Some Thoughts on the Canon
Though the figure is a rough estimate, researchers at Google Books have surmised that there are approximately 129,864,880 books in the world. Supposedly, this number represents unique titles and does not include repeats. This number was estimated in 2010, and given the consistent increase in book publication, including the booming self-publishing industry, the figure has probably grown quite a bit by now. Some estimates put the number of new published English language works of prose fiction alone as surpassing 100,000 a year.
Because I tend to work with large corpora in my research, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the number of books out there; I’ve worked on text analysis projects for several years, some of which have involved corpora of upwards of 3,000 books. Currently, I’m close-reading a handful of books that were singled out from a study of over 3,000 novels because a computer identified them as containing some unusual features. Among these outliers are well known works (Jane Eyre, for instance) and also obscure works, such as Julie Chetwynd’s A Brilliant Woman (1892). I had never heard of Chetwynd or her novel before this project. In fact, I had never heard of the vast majority of authors or novels among the 3,000 examined. This is, no doubt, due to the fact that I need to read more, but is also perhaps symptomatic of the fact that most of the novels written have been forgotten.
Working with Chetwynd’s novel has been an interesting experience, one which I think highlights some of the complexities surrounding debates about the literary cannon. Virtually no scholarship exists on A Brilliant Woman and little exists on Chetwynd. Interestingly, Notable Women Authors of the Day, published in 1893, lists Chetwynd among 26 authors. Though in some sense surprising, this is not unusual. I am constantly amazed by the extent to which writers who were exceedingly popular and financially successful in their day have passed out of public memory. On the one hand, working with this novel has been exciting specifically for this reason, at the same time however, not having a preexisting critical dialogue to engage with makes my work feel less conversational. In addition, working on A Brilliant Woman has brought up a slew of questions about why the book isn’t well known, such as, Is this book “good”? Is the fact that it was popular a reason to study it? Does its status as “forgotten” have to do with the fact that Chetwynd was a woman writer? Is it different from or similar to other novels that have remained popular? Obviously, these are overly simplistic questions that lead to much more complicated questions (What does it mean to place an aesthetic value judgement on a piece of literature? Do any properties of value exist in the work per se or do they stem from the reader? etc.)
These questions though, are very much at the heart of the debate about what the literary canon is, and how it should be treated. On the one end of this debate is the idea that the aesthetic value of certain works allows them to withstand the test of time. On the other end, is the idea that hegemonic values have been encoded in the act of literary canonization – the process of selection has been biased and exclusionary, particularly of female writers and minority writers. The former argument often rubs me the wrong way, as it can imply a universal, stable standard of aesthetic value that seems painfully out of touch with readerly subjectivity and social reality. When Harold Bloom writes in Western Canon (1994) “The choice of authors here is not so arbitrary as it may seem. They have been selected for both their sublimity and their representative nature: a book about twenty-six writers is possible, but not a book about four hundred…” I can’t help but be bothered by the way in which “sublimity” is treated as a transcendent value used to curate culture (2). Yet, we all make value judgements about texts, and often times, there is a relatively high degree of cultural consensus about the value of texts (e.g. Last Airbender reviews on Metacritic). The problem here perhaps stems from the implied division between high and low culture. Since Bloom’s invocation of the term “sublimity” is not correlated with popularity, his remark invokes the division between art and popular culture that we associate with the advent of high modernism.
Bloom’s line of thinking is not the only argument that calls on some authors to “represent” specific moments, movements, or cultures. In fact, in Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation, John Guillory’s Marxist critique links this problem of representation with the liberal pluralist model of canon revision that stands in opposition to Bloom’s view.
If the forces of exclusion have been so powerful as to prevail without challenge until recent years, the strategy for their defeat has been surprisingly obvious, even simple. It has only been necessary to "open" the canon by adding works of minority authors to the syllabus of literary study. In this way the socially progressive agenda of liberal pluralism could be effected in a particular institution -- the university -- by transforming the literary syllabus into an inclusive or "representative" set of texts…the problem here with the representative model is that canonical and noncanonical authors are presumed to stand for particular social groups…” (7).
For Guillory, this model of the canon becomes merely the “hypothetical image of social diversity" in which groups of minority writers are assumed to express “analogous experiences of marginalization,” a problem that he sees as embedded within the very concept of liberal pluralism (7, 11). Guillory’s argument makes me think of my own experiences teaching Women’s Lit last semester. No matter how careful we are as teachers to not treat authors as “representations” of identity categories in the classroom, it feels like the language we often use (even just “Women’s Literature”) can potentially serve to reify the idea that these terms have stable meanings. And when we attempt to fully open the canon, we still run into the problem of having to curate it (which by definition involves interpretation and value judgments) unless we intend to abolish it. If this curatorship is based off of a model of “representation”, it seems worthwhile to consider what exactly we are trying to represent – Society as a whole? Works that have been published? What readers have considered popular? It seems important to also note that both arguments, those that view the canon as built on cultural value and those that see it as reflective of oppressive power structures, often elide the simple, and at times unforeseeable, material restraints that have contributed to the canon’s formation. For example, Penguin’s small, lightweight, and minimally decorated editions succeeded particularly well during the mid 20th century because their design corresponded with paper rationing during WWII. Such incidents in the publishing world actually have a fairly large impact on the books we read.
Ultimately, I find myself returning to Bloom’s remark that a book about “twenty-six writers is possible, but not a book about four hundred…” He’s both right and wrong. You could technically create an e-book about four hundred authors. The problem is no longer an issue of access or material constraints, many writers, like Chetwynd, whose works fell out of print, are now available online. However, now we face the problem of what to choose to read. With the number of books out there, this has become an exciting, but overwhelming choice. Personally, I find digital research on large corpora to be a helpful tool for navigating this landscape and avoiding some of the pitfalls mentioned above (though it is certainly not the only critical methodology that can accomplish this). This is not to say that such research eliminates the problems associated with aesthetic value, interpretation, or representation. Building a corpus of 3,000 works is still a matter of selection and exclusion. However, in my experience, it does allow for a situation in which works, both well-known and forgotten, are put in productive dialogue with one another.
Black, Helen C. Notable Women Authors of the Day ; Biographical Sketches. Glasgow: David Bryce & Son, 1893. Print.
Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. Basingstoke: Papermac, 1996. Print.
Chetwynd, Henry Wayland. A Brilliant Woman. London: Hutchinson, 1892. Print.
Guillory, John. Cultural Capital The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1993. Print.