The writers included in the canon have to have had some broad impact on the progression of the literature of the period. For example, William Wordsworth, whose work marks the start of Romanticism in England, and Walt Whitman, who pioneered free verse poetry and a distinctly American style in the United States.
Jane Austen is a great example of a writer whose works were added into the literary canon as it became clear how groundbreaking her prose was. She is best-remembered today for her novel Pride and Prejudice, in which she uses well-rounded female characters who break traditional gender roles. After the literary world acknowledged her accomplishments, her work became a canon against which other female writers were compared.
The term has also come to refer to the accepted material within an author’s fictional universe. For example, The Silmarillion, which was published after J.R.R. Tolkien’s death but is still considered a part of his literary canon. The events take place in the same world, albeit at different times, like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
Definition of Canon
The word “canon” comes from the Greek word “kanon,” meaning “a measuring rod,” and is today used in several different ways. Primarily, it is defined as a collection of writing created by one author that belongs within a single fictional world/series of worlds.
It can also be used to refer one the writings included in anthologies in certain genres. This division allows the work within the “canon” to be compared to the other piece in the same canon. One further way the term is used corresponds to the Greek meaning “a measuring rod” or “yardstick.” The term can be used to refer to one literary work against which other writing is measured or evaluated. The Bible is the most common and easy-to-understand example.
History of Canons
Historically, literary canons have been controversial.
The western canon, which included what were claimed to be the world’s most noteworthy literary accomplishments, does not allow for other equally important pieces of literature to be considered on the same terms. As the “canon” of western literature expanded to include women and minorities, it became more inclusive and a better representative of the times and places in which the works were written. For example, today, works by poets like Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Emily Dickinson are part of the western literary canon.
It should also be noted that texts can be added to the canon after writers pass away and their works are seen through a new, more accurate lens. One of the best examples is Whitman’s Song of Myself, which is now considered to be an incredibly important contribution to gay literature, not something that contemporary readers knew or would’ve appreciated at the time it was published.
William Shakespeare’s works are a classic example of literature that is an important part of the western literary canon. His work became a yardstick against which other writers would compare and measure themselves. His name is now synonymous with this kind of comparison when one is seeking out literary excellence.
Contemporary Definition of Canon
Today, the word “canon” is commonly used to refer to works that belong within a writer’s world. They were genuinely written by the person and take place under the same or similar conditions as other pieces of literature.
The Silmarillion is one example, but there are many more. For instance, today, it’s possible to find writers attempting to mimic the style of authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Philip K. Dick, and many others. These works, written by other authors in the style of the original (even if they are perfect in every way), are not part of the canon. This kind of writing is colloquially known as fan fiction and pops up whenever a writer’s works become popular. The same can be said for television shows and films. Often, writers of various skill levels take it upon themselves to continue a story after it has come to an end.
Canon and Apocrypha
These two words are often seen together in definitions of authors’ writings. Apocrypha, which comes from the Greek word meaning “away” and “hide,” refers to anonymous pieces of literature that do not conform to the guidelines of the canon. Originally, the term meant something that was too sacred for most people to read. For example, books of the Bible that are not considered part of the canon of Scripture, for example, those included in the Septuagint (the earliest Koine Greek translation of the books from the Hebrew Bible).
Importance of a Canon
The importance of canons has waxed and waned over recent years, with modern and contemporary writers expressing concern over what’s considered important in the history of a genre of place. Some believe that genre-specific canons should not be taught in school, while others see expanding them as the only way forward. Time has allowed readers, critics, and scholars to reassess their opinions of what’s part of a canon and what’s not. Ultimately, it is up to individuals to decide if they find them helpful or not.
Related Literary Terms
- Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
- Literary Modernism: originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused on Europe and North America.
- Realism: a literary movement that portrays everyday life exactly how it is.
- Free Verse: poetic lines are unrhymed, and there are no consistent metrical patterns. But, that doesn’t mean it is entirely without structure.
- Romanticism: a movement that originated in Europe at the end of the 18th century and emphasized aesthetic experience and imagination.
- Read: Do We Need a Literary Canon?
- Watch: Why Did They Make Me Read This in High School?
- Listen: Studying the Literary Canon