the cut? Why?

Again, as entrance to the literary canon is not scientific, we cannot draw a line. To attempt to do so would result in the butchering of literary analysis. 

If you are seeking for some magic line, or formula to better understand the canon, you are seeking for fool’s gold and Atlantis. You will always be disappointed. The fact that the canon has fuzziness does not negate its reality any more than the fuzziness of tallness or shortness negates the reality of your height. The best we can do is follow general rules and to realize that the edges are fuzzy as a feature, not a bug. 

Altieri (1983) explains the fuzziness well when he says,

 “Clearly, canons are not natural facts and do not warrant the kinds of evidence we use in discussing matters of fact. We are not likely to find general laws governing our acts as canon-formers, nor is extended empirical inquiry likely to resolve any of the essential theoretical issues. Canons are based on both descriptive and normative claims; we cannot escape the problem of judging others’ value statements by our own values.”

Does Ryne Sandberg deserve his hall of fame slot? Does every book in the canon deserve its spot? What do we do when different groups produce differing canons? It’s fuzzy.

Criticisms of the Canon

Criticisms of the canon invariably center around around relevance or who gets in. And this is healthy. Because the canon is formed over time in a relatively idiocentric, organic process, there is no way to filter out the bigotry and oversights of the past. As a result, great minority writers have been excluded from the canon through no fault of their own. We can and should work to remedy this as we engage in the endless Canon Wars and “continuously select and reselect” the canon. 

The Purpose of a Canon

Even with all the disagreement surrounding what qualities a book should have in order to enter than canon. The concept is still eminently useful. A canon gives us a list of works that are considered to be the best of the best that has some sort of filter beyond “best selling”. This is helpful for individuals who want to read good literature, not just famous or popular works. 

While the canon is helpful for individuals, it is irreplaceable for educators. The primary limitation in education is that there is too little time and too many good books. We have to choose and canons are eminently helpful in this regard.

As far as how teachers should use the canon, I do not think there are any hard and fast rules. I would say that teachers should regularly but not exclusively teach from the canon.

The Alternative to a Canon

Maybe you dislike the canon because it is primarily old works written in and about cultures vastly different from the one our students inhabit. And in addition you think that too many minorities have been excluded by racism and bigotry. So you decide to get rid of the canon and do what’s best for your students.

Maybe you choose Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling for its themes of courage and friendship.
You choose the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseimi for its themes of betrayal/redemtion, family relationships, and political or cultural relevance.
And you choose Counting Descent by Clint Smith for how his poetry engages the minority experience and complicates our conception of lineage and tradition.
(Your reading list for your students includes many more works of literature but for our purposes three books is enough)

And your list starts becoming more popular. Other teachers begin to use it and add similar works to it. Its use grows and it is gradually taught in more and more schools. And you are happy because your list of recommended books is more inclusive than the old canon.

But, don’t you see what is happening? As your list gains popularity, it gains authority. More teachers reference your list while planning their curriculum, there is an occasional news article about a trendy new reading list. One of the articles calls it a new canon for a new age…

You see, there is no true alternative. The canon is a list of works considered to be the best of the best. If you would get rid of the canon, what would you replace it with? The replacement would simply be another list, a new canon.

If you think we should abandon the canon yet do not attempt to replace the canon, you would lead yourself and others adrift in a literary sea. We must assess books for quality. Determining (assessing) which are the best is a useful exercise. The result of this assessment will always lead to some sort of canon, even if you change the name to make yourself feel better.

So the only answer is to improve the canon. Which works should be considered in that aren’t? (probably many) Which books should be taken out? (probably a few)


Altieri, C. (1983). An Idea and Ideal of a Literary Canon. Critical Inquiry, 10(1), 37–60. doi: 10.1086/448236

McDonald, Lee Martin (2007). The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission and Authority (Updated and revised 3rd ed.). Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers. ISBN 978-1-56563-925-6.

Rabb, M. A. (1988). Making and Rethinking the Canon: General Introduction and the Case of “Millenium Hall”. Modern Language Studies18(1), 3. doi: 10.2307/3194697

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