Anyone who reads a lot of old books should spend some time thinking about why these old books and not those. Not too much time. The same is true for the arts in general – understanding how the recording industry, publishing houses, and art galleries operate explains a lot. But the old works have also gone through another process, whatever it was that extracted The Princess of Clèves from that mass of 17th century French novels and left everything else, at varying distances, behind. How did that happen? How does a book join the canon, whatever that is?
I do not know any particular story attached to Madame de Lafayette’s classic. Sometimes there is a juicy story, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti picking Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat out of the remaindered book bin. What? – very juicy story, for book collectors. Salacious, almost. My point is, I want to describe the canonization process if not all of the mechanisms.
How often do I make it obvious that my professional training is as a social scientist? I think of the canon like a social scientist; I have a model of the canon. The canon is the outcome of the actions of millions of autonomous individuals, analogous to an election or a market: readers, scholars, teachers, critics, librarians, publishers, and writers are the actors, mostly inconsequential on their own but powerful in the aggregate.
With an exception, though. Who are the most important actors? I almost agree with Denis Donoghue:
A canon is made not by critics or by common readers but by writers: no particular writers matter very much to common readers… A canon is a list of books that writers have found inspiring. (The American Classics, 15-16).
Almost, since I do not see how that business about common readers is a) true or b) supports his claim; also, I do not so quickly rule out the possibility of books that last because they are so tightly clutched to the chests of devoted readers. Children’s literature has a different transmission mechanism, I suspect, and I do not yet understand the effect of film and television.
The artists are the one working away at whatever tradition they are in, adding to it, playing with it, trying to destroy it. They are the ones who are altering the past with their “new (really new)” works, to return to Eliot. That amusing “really” is another limit, since most artists do not in the end alter much either, but merely join their tradition (merely!). Critics, teachers, and readers mostly react to the artists. Scholarship, syllabi, and reading lists reinforce the work of the artists.
Harold Bloom, in The Western Canon (1994) and everywhere else, throws around the word “strong” a lot, which sounds like it might have something to do with authority – “strong” writers “struggle” with earlier “strong” writers. In fact Bloom means something more like Donoghue's "inspiring." The existence of the later strong writers is the proof of the strength (persuasiveness) of the older ones, thus destroying the logic of the entire argument: we only will know if today’s great (I am abandoning strong) writers are great when they inspire other great writers in the future, which means we do not really know that they are great, which means that we do not really know if the writers who inspired them are great, and then the entire chain collapses all the way back to Homer. Bloom is well aware of this problem (see WC, pp. 487-8).
He, and we, are all just reading along, creating our own personal canons, the list of books we have found inspiring, and then sharing those lists in all sorts of ways. Some of us are more persuasive than others. Vote by vote, recommendation by recommendation, causes the books of Jane Austen to advance and those of Walter Scott to recede. Scott is fairly strong, but Austen is stronger.
Heaven knows there are other ways to think about the canon. This is more of a description of a model than an argument. Perhaps the key fact that any model needs to include is that “canon,” like ”classics,” is just a metaphor. There is no equivalent of the Council of Trent deciding which books are in the canon and which are not. No one has any but the most trivial authority (and we all have that), and the process is never static and never was, however slow the pace of change.