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  • Writer's pictureShira

What Is The Literary Canon?

Updated: Feb 19, 2021

Hello! Welcome to my first post!


Since this site is largely about the literary canon, I thought I'd do my best to explain it. The most basic definition is that the canon is a list of the most important contributions to literature. When I first learned about the canon, I imagined a bunch of smart people going into a room, arguing for a while, and producing my high school required reading list. Turns out, I wasn't that far off.


Technically, there are multiple versions of the canon, but they all generally agree on the included works. One of the earliest versions of the canon is The Great Works of the Western World (1952). The 54 (!) volume series from Encyclopedia Britannica is beginning of a long history of focusing on white male authors.


Over 40 years later, famous literary critic Harold Bloom published The Western Canon (1994). Now, before I get into Bloom's work, I want to acknowledge that he contributed A LOT to literary academia. He recently died in October 2019 at the age of 89, so I just want to recognize that his work is still important, even if I disagree with most of it. That being said, The Western Canon focuses on 26 works/writers that Bloom thought were most important to the history of literature. On this list, only 4 of the writers are women and only 2 are people of color (POC). Bloom also has a way longer and more in-depth version of the canon as well, which I'll link below.


Skipping forward to 1998: the Modern Library editorial board created a list of the best 100 novels. Of the ten board members, all were white and only one was a woman. The top 10 books on their list? All written by white men. Are you starting to see the pattern?


There's an extensive history to the canon, including a lot of criticism (which I'll go into in another post), but in essence, this is what I dislike about the concept. The bias towards white men is a clear and time-honored tradition, despite the many important works from women and POC, and the increasingly diverse world that we live in today.


Additional Reading:

Harold Bloom's Western Canon

The Modern Library's List


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