The literary canon of a group, for any time or place, is the list of literary works (usually books) considered by the group to be the most important of that time or place. A group can be any size from a cult to a nation, and the time and place can be equally variable.
Because the question of "what people are most interested in" is one that "weighs in on whether or not the work is canonized," and because interests of a group's members will change over time, it follows that "a literary work may move in and out of interest and contextual relevance. Over time, literary canons will reflect these changes, and works [...] be added or subtracted from the canon."
The name sounds like an ironic reference to the Roman Catholic process of canonization, or granting sainthood. However, the literary practice has been going on for far longer than the religious one. For instance, the Ancient Greeks had a canon of nine lyric poets.
Because canonized works are those that are taught as canonical, it can be argued that canons are self-perpetuating: that the major reason for a work to be in the canon is that it is already in the canon. A variant of that criticism would be criticism by members of younger generations, newcomers, or minority groups that the canon excludes their kind by design.
In particular, the so-called Western canon, the list of the greatest books of Western civilization of all time, became "the subject of increasing contention in the latter half of the 20th century." Many have worked hard over those years to add women and visible minority writers to the canon, which can can be seen as either a refutation of the criticisms, or an acknowledgment of their basic truth.
- The Concept of Literary Canon: An Overview on The Victorian Web
- The Western Literary Canon in Context at The Great Courses.
- Revising the Literary Canon
- "Pleasure, Change, and the Canon": Sir Frank Kermode's Tanner Lectures on Human Values
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