The canon in literature has typically been understood in two coordinated ways. The first is elective: What are the best or most important works? The second is imperative: These are the works that you must read.
The elective element of the canon implies the practice of canonization itself: a decision, a choice, a judgment. The imperative element implies a law, rule, or principle, set forth to instruct the judgment of the student, typically with a view toward emulation. I must read Shakespeare so that I may experience and understand greatness, and so that I, too, may attempt to equal that greatness, or use it as a criterion of admiration.
Supposing the necessity of these elements, two obstacles stand in the way of achieving widespread credibility for a literary canon. Upon what categories shall we judge best practice? And who will make the judgments that determine canonicity?
For the past century, the literary canon has been maintained as a function of the research university. In the anthologies, the required single-author courses, and the courses on the great books, literature departments uphold and occasionally augment the canonical ranks.
Importantly, over the past several decades, the literary canon has shifted from being dominated by works of western literature toward a canon of world literature. This effort has aimed to distribute canonicity across space and time, gender, race, and class—to develop a representative canon for an increasingly global community of readers and writers.
These changes in the canon are long overdue, and the effort has been heroic. Yet the chief obstacles to achieving credibility—upon what categories shall we judge best practice? And who will make the judgments that determine canonicity?—remain intact. These obstacles persist not because of any inherent problem of judgment, but because the current western institutional structures that uphold literary canonicity ensure that the elective process itself remains the highly exclusive province of editors, professors, and administrators.
An alternative may be found in an elective global canon. Such a canon, rather than distributing the boundaries of canonicity, would instead radically distribute the boundaries of the elective process.
An elective global canon would provide a venue for all individuals to contribute to both the formation of canonical categories and the election of works judged to constitute the most important achievements within those categories. Such a structure would thereby obviate problems of elective and categorical exclusivity inherent in traditional structures of canonicity.
Universal suffrage should be the fundamental principle of any valid elective global canon. The framework of the electoral process must be determined accordingly. What is certain is that such a canon can and will change over time. Indeed, ensuring canonical dynamism must be at the very core of an elective global canon. However, in order to sustain canonicity on the axis of time, it will likely be beneficial to develop a voting structure that supports slow canonical movement. This would be a matter for debate.
A supporting intellectual framework for an elective global canon might begin by outlining relevant forms of judgment. These might include, but are not limited to: the aesthetic, the teleological, and the veridical. This too would be a matter for debate.
An elective global canon maintains canonical power by confining the number of works permitted to pass the threshold of canonicity within a given category. A number might be chosen such as an average reader could complete in a lifetime, but this determination would also be a matter for debate.
An elective global canon maintains elective power by confining the number of votes allocable to an individual. That number must be the same for each voter, and might be fruitfully tied to the number chosen to delimit the threshold of canonicity. The effect would be to elevate the value of each vote for each individual, and to ensure that election never functions as a simple metric of consumption. This likewise would be a matter for debate.
The internet is the enabling medium for an elective global canon. A site for registering voters, counting votes, and tracking canonicity across time could be built. A search function would facilitate access to categories, works, and authors. A multilingual interface could encourage an unprecedented level of cross-cultural literary exchange.
Efforts currently underway point to an emerging demand for an elective global canon. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States, for instance, recently completed an electoral project on the literary canon entitled, The Great American Read. On a smaller, but no less important scale, is the recent work of Laura Ashley Squires at the New Economic School in Moscow. Squires’ research uses query categories on Russian search engines as a metric of reader interest pertinent to new transnational and reception-based ways of thinking about literary canon formation. This project has revealed, among several other significant findings, that Jack London is perhaps the most important American writer from a Russian perspective.
An important question concerning the wisdom of an elective global canon has been brought to my attention from without the walls of the academy: “Are you certain you want to hand over that power?” An elective global canon need not be viewed as a replacement, but rather as an alternative to traditional canon-producing structures. The benefit of such an alternative would be the endorsement of a global electorate. If it is successful, it may allow other issues pertaining to the literary canon to become more visible, which would make for interesting and meaningful comparison with the traditional structures of canonization. An elective global canon could, for instance, help to clarify the need for canonical structures whose elective process is founded on expertise.
Concerns of a more general nature are difficult to address at this early stage. For the moment, however, I would refer such concerns to the remarks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who, contemplating the prospects of electoral democracy nearly two hundred years ago, defended the experiment on principle, in the following terms: “I never said that the vox populi was of course the vox Dei. It may be; but it may be, and with equal probability, a priori, vox Diaboli. That the voice of ten millions of men calling for the same thing is a spirit, I believe; but whether that be a spirit of Heaven or Hell, I can only know by trying the thing called for by the prescript of reason and God’s will.” To this I would only add that with regard to world literature, the best path may be that which seeks to marry the spirits of both.
Kiel Shaub is a Ph.D. Candidate in English at the University of California Los Angeles. His research interests include eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature, gothic revival literature and aesthetics, literature and science, and the history of arts-and-sciences institutions.