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Literary Cultures and the Canon

In this short article and slideshow we look at the process of canon formation and canonisation over time
drawing of Charles Dickens with his characters
© University of Bristol

Much ‘traditional’ education in literary studies emphasises the importance of the canon. There is a tendency to discuss the canon as a fixed selection of the ‘best’ works available to us. However, it is important to realise that canons are constructions and that canonisation is a process.

Authors and figures who we currently consider indispensable to literary history were not always seen in that light. The boundaries of what we consider to be canonical shift over time. Literary value is itself subject to change for a wide variety of reasons. In many ways, the construction of the canon says more about our contemporary period and its preoccupations than it does about any stable or universal idea of literary value.

In this sideshow, you will learn more about the canon and how it is formed over time. You will also see a few examples of texts which we currently view as canonical, but which were not always received in that way. As you look at these examples, you might wish to think about other examples of texts which have moved in and out of the canon. Some questions you may want to consider are:

  • How valuable is the canon to the way we think about literature?
  • Is there a value in maintaining a fixed sense of the canon?
  • Is it possible to imagine a canon which is truly inclusive?
© University of Bristol
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