Canon you not?

For my informal discussion, I chose to read Pamphlet 8 of the Literary Lab, “Between Canon and Corpus: Six Perspectives on 20th Century Novels.” I chose this because I am doing my final project on Kurt Vonnegut’s corpus, and from the title of the pamphlet I thought I would be able to use it to my advantage within my research. It won’t help my research but it does validate my decision to stay within one author’s entire corpus in lieu of creating a corpus to work with, which is what the pamphlet is about.

Mark Algee-Hewitt and Mark McGurl set out to create a canon of 20th century literature. A literary canon is a body of works that constitute the most influential and important works within a time period, genre, style, etc. However, canon is never truly objective, which is the problem the authors teased out throughout the pamphlet. For instance, the original 10 person panel put together to create a top 100 list were made up entirely of caucasian scholars, with only 3 women on the panel. The authors pointed out that the list they generated was severely lacking in diversity. What the authors attempted to do was take multiple lists by multiple people and groups and put those together to create the canon. They had a list of best selling books throughout the 20th century, a group of postcolonial, feminist, and minority scholars, a popular public opinion list, and a list from one publishing company of every 20th century novel they had published.

The authors mapped out the texts that were given and showed the overlap, as there were quite a few novels that manifested on most lists, but only one book that was present on all of the lists: The Grapes of Wrath. However, even with the multitude of lists, there was still an issue of diversity. It had increased as the list makers became more diverse but still, the caucasian male author reigned supreme in representation.

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Ultimately, it is impossible to objectively make a literary canon. There are too many questions of representation, and ultimately personal feelings will always be involved. The entire time I was reading the pamphlet I was thinking about taking every fiction novel published in the 20th century, putting it into a random generator and asking it to spit out 350 names and that would become the canon. But, the names spat out could potentially be unknown works that had little to no effect on the genre as a whole and would defeat the purpose of creating a literary canon.

This article made me think of the Goodreads, Top 101 Novels of All Time, a list I check frequently. I like Goodreads because it is a site that encompasses a greater variety of readers, and at the time of this canon creation, may have helped the authors with their endeavor. Goodreads has reviews from scholars, students, lay people, people of color, LGTBIQIA+, etc. It is a true crowd sourcing site. (Granted, the demographics are probably skewed more towards affluent or middle class patrons as posting reviews on books is not everyone’s idea of a valuable use of time. Baffling, I know!) However, it is a good source of the “best” novels to read in one’s lifetime, according to the majority which could help create a more universal canon to study.

Honestly, I never put much thought into the creation of a canon but after reading this pamphlet I realize that to create a list like this is very difficult. (588)

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