How Is a Book Added to the Literary Canon?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
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Books are added to the literary canon in a number of ways, and the method depends upon the canon being adjusted. Each university will have a range of books it feels are essential for students to read. Other canons are created by literary elites and critics or by publishing companies. For a book to be added to any such list, it needs to be proposed and accepted by the people tasked with compiling the list.

A literary canon is an authoritative list of books deemed to be of national or world importance. They can also be lists of books important to a specific institution. Such books go beyond being well-written to having a cultural impact. Becoming part of such a list imbues a book with status and respect, and it means the book will be studied in depth by students and will continue to be reprinted.

The choosing of what books constitute a new canon or add to an established one is subjective. The process is wholly dependent on one person's or a group's opinion. The fewer people involved in the decision, the more subjective it becomes. Such lists are usually chosen by an academic or literary elite, without taking into consideration popular opinion. As such lists are so varied and so subjective some argue that there are no literary canons at all.


On occasion, there have been attempts to produce a popular canon of literature. In 2004, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) produced a TV series called “The Big Read.” It followed on from an attempt to work out the greatest Britons by producing a list of the greatest books of all time. The show, however, imposed a limit on the number of books by any one individual.

The list eventually got whittled down to a top 100 and then a top 21. Some writers, such as Terry Pratchett, were too successful for their own good because they wrote so many popular books, the fans’ votes got split between them. The show was won, much to the chagrin of the BBC, by JRR Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” The top 21 also included books by writers such as Philip Pullman, Douglas Adams, and JK Rowling.

Populist literary canons are less stable and enduring than those produced by universities and literary institutions. A book is ultimately added to a list because it is deemed by enough critics and academics to be of importance. Such lists are not set in stone and older classics often make way for newer ones.

Books that have a long publishing run and enter the thoughts of society as a whole such as “1984” and “Catch-22” are often found in most canons. They are also protected and reprinted by publishing houses.


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Post 5

@clintflint - I'm of the opinion that you simply can't make a definitive canon of something as broad as American literary fiction. It's just too subjective, unless you allow every single book every written that could be classified as American to be included and then you'd run into difficulty with the definition of American literature.

I think the only time you can use the word canon with any authority is when it's referring to whether something is considered to be part of the original author's vision or not. For example, fans often argue over whether or not the events in the Star Wars books can be considered "canon" because they weren't in the films.

Post 4

@Ivan83 - There will be different organizations that have produced different canons over the years, but I'm not sure there's a single one that can be called the definitive canon of literary America.

I mean, as it says in the article, it's extremely subjective. I do know that the University of Texas has a list of canons which might help you out, but I'm not sure if they tell you how accepted or respected those canons are.

Post 3

Where can I find a list of the accepted American literary canon?

I am trying to write an essay for my college composition course on the canon but I am having a hard time figuring out what is included and what is not.

Is there a widely accepted version of the canon that I can access online?

Post 2

Harold Bloom, the titan of 20th century American literary criticism, has written insightfuly on this very subject. I will not be able to do his arguments justice because they are quite complex and of course, beautifully erudite. So if I may I would just recommend that you look into his writings

Post 1

That is one of the oldest and trickiest questions there is in literature and one that has puzzled me my entire life. It baffles me some of the books that have been included/excluded from the canon. It has nothing to do with quality, or fame, or popularity. It is some mysterious x factor that I don't think anyone can fully explain.

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