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LoA As Canon-Maker/Canon-Breaker

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Edited: Apr 2, 2012, 9:36am Top

Apologies if this has been topic has been posted before , but I looked back to 2010 and didn't see it, so here goes.

Briefly, here are my questions:

- Do you feel that the works and authors published by the LoA (and similar publisher's series such as Penguin Classics, the Modern Library, Oxford World's Classics, etc.) play a significant role in decisions made by academics regarding what work is to be studied and assigned to students and therefore what will potentially be considered part of the Western canon?

- Conversely, if a work/author is not included in any such series, is he/she/it less likely to be studied/assigned/considered canonic?

These are questions of enduring fascination to me and I can hardly think of a better audience to address them to. Thank you in advance for your input.

Apr 2, 2012, 4:23am Top

Well I think in general terms, availability breeds popularity (and analysis).
I know in Australia, Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career went out of print (and out of mind) for a long time, but took up rather something of a renaissance once it had been published again.

Apr 2, 2012, 10:34am Top

Of course. Speaking as an academic, until fairly recently the book had to be in print in order to assign it. Every humanities and history scholar has a plethora of Penguins. You grow up on them and they are inexpensively geared toward teaching at the college level. LOA brings titles back into print. The hardcover series will rarely be assigned due to cost and the multiple titles included, but according to David, publishing them has sometimes led to trade or college editions published by other houses.

It is also true that most of the American canon has been available (no danger of The Scarlet Letter going out of print) but what loa offers are quality hardcovers in collection form to the trade market.

As to the idea of canons, well, there has certainly been a lot of debate over the meanings and utility of same over the years. When loa started, it essentially validated an agreed upon canon. But that was 1979 and questioning of that canon was just getting underway. Loa, working as it does from an editorial board with ties to those debates, is always going to be responding to them (by publishing Chestnut or Chandler, say). By publishing these along with the traditional classic authors, they do tend to expand the canon, which really means someone will now venture to assign The Big Sleep in paperback who may not have considered it before. Then there are cases such as Dawn Powell's where much of the work was not available at all.

Edited: Apr 2, 2012, 10:46am Top

Being out of print does not preclude scholarship on a work or author, which sometimes leads to the revival of the work (see, famously, the case of Fitzgerald). But until that happens, teachers have to assign what is available. E texts mitigate this somewhat.

In 1960, Frederick Douglass's narrative was long out of print. It is a measure of changing scholarship and societal values that this would be unthinkable today. Loa's edition just puts a stamp on that by including him. Teachers now can choose from many inexpensive editions of the work, but it can't be solely attributed to Loa.

Edited: Apr 2, 2012, 10:54am Top

This recent article might be relevant to the discussion:


Of the top 25 authors studied most by academics, then, all but five have their own volumes in the LOA--and those five haven't appeared because of copyright.

But I do think there's a chicken-or-egg dilemma here, since these 20 authors are in the LOA because they are studied as much (or perhaps more than) they are studied because they are in the LOA.

(Incidentally, the LOA's impact on the textbook market, in spite of many valiant efforts, is negligible. We just can't compete on that score with the major commercial publishers.)

Apr 2, 2012, 11:40am Top

It's a really good question -- and probably (unwittingly) a partial motivator for my hijacking a thread at http://www.librarything.com/topic/134310#3324970 .

My feeling is that, at least in a sense, "canon" is (or perhaps should be) a consensus, informed by critical estimation of texts across a broad spectrum of interested participants. Part of it might be evidenced by availability, which is undoubtedly tied to saleability (e.g., Harper Lee? J.D. Salinger?); part by critical acclaim (Thomas Pynchon -- am I the only one who's ever actually read Gravity's Rainbow?!?); part by historic / cultural / social trends (consider Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs); and part by influence -- whether we liked / approved of it, then or now, or not (Will Durant, Max Eastman and Dalton Trumbo -- each falling politically somewhere on "pink" to "red" spectrum). If we affirm any particular Work as having a place in a canon, we press for it. If not, it falls by the way-side.

Then again it also depends what canon you mean to classify; these last two might rate high on a fantasy / science fiction scale -- along with Philip K. Dick and H.P. Lovecraft, and you might well include J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson, Lewis Carroll, Neal Stephenson, Ray Bradbury, and Neil Gaiman. But by then you've also crossed the bounds of LOA into other territory.

Academics also have a role here, which is (or should be) independent of any publishers' series. I suggest that role includes both studying and sharing Works that stand the test of time, tell us something meaningful about aspects of experience that warrant focus, or to illustrating what works (and why), and what doesn't. Think William Shakespeare and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, or -- more recently -- Chinua Achebe and Günter Grass. Ten or fifteen years ago (how time flies!), an English-professor friend was studying / teaching Sharon McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death Sun and Zombies of the Gene Pool, primarily as cultural phenomena (I think). It seems, however, that line of discussion either played out or couldn't be sustained in quite the same way as, say, consideration of The Great Gatsby has been. Even at the secondary / high school level, I've been intrigued to see what our kids are reading that likely would NEVER have been thought relevant a generation ago -- Juan Rulfo and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o being prominent among them.

As for LOA (and other, similar publishers' "classics" series), their selections seem primarily driven by a similar sense that certain Works are easily affirmed (how could you leave out Moby-Dick, even if more folks have read Gravity's Rainbow?), others ought not be omitted (James Thurber?), and still others are somehow marginal or harder to justify (L. Frank Baum, or Edgar Rice Burroughs). As with Oprah's book club (we all remember Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections!), any decision to include or exclude a particular Work will impact its perception going forward (why is Lord of the Flies generally deemed canonical, but not The Spire?)

So, yes, inclusion and availability of any Work in publishers' series almost certainly influence their standing in the/a canon. I think (part of) our task, as readers, is to ensure that other worthy writings also endure. As another, favorite English professor was fond of noting, "Great literature is not the same as good books"; accordingly, there's a fund at our alma mater -- named in memory of him -- that's specifically devoted to the acquisition of "good books"!

I'm interested to also see others' thoughts. Thanks for the thread!

Apr 2, 2012, 4:25pm Top

One critical series that hasn't been mentioned is Norton. I'm not so sure that Norton Critical Editions are that important (not that I don't love them), because there are really so few of them overall. Of course, I'm particularly peeved that Norton includes all six Austen novels but only includes Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, but note my LibraryThing name. ;-)

But in contrast with Norton Criticals, we have Norton Anthologies, and I think these are probably of overwhelming importance. If you're trying to teach a survey course, short anthologized snippets by a wide variety of authors are often a lot more practical than a few novels by a limited number of authors. Also, even if you use e-texts rather than making students buy an expensive anthology, the inclusion of an author in such an anthology is extremely validating. Also, the newer Nortons can be validating for an entire subject area (for example, The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, to cite just one example).

And of course there's The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, which I consider an extraordinarily significant stand-out considering the prominence of Gilbert and Gubar.

Apr 2, 2012, 5:51pm Top

> 7

The Norton publications are certainly comprehensive. I have the Thoreau, Swift and Shelley editions and they are more than enough for most people. As you mention, the Poetry Anthology, which I do not own, has gained a status of being a benchmark against what all others are assessed.

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