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What is a Literary Canon?

By Devon Pryor
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term "literary canon" refers to a classification of literature. It is a term used widely to refer to a group of literary works that are considered the most important of a particular time period or place. For example, there can be a canon composed of works from a particular country, or works written within a specific set of years, or even a collection of works that were all written during a certain time period and within a certain region. In this way, a literary canon establishes a collection of similar or related literary works.

Of course, there are many ways in which literary works can be classified, but the canon seems to apply a certain validity or authority to a work of literature. When a work is entered into the canon, thus canonized, it gains status as an official inclusion into a group of literary works that are widely studied and respected. Those who decide whether a work will be canonized include influential literary critics, scholars, teachers, and anyone whose opinions and judgments regarding a literary work are also widely respected. For this reason, there are no rigid qualifications for canonization, and whether a work will be canonized remains a subjective decision.

Literary canons, like the works that comprise them and the judgments of those who create them, are constantly changing. Literature is affected by the experiences and thoughts of writers and readers. Literature, therefore, changes in the context of changing experience and thought. This context is important to the make-up of a literary canon. More often than not, it is those works that are considered contextually relevant that gain entry into the canon. This means that the literary work is relevant to ongoing trends or movements in thought and art, or address historical or contemporary events, etc.

Often, the popularity of a literary work is based not only on the quality, but the relevance of its subject matter to historical, social, and artistic context. A popular or respected literary work usually deals with what people are most interested in, and this interest weighs in on whether or not the work is canonized. While the text of a literary work does not change over time, the meaning extrapolated from it by readers, and thus the attention paid to a literary work may change. As people’s thoughts and experiences change, a literary work may move in and out of interest and contextual relevance. Over time, literary canons will reflect these changes, and works may be added or subtracted from the canon.

To make matters more ambiguous, the popular definition of a literary canon also changes over time. This change, like the changing inclusions of literary canons, can be credited to subjectivity. For example, one popular definition of a canon refers to religious validity, implying that the canonized works are officially recognized by a church, and are considered religiously appropriate. Within this definition, however, the canon remains a basis for judgment, a standard that must be met for canonization of a literary work to be considered. In this way, regardless of the exact definition of a literary canon, or the works of which it is comprised, the canon still implies an “otherness” to works it excludes, and an authority to works it includes.

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Discussion Comments
By anon269460 — On May 18, 2012

What you learn in school (i.e. the books you read) is set by either the state curriculum or your school curriculum. And there are millions of different canon lists, so nobody is really "in control" of an overall one.

@anon51024: I have no clue what you mean by "our current literary canon". Do you mean Americans, the British, Western culture, English literature, etc? The term "canon" merely means that it's a collection of works that have merit, and the works usually are chosen because they are considered to be timeless and significant. Maybe some are outdated, but it's important to remember our past. I suggest you read "Fahrenheit 451." It might help you understand the significance of maintaining quality literature in our lives.

By anon261682 — On Apr 17, 2012

Agreed. It seems that many critics seem to jump on a bandwagon of praising the apparently "great" works and their authors, such as Shakespeare and Keats. Their works are, of course, undoubtedly influential upon today's society, but are they still as relevant as they once were? Are they truly the essential "classics" that they are made out to be? I am not sure.

By anon51024 — On Nov 02, 2009

@caluwi - I think it is more important to ponder who is really in control of our current literary canon and why. What makes a book so popular it enters the minds of the general public? Is it because the book is actually worthwhile or because the publishers spent the most on advertising how seemingly great books xyz are.

By caluwi — On Oct 12, 2009

Interesting article on an interesting topic. I'm a little surprised that you didn't mention any of the standard "canon" authors - Shakespeare, etc.

When I was younger, my school didn't seem to have a very wide definition of what books should be included in the canon of what students should be reading. As I've gotten older, I'm amazed at some of the books that everyone I know read in school, but I never did. I think there's some benefit in having a standard list that most students read - I feel like I missed something by not reading the books everyone else did.

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