The Canon Industry

Several years ago I went to a lecture in Cambridge given by Norman Davies, the historian of Central and Eastern Europe.  The most memorable part of that evening was when my wife and I – both starving students at the time – ate so many canapés at the reception afterwards that a grim-faced member of college staff pointedly removed the tray from our vicinity.  Aside from that, though, I was struck by some observations Davies made on how particular academic viewpoints are perpetuated.  They began, he said, with individual scholars doing good, original work.  In a few years’ time, that work filtered down through the field.  A decade later it became naturalised into major overviews of the subject.  Two decades later it was incorporated into textbooks.  Three decades later it was probably obsolete, but we were still teaching it to students because the juggernaut of canonicity had reached critical velocity.

The joke never gets old (or does it?).  Mons Meg in Edinburgh Castle (public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia).

I was reminded of this relationship between the canonical and the tools of teaching and research a few weeks ago.  A couple of colleagues and I were having a chat with a very nice representative from one of the major producers of textbooks for English Literature undergraduate teaching and he was showing us an all-singing, all-dancing student edition, complete with online apparatus that would allow you to flick back and forth between the edited page and facsimiles of the original printed texts.  It was a fine piece of scholarship and a fantastic teaching aid, but it reminded me of Davies’s comments; the canonical isn’t just what we attach cultural value to, it’s also a complex edifice of student editions, anthologies, textbooks, critical readers, and so on and so forth.  In some ways it’s the twenty-first-century equivalent of the publishing impetuses which William St. Clair has identified as central to the development of the literary canon in the nineteenth century.

And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  If anything, it’s encouraging.  Thirty years ago or more, a few scholars started challenging the older canon and demanding the study of more women authors; now we have Cambridge Companions to Aphra Behn and Norton Critical Editions of Margery Kempe.  While real gender parity in literary studies is still a long way away, there’s no doubt that progress has been made, not least because, as Davies said, once the stone begins to roll, it develops a momentum all of its own.  As someone who spends quite a lot of his time championing the value and importance of non-canonical texts, that gives me hope, hope that with enough articles and lectures and blog posts and hallway syllabus discussions I might one day see a Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Melville or a Norton Critical Edition of Alexander Montgomerie.  One can always dream!

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

One response to “The Canon Industry”

  1. […] I suppose it comes back to the question of canonicity and the canon-industry which I discussed last month.  The apparatus simply isn’t there to do everything I’d like to do.  Still, I plan to do what […]


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