Literary and Critical Theory Canonicity
Ankhi Mukherjee
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0054


The English word “canon” is derived from the Greek kanon, which translates as “rod,” “measuring stick,” or to “rule.” David Ruhnken first used the word in 1768 for selections of authors, a usage that, Rudolph Pfeiffer notes, was catachrestic. In subsequent uses of the term, the selective and regulative meanings of the term have become increasingly interchangeable: as Wendell V. Harris points out, “selections suggest norms, and norms suggest an appeal to some sort of authority” (The HBJ Anthology of Drama. San Diego, CA: Harcourt College Publishers, 1993, p. 1003). The ecclesiastical use of the term “canon” for definitive books of the Bible reinforces the normative charge of the term, though the literary canon is considerably more flexible than its biblical counterpart. “The desire to have a canon, more or less unchanging, and to protect it against the charges of inauthenticity or low value . . . is an aspect of the necessary conservatism of a learned institution” (The Classic: Literary Images of Permanence and Change, p. 173), Frank Kermode observes. Canonicity involves not merely a work’s admission into an elite club, but its induction into ongoing critical dialogue and contestations of literary value. The canon is a set of texts whose value and readability have borne the test of time: it is also the modality that establishes the criteria to be deployed for assessing these texts.

General Overview

Secular and literary applications of the term “canon” refer to a constellation of highly valued, high-cultural texts that have traditionally acted as arbiters of literary value, determining the discipline of literary studies as well as influencing the critical and cultural reception of literature. It has been a matter of sustained debate in the academy whether the persistence of ideas of canonicity in the 20th century (as evidenced in the burgeoning market for authoritative selections, such as the literary anthology) is a function of cultural conservatism or is simply a validation of enduring aesthetic value. Most notable of these are the disagreements in the 1930s and 1940s concerning the highly restrictive “Great Tradition,” consisting of the work of just four novelists (Leavis 1948), and the so-called canon wars of the 1980s and 1990s in American universities. In Bloom 1994, his influential work on the subject, Yale critic Harold Bloom offers several approximate definitions of canonicity. Bloom 1973 paved the way for the magisterial work on the canonicity by looking at literary relations in terms of a psychoanalytical theory of relationality, namely the Oedipal struggle between predecessor and latecomer poets. Bloom 2001 perpetuates the pedagogical task of Bloom 1994, where the learned critic teaches how to read the texts that must be read by example. The opening of the syllabus of canonical works to new contenders is not without controversy and fierce contention. While Bloom vehemently protests a method of selection where aesthetic standards are brushed aside for the cultural contexts and political relevance of a given work, Guillory 2013, in a more considered response, expresses misgivings about the simplistic opposition between dominant and dominated cultures.

  • Altieri, Charles. “An Idea and Ideal of a Literary Canon.” Critical Inquiry 10.1 (1983): 37–60.

    DOI: 10.1086/448236

    Altieri positions himself as an adversary to what he identifies as the “critical historicism” and a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that characterizes contemporary critical methodology. The essay espouses instead the “permanent theater” of the past preserved by the canon, which provides the distance, perspective, and variety of human experience required to question petty self-interest and entrenched ideologies.

  • Altieri, Charles. Canons and Consequences: Reflections on the Ethical Force of Imaginative Ideals. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1990.

    This work finds the demystifying critiques of post-structuralism and New Historicism wanting as pedagogies and turns instead to the evaluative vocabularies and what Altieri calls the “contrastive grammar” of the canon. According to Altieri, the canon offers an amplified humanism and a vital resource for the present, which offsets the narcissistic self-interest and limited contemporary perspectives.

  • Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

    Harold Bloom’s version of T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” essay, Anxiety of Influence is a powerful study of Romantic poets and their intellectual genealogies. Bloom sees canonical continuities being perpetuated in the negative mode of misreading or “misprision.” The canon, by this definition, is an achieved anxiety; as Bloom observes, the poem is a poet’s melancholy at his lack of priority.

  • Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994.

    The canon is “the literary Art of Memory,” which receives, retains, and orders selective works. (p. 17). The canon, Bloom argues, is a standard of measurement that cannot be tethered to political or moral considerations: it should remain instead “a gauge of vitality” (p. 38). Finally, Bloom declares, the canon is “Shakespeare and Dante,” offering creative readings of twenty-six of the most prominent canonical authors, and a list of 400 canonical authors or works.

  • Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.

    Using a selection of literary genres—short stories, novels, narrative and lyric poetry, and plays—Bloom expatiates on the programmatic and unpredictable aspects of reading, all the while outlining the ways in which the singularity of canonical texts is best captured.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. New York: Routledge, 1986.

    Regarded as an ethnography of contemporary France and a sociological study of the French bourgeoisie, Distinction is a study of the network of differences that helps the class structure in capitalist societies maintain their power relations. Bourdieu describes the symbols that are created and circulated in the cultural game of distinction. Taste, in this influential formulation, is not pure or innocent, but an instrument of domination; culture is a mode of perpetuating class difference.

  • Calvino, Italo. The Literature Machine: Essays. Translated by Patrick Creagh. London: Vintage, 1997.

    A collection of thirty six essays offering Italo Calvino’s musings on literary classics of his choosing, this posthumous publication offers a rare glimpse into the author’s narrative imagination and the evolution of his literary taste, from Conrad to Borges, or neorealism to fantasy. Essays such as “Why Read the Classics?” and “Whom Do We Write For?” directly address the question of the canon as it is formulated and perpetuated.

  • English, James E. Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

    English takes his inspiration from John Guillory’s conceptualization of cultural capital in this work that examines the ascendancy of prize culture and the awards industry in the modern, globalized world, and the role these play in the determination and circulation of cultural value. English expertly brings together the seemingly disparate worlds of business and pleasure, art and commerce, as he looks at this unique mode of canon formation as well as its discontents.

  • Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

    A valuable contribution to the canonical versus non-canonical debate, the book recognizes the asymmetry of power between the Western cultural Goliath and its “Davidic multicultural antagonists” but also cautions that perceived disunities of culture cannot be remedied by forging cultural unities (of gender, race, sexualities, subcultures) at the level of the curriculum. According to Guillory, the canon should be envisioned not as a set of books but as an instrument of transmission.

  • Leavis, F. R. The Great Tradition. London: Chatto and Windus, 1948.

    Leavis names four authors—Jane Austen, George Eliot. Henry James and Joseph Conrad—as the constituent figures of the great tradition of English fiction, including other works and authors. The force of the work derives from the depth of Leavis’s engagement with the semiotics and narrative structures of the text and his historical understanding of the way in which the authors, each a cultural outsider, captured the zeitgeist.

  • Leavis, F. R. The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. London: Faber and Faber, 2008.

    Originally published 1900. The structuring argument of this work is that latecomer poets are influenced by precursor poets, whose abiding power must be acknowledged as well as disavowed. Bloom’s approach is Freudian, and he deploys psychoanalytic terms such as “anxiety,” “repression,” “aggressiveness,” and “disavowal” to define the masculinist poetics of canon transmission.

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