I feel that I have to address some misconceptions here. "The Literary Canon" does not exist inside academia as such. It is a casualty of the political correctness debate, with Bloom and his minions on one side and the PC proponents on the other side. We on the outside of that debate marvel and cringe as they throw rocks at each other; as usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, with a lot of welts on its head from occasionally forgetting to duck (see addendum for more on this). So since no one is stepping up to define it as it really is and then defend it, I nominate myself since I lived it via an English undergraduate degree.

The first thing is to understand how academic English (and related studies) actually work. A lot of people whose experience of literature starts and ends with one or two courses to meet a "core requirement" are under the impression that literature is about reading something and then evaluating it based on how much you liked it, or didn't. While this is a perfectly valid way of determining how to stock your personal bookshelf at home (nobody should be able to say that a book you like is, e.g., "tripe") this is not what academic English is about. There are rules and requirements, like any other academic discipline. The phrase that usually embodies these rules is that the work must be "of literary merit". This is code for the idea that academics mostly agree that the work in question follows the rules, and exemplifies them well.

The rules are hard to define because they aren't formal or written down, and academics generally agree where they begin but differ quite a bit where they end, and around the fringes. (Literature is quite similar to Economics in this respect.) But in general you need to have a certain amount of cleverness in: richness of narrative structure, character and character development, symbolism and allusion, social or political commentary, rhetorical device, and historical significance. Works of literary merit also usually address the human condition in some historical (eg: working conditions in Victorian Britain) or universal (mortality, love, suffering, etc.) way. All this may seem rather limited and prescriptive, but keep telling yourself that this is an academic discipline, with the emphasis on discipline (=rules). You have to agree at least a little bit on the rules of the game in order to enable any discourse you hope to have about the participants. In other words, you have to have something to write about that other people can understand. It isn't acceptable to say that Hamlet is great because 'It rocked' or 'It made me cry' because that doesn't really communicate anything to anyone else. It may in fact have rocked, but you must explain its greatness (or lack of...) in terms of the ways it uses symbolism, its structure, etc.

Now, you don't have to agree that these are things that make a work worthy of reading, and there's plenty of wiggle room to argue your case for something that starts out a bit on the fringe. When I was in an English program it was uncommon to read any sort of science fiction, whereas nowadays courses on Postmodern fiction regularly include e.g. Neuromancer, which sci-fi fans had been raving about for years. However, the same fans also tend to agree that his writing is a cut above most of the rest of the genre, and virtual reality, etc., have become an imaginable part of the human condition where they were not before, so it's now reasonable to include in a reading list, because it is of literary merit. But it's not yet part of the Canon.

The "Canon", loosely defined, is a "best-of" set of works with literary merit. To the extent that it exists at all it could be defined as the books that would appear most often, and highest up, in a poll of best works that was given to people trained in the rules, ie: academic literature professors. The thing that distinguishes the Canon from your random work of literary merit is that the work has, to use an overworked phrase, "withstood the test of time". It's not just that it was worthy of study when it was written; it has remained a fertile area of study where other works have fallen by the wayside. Part of this is academic preference, and since the academy trains its successors there is a sort of false consensus that writers like Spenser, which wharfinger calls "a historical curiosity at best", have been elevated to sainthood to the point that it is heresy to question their worth at all.

A little bit of that goes on, of course, but it is both sad and narrow-minded to dismiss Spenser in general and the whole Canon in particular as some sort of grand academic conspiracy to force irrelevant, historically curious, pre-Twentieth Century literature down students' throats. Spenser is wonderful stuff, but it's difficult, and it's just not very available to people without an academic guide or some training, if only because the 16th Century language is really rough going. This is not saying you're stupid if you don't understand or like it, it is only saying that what makes it great is not available without a fair amount of background and plodding. Is that elitist? Not really. The same thing applies to for example, people who view mathematics as just counting and arithmetic. Is the Brouwer Fixed Point Theorem a major and amazing result? Yes. Can I explain the basic idea to you if you don't have a math background? Probably. Can you truly appreciate it and its beauty without an understanding of topology? Nope. Spenser is no different.

Which brings me to the point in the above writeup that I most disagreed with: "When literature becomes a shrine to itself, it is dead". Part of the reason the Canon exists (in whatever form we can agree that it does) is that writing cannot be understood in a vacuum. Literature is rich and allusive; words and names and actions and tropes have meaning partly because they echo (great) works that have gone before them. Milton, for instance, is much richer when you know the KJV Bible and Homer and Virgil and Aristotle, precisely because Milton read them and incorporated and expanded their ideas. (Milton read everything.) In turn, Milton had a profound influence on the Romantic Poets. The reason that English departments insist that you read Plato, Dante, Keats, Shakespeare, and even Spenser is that they are part of a rich tapestry of thinking and writing whose parts can be admired alone, but which become all the more thrilling and exciting when you take a step back and admire the whole picture. Literature has always been a shrine to itself, as well as a parody of itself, a reinvention of itself, and a rebellion against itself. That's part of what makes it interesting.

wharfinger: Let me say this first: I am not defending the Canon, only attempting to describe it. It is what it is--I am not at all advocating an argumentum ad antiquitatem, if that was indeed you who editorially soft-linked it below. My areas of interest were/are 17th Century poetry and 20th Century fiction. I'm not a huge fan of Spenser either; he certainly doesn't rock the way Milton does, or Faulkner, Don DeLillo or Barthelme. The point is that I thought he sucked ass until somebody taught me Spenser and the 16th Century, and told me what to look for. I hated Victorian novels too until a course on the gender politics of 19th Century literature. Part of my point is that a lot of the great works are hard, and enshrining and teaching them perhaps helps people to keep reading them instead of deciding that they suck (as I did) before doing some of the heavy lifting, although some of them, as you suggest, suck even after the heavy lifting. And no, from the quality of your writing, I figured you knew your shit, but most people who level those kind of arguments don't, which was why I mentioned it.

Second: I said it before, everyone should come to his or her understanding of what literature rocks, and read that. If that's Seuss (on my bookshelf btw), or Tom Clancy, great. However, I'm not offended that academics generally agree on a "best-of" list that can be used as a guide.

I am offended at the suggestion that "research done by academic mathematicians is about new mathematics, but research done by academic English professors is about old literature." Considering that I have done both, I disagree: both involve new ideas about existing (perhaps old) stuff. The most important problems in math are rather old: the Riemann hypothesis, the Poincare conjecture. Researchers take what has already been written and expand on it. It's all a giant (albeit magnificent) house of cards based on the Peano postulates. If I publish a paper on Milton it's new ideas about Milton, not old (otherwise what's the point?). Stanley Fish revolutionized Milton study when he wrote Surprised by Sin. And don't try to pin publish-or-perish on literature: there's plenty of banal, uninteresting, crufty corners of mathematics that get dragged out and published in the interest of tenure; I've seen it happen.

Addendum on the PC vs. Bloom debate: My point is that the rhetoric and politics of PC (from both sides) tend to polarize the (I think, rather interesting) debates about canons and canonicity into emotional, petty, counterproductive name-calling. If we have people on the right yelling that "this list represents the best, you must read it" and the people on the left yelling "that list is racist and gender-biased" it effectively shuts down the possibility of intelligent discussion, such as what we are trying to node here. I hated that rancor, and it's one of the reasons I got out of literature and into mathematics and software engineering.

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