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Is the Canon Dying?

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I had a professor at the university where I finished my undergraduate degree who would spit the word "feminist" like it was something rancid on his tongue. He also had a somewhat fitting, very troubling obsession with the ethics of Hannah Arendt’s affair with Martin Heidegger — older by decades and her professor at the time — but I digress. We often digested or ignored his opinions, taken in by the ineffable charm of louche misogyny, but I still remember the rankling, uncomfortable feeling when he’d finish an explanation or end a point with the phrase, “of course, there are some feminist critics who…” The implication was always clear, that in the dismantling of the patriarchal, Eurocentric hierarchy of cultural and creative power within the great canon, a sin was being committed. The argument in this article is not for this dismantling, which has been endlessly proven as a necessity, but against the unfounded fear that the canon is at risk of death. Instead, I argue that the consequence of dismantling is a broadening of the canon, not its death. 

Literary historian David Damrosch, in the essay “Frames for World Literature”, posits the existence of not a singular canon, but of three canons; namely the hypercanon, the countercanon and the shadow canon. This three-tiered system, though intended to create avenues for world literatures in the Western literary understanding, is applicable almost across the board. Damrosch’s hypercanon consists of the old “major” authors of the classical, most common conception of the canon – think Milton, Shakespeare and Wordsworth. The countercanon contains contestatory or historically excluded authors from languages and cultures outside of European hierarchies, as well as authors of so-called “minor” literatures. This would range from bell hooks and Toni Morrison to Saadat Hasan Manto and Chinua Achebe. Lastly, Damrosch’s shadow canon includes those authors who may have been more greatly discussed in the past but have recently faded in critical importance, potentially replaced by newer inductees into the canon. 

Damrosch argues that the old “major” authors are least likely to fade into obscurity. Instead, it is the “minor” authors of the past, who were studied in addition to and not on their own that face the most uncertainty, disappearing into the shadow canon – rarely studied and unlikely to experience a resurgence in critical or cultural interest. However, he also posits the existence, particularly in postcolonial studies, of a shadow canon of major authors who are well-known but have been eclipsed by the ascendancy of others. He cites the example of R.K. Narayan, once a much-beloved Indian writer, who has now been largely replaced in discussion by Salman Rushdie, relegated to dusty middle school libraries and children’s bookshelves. But, as Damrosch highlights, this is the result of a general shift, a non-violent fading out, and not an active boycott.

It cannot be denied that there is a loss that arises from this. The so-called “minor authors” who previously held positions of historical or critical importance, even if only in the context of “major authors”, are losing their places on university assigned reading lists. The risk, then, lies in the forgetting of these authors. However, the anxiety surrounding the proverbial, hypothetical death of the literary canon is not that of forgetting. It is not the fear of the loss of perspectives due to their lack of staying power, not lack of literary or artistic merit. This anxiety is more paternalistic, if not directly patriarchal. It is the fear that there is a cultural inheritance of some kind, imbued with a greatness that cannot be replicated or replaced, that is being discarded in favour of diversity, be it of gender, race, ethnicity or identity. This misplaced fear comes from the kind of people who subscribe to the idea of canonical sanctity, the kind of canon to which Shakespeare, Byron and Hemingway belong, but from which even Austen, Woolf and Hughes would be excluded. 

Historically, there have always been — and continue to be — cultural, political and economic hierarchies that determine what is published, what is read, and what is well-received. These are ideologically determined, and shift with the passage of time. These questions determined what entered the canon, and also what stayed out of it. The multitude of forgotten writers, even white male ones, speaks to this. The “great canon” has never been of stable composition, and has always been dynamic, since growth and forgetting have always been functions of time. The canon is meant to be a repository of artistic and creative genius. Though historically exclusionary, and inclusive only of those groups that were permitted mainstream greatness, a cultural shift brings with it a canonical shift. As times change, so do quantifiers and qualifiers of value. Since more people and more groups are allowed greatness, it is only natural that the canon changes shape, lengthens to create and share space. 

The idea that Wordsworth and Frost are being abandoned for Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison en masse is fallacious. Ignoring the fundamental fact that literary study is period-focused, there is also the basic truth that most readers have likely still encountered Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening before In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Diversity is the past and current reality of human civilisation, and the difference and progression in scholarship is one of acknowledgement of that diversity. If any part of the canon is being lost — and I would argue that it is merely a reduction in an already oversaturated scholarship — then it can only be the result of a natural, gradual aging out as opposed to an outright rejection. The canon is not dying, it is simply broadening. To reference Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: the subaltern, by speaking, is not eclipsing, but making space. 


Damrosch, David. "Frames for World Literature" In Grenzen der Literatur: Zu Begriff und Phänomen des Literarischen edited by Simone Winko, Fotis Jannidis and Gerhard Lauer, 496-515. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 2009.


Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor