Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Modeling the canon

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.


  1. Very nice. BTW, what kind of social scientist are you? Intrigued. K

  2. A mediocre social scientist, unfortunately.

    1. Me too! And I'm glad to see it influences the way you think about literature too. We can't get away from our socialisation, I guess.

  3. Seeing that he has a "model", I'd say an economist. In this case I have to disagree. I'd argue that a sociological model for the diffusion of a canon has nothing to do with aggregate behavior but by leader behavior which is followed by those who recognize their authority. And that example behavior is that of the people who do have the authority: the scholars who are better read, better informed, who have had a "bildung" which makes their tastes "better".

  4. You're too stingy with personal details, which I totally get in this our era of personality cults, but still I deserve a fuller account when I needlessly pry at your life and poke and prod at it as if I were a biologist or a psychologist or even a lowly economist.

  5. I like the addition of the leadership model a lot. It creates a hierarchy - top artists and writers with the most authority, critics and scholars with a lesser authority, usually. Publishers as quite different kinds of leaders. Teachers and active readers leading locally.

    The big limit, though, is that there are too many leaders, even if we stick to the artists and scholars, which means I need to understand their aggregate behavior to see how all of their competing canons become the canon. No single actor is making decisions about what goes in the canon. The leadership model gives us a parliament perhaps one with a House of Commons and a House of Lords. Lots of actors with some authority.

    An thoughtful and useful modification to the model!

    What social science does not use models?

  6. This list could give an idea of the preferences of a narrow field of authoritative readers.

  7. Yes, that is so much fun. I wish Myers would produce similar lists for non-U.S. literatures.

    I am going to use that tomorrow, actually - I was planning to write about the mirror-image, the writers on the way down, if not out.

  8. No maths so it can't be economics…

  9. "No one has any but the most trivial authority..."

    Yes, although in German, there is a man who has actually given it a good go. His name is Marcel Reich-Ranicki, and he has virtually written a German canon!

  10. A (German) link:


  11. I could be clearer about what I mean by authority, clearer to myself, too. I agree that Reich-Ranicki has the authority of an important critic - a leader, "better read, better informed." Although, looking through his list, I wonder where he is exercising his authority. his canon looks awfully canonical.

    In the long term - and the canonical time frame is long - M R-R is just one of many competing voices. We do not, at this point, value Turner because of Ruskin's authority, or Donne because of Eliot's.

  12. The Swedish Academy could be the closest to the Council of Trent we have now. Of course, divine inspiration was hardly at play in the canonization process. A very human and fallible business.

  13. Purely reactive, I would suggest. Lifetime achievement awards, generally for work that has already been absorbed by the artists of its tradition (at the least).

    In a grumpier mood, I would claim that they were anti-canonical, permanently damaging the reputations of Anatole France and Sully Prudhomme and enhancing that of Proust, Kafka, Borges, and Nabokov. But that would be going too far.

  14. Interesting. I'm more used to hearing how the academic side determines the canon, by what they choose to study, rather than a look at the other side, the artist creating the work. It makes sense to me that the artist should determine importance, as they lead the way on the creation side. The interchange of ideas, surely that is the best of literature?

  15. Many people on the academic side would like to believe that they determine the canon, or that a bunch of stuffy snobs, who one can righteously and satisfyingly oppose, determine the canon.