Is there a value to being locked out of the literary canon?

The literary canon is a body of ‘great’ literature created by a dialogue between college professors. These professors then the canon to college students. The college students disseminate the canon to the general public (largely through the medium of middle and high school English classes). The authority of the college professors is partly a result of their institutional power (you need to listen to them to get your degree) but it’s mostly because their students accept that the professors’ years of dedication to the topic have given them a superior ability to define and discern literary quality.

Millions of people (including myself) have enjoyed reading canonized works and have profitably used the canon as a way to guide their reading. However, most people consider it to be something of a bore: a body of knowledge that is equivalent, in its uselessness, to calculus or chemistry.

This silly-looking fellow (Harold Bloom) is one of the people who creates the literary canon

But to adherents of genre literature, the canon is something more than a bore: it’s an active irritant. To some people, it is extremely vexing that the books they love have been deemed, by the nation’s authorities, to be lacking in literary quality.

As for myself, I sometimes wonder if there’s not something of an advantage in being shut out of the literary canon. I feel that there is something there, but I’m not quite sure what it is.

There’s a temptation to say that the canon is a tool used by the power elite to colonize our imaginations. But there’s something that feels wrong about that. First, the canon isn’t nearly popular enough to be a very effective tool of colonization. Second, the canon frequently includes works that are daring and anti-authoritarian. Third, many of the works in genre literature’s unofficial canon are extremely supportive of the status quo. For instance, The Lord Of The Rings and Dune contain racist / eugenic themes and are quasi-fascist in their embrace of a mythic savior figure–the hero as leader–who unifies a people and directs their energies towards the defeat of a national foe.

Then there’s also a temptation to say the opposite. The canon is the way that powerful and vital works of art are institutionalized and sapped of their emotional value. For instance, it’s very difficult to really feel the confusion and rage in The Catcher in the Rye after it’s been marked with the stamp of approval by the phonies who run your school.

But that also doesn’t feel right, somehow. Without the canon, I’d have never known to read The Catcher In The Rye. Flawed as the canon is, it is the only thing that can keep a book alive.

It feels like genre literature has come to a similar conclusion. Nowadays, the focus seems to be on getting genre work included in the canon. The usual approach is to think of authors whose work has certain canon-approved characteristics (a focus on detail; an information-dense writing style; experimentation with form; ambiguity as to intention and meaning) and then crying out for these authors to be placed within the canon.

To some extent, this approach has succeeded. Harold Bloom has included Tom Disch, Ursula Le Guin, and John Crowley in his canon. Philip K. Dick also looks like he may enter the canon.

And that’s totally fine. But that’s just an attempt by science fiction writers to get into the literary game.

What I find fascinating are the ways in which the parallel science fiction / fantasy canon is very different from the literary canon and includes works that could never be included in the latter. Dune and Lord of the Rings might be studied as cultural artifacts, but I don’t think they’ll ever make it into the formal canon.

And yet, they’re alive. Gloriously alive. Without the influence of teachers or classes or lists or any sort of appeal to cultural authority, people read them and enjoy them. They’re part of a shadow-canon, along with books like Gone With The Wind and Ender’s Game and How To Win Friends And Influence People and Atlas Shrugged and Battlefield Earth and the novels of Georgette Heyer and the poetry of Rudyard Kipling and the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and the whole Sherlock Holmes corpus.

Now…many of you probably winced at a few of the titles that I named. There are certainly some authoritarian and racist themes amongst them. And many of them are very poorly written. That’s why this stuff (with the exception, perhaps, of Lovecraft) is never going to get into the primary canon (or, in the case of Kipling, has fallen out of the primary canon).

But yet…this is the stuff that our cultural imagination has preserved. And I don’t think they’re without value. I’ve enjoyed many of these works. And I’ve enjoyed them in different ways from works within the literary canon. While these works (largely) lack literary virtue, they also have a vividness, an economy, and a structure that are almost unknown in canonized novels.


So, okay…even if you take it as a given that there’s this shadow-canon that rewards different virtues from the primary canon, the main question is “So what?”

Personally, I am glad that the shadow canon exists. First, it’s just nice that there’s something in our culture that’s not completely under the thumb of mysterious authority figures (although Hollywood does do its best to influence even the shadow canon). Second, I think that the purpose of books is to entertain people, and the books in the shadow canon are often quite entertaining. Third, the shadow canon is democratic in a way that the literary canon is not.

It’s not that the literary canon can’t be influenced by the average reader…but…there mostly the reader’s role in the literary canon is to either accept or reject the judgment of authority. There’s no room for the reader to form and disseminate opinions about the literary canon. All the air in the room is taken up by the tenured professors whose job it is to form those opinions (and who are really, really good at it).

But the shadow canon is almost entirely the creation of readers. Although the recommendations of authors and newspaper critics (and the creation of blockbuster Hollywood movies) do play a role in forming the shadow canon, even these authority figures have far more interplay with the reading public than a university professor does. An author’s recommendation is only respected because people like his or her work. A Hollywood movie is usually greenlit for a property because that property already has fans. The LotR films made the books more popular, but the movies were only successful because the books were already fairly popular.

And, furthermore, there’s a huge part of the creation of the shadow canon that takes place entirely outside of formal authority structures. Is there anyone in authority who’s pushing Lovecraft or Ender’s Game?

Whereas the essential relationship with regards to disseminating the shadow-canon is the teacher/student relationship, the shadow cannon is usually disseminated either friend to friend or (at advanced stages) from parent to child. To a large extent, the shadow canon is still a word of mouth phenomena.

And I think that there’s something valuable in that. It is a way of keeping our literary culture grounded in the most essential function of the book: providing pleasure. At some level, books have to answer to the people. The existence of the shadow canon means that the literary canon can’t completely take flight into rarefied heights. If the literary canon does not give people what us what we want, then at least there is another place where they can find.


Err, okay, so I didn’t really answer the title question. I am going to do that in the next post, though! I think it will be entitled Is it possible to destroy the shadow canon?