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Literary Canon: What is it and why does it matter?

Avery Smith, Creative Content Specialist

You probably have a place in your home or on your computer where you store special memories or treasured keepsakes. Chances are, you have saved these things for a reason. It could be that your collection reminds you of where you came from or evokes feelings of nostalgia. It could be that they represent parts of your identity and history.

As people, we are collectors by nature. We gather and keep things that matter to us or that hold value, and the longer we have kept something, supposedly the more value it accrues. This is the idea behind canon. At large, “canon” is a list of the most influential and important works of literature, art, music, philosophy, and other artistic fields. But who decides on these lists? The answer is more complicated than you might think.

For the sake of our mutual interest, I will be focusing on literary canon. At the forefront of literary canon is academia. Primarily, the list of books in literary canon are determined by academic scholars and critics. Although these people are the “professionals” in the field of literature, they do not work with set criteria when reviewing and selecting novels to enter the canon. Their professional, albeit subjective, opinion is often based on the novel’s ability to be critically read and written about, with its contents addressing specific topics within the broad scope of societal elitism, identity, and humanity.

Here are just a few canonized authors and works that might be familiar to you:

· F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

· Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

· Zora Neal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

· John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

· Flannery O’Connor, Complete Stories

When a book enters into the literary canon, it becomes essential. It becomes elite. In some cases, it becomes timeless. When an American literary critic named Harold Bloom released his book The Western Canon in 1994, the concept of elite literature was elevated and became even more competitive. I want to take a moment here to acknowledge the privilege associated with having access to and labeling books in this manner, which leads me into the next section about where mystery novels fall in with literary canon.

The Western literary canon is so expansive that it now is subdivided into further lists. Of course, the “A” list will always remain with those books deemed “elite” by scholars in academia. However, I want to make a case that just because a book falls below the “A” list doesn’t mean it’s not worthy to read. Of course, you all know this already! Here is a list of some popular “canonized” mystery novels:

· Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None

· James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice

· Robert Traver, Anatomy of a Murder

· Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code

· Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs

· Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

Novelist and creative writing professor Les Standiford said in a seminar, “The only place people read books they’re not interested in is college. For the larger audience, there is a responsibility of creating something that holds us, while at the same time trying to create stories that are humanly important and not formulaic.” Canon is a fascinating concept to discuss, but at the end of the day, the collection you curate for yourself will probably mean much more to you than what the professionals have to say about elite literature. I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about canon—I’m just saying that we should have fun with reading, collecting, and curating our bookshelves with pages that we love.

As a reader of mystery novels, you play a vital role in determining the canonization of these books. Charade Media would love to hear your thoughts on which mystery novels should be in the canon, and what set of criteria you would use to determine this. Visit our community Facebook page to share your thoughts!

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