Constituting Canon

How do you constitute a canon of literature?

The Canon Debate

There is always a tremendous debate going on among academics about what should and should not be in the literary canon.  In many ways, the list is almost arbitrary to the privileged.  To them, it is simply recognizing what they see as the best works.  But for the marginalized, that apathy can be disconcerting.  I remember hearing a very spirited debate between my professors about whether the inclusion of Toni Morrison in the curriculum was fair to another author who was removed from the curriculum as a result.  The discussion was heated.  I can see both sides of the argument.

On the one hand, Toni Morrison is a phenomenal author and completely deserving of being included in a literary course.  There is also the post-modern concept that is now entering the classroom about having the marginalized speak for the marginalized.  For example, instead of teaching Huckleberry Finn in the context of antebellum slavery in the American South, a post-modern curriculum would assign Jubilee or any of the slave narratives of the 18th century.  The idea of course being that a person of color (POC) would be more adept at accurately depicting the POC experience than a white man interpreting what they think the POC experience is.  On the other hand, there is a case to be made that Huckleberry Finn is relevant to the discussion.  The problem being that a decision must be made.  There is only so much class time available, and educators have to often pick one or the other.

Similarly, I recently had a discussion about what constitutes canon.  As we’ve demonstrated, there is no solid definition of canon.  Even the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the definitive dictionary of the English language, only has a vague description of what the canon is.  They describe it as works “considered to be established as the most important or significant in a particular field”.  With that in mind, your critical opinion greatly influences you perception of what canon is and isn’t.

My Canon Debate

The topic of Sherlock Holmes’ sexuality came up.  Someone was reading a non-Doyle Holmes story where Holmes was very much so a heterosexual.  A big discussion took place about Holmes being straight or not.  The reality being that at no point in Doyle’s work does Holmes show attraction to women.  This is where I chimed in with the statement that Holmes never expressed romantic or sexual attraction to women or men.  I made the claim that Holmes was asexual and even cited Doyle’s own words that indicate as much.  But those words are from a letter he wrote to a friend about Holmes, not in an actual Holmes story.

So the question then becomes, “where is the line drawn on what is considered part of the Holmes canon (or any canon), or not?”  The debate became less about Holmes’ sexuality (or lack thereof) and more about the nature of canon.  My opinion was that your critical opinion reflects your canonical point of view.  No one else took this opinion, but whatever.  I argued that if you are more of a Formalist or a Structuralist, you adamantly displace the author from the work.  The text stands alone.  In my mind, authorial intent is relative to canon.  Dumbledore being gay, for example.  Others consider all editions, even those published against the author’s wishes or hidden away by the author,  a part of the canon.  The point being, there is no right answer.

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