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Here's a Really Good Overview About the Concept of Literary Canon

Buzzle Staff May 13, 2019
A literary canon is a list of literary works belonging to authors of authority or a particular era. Here is an overview about the concept of literary canon.

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The 1960s brought about significant global cultural changes in society. Issues regarding homosexuals, women, and liberals were at the forefront, and the literary canons that evolved around this time was very much the focus of the literary works of this period.
Literature is a vast panorama of poetry, prose, stories, and comprehensions. Every period, every author, every country has a special collection of literary works that is representative of its period. A literary canon includes drama, theater, poetry, art, fiction, non-fiction, and a myriad other works.
The popularity of any literary work depends on various factors―the author, the plot, the style, presentation, and the effect it has on its audience. Here is the meaning of a literary canon along with some examples.

The Concept

  • A canon in literature is defined as a process of list-making - in case of a literary canon, works of literature are classified into categories depending on some criteria.
  • Canons keep evolving and keep changing. Experts of English literature would have a sound understanding of which works should be included and excluded in canons.
  • A very long time ago, the Greeks used a straight rod called 'kanôn' for keep things at level (straight) in construction projects. The idea eventually was passed on to literature as well, in order to keep literary works at level.
  • However, the expansion of this concept took place prominently in the 80s, and it has been evolving since then.
  • Back earlier, there was an association called the 'Western Canon', which claimed to have an outstanding and influential collection of works.
  • It had been heavily criticized by the American academic community, citing reasons of non-inclusion of female authors and minorities.
  • Over time, literary canons have undergone significant changes and today, include a wider collection of works by renowned authors.
  • It may be possible that the works in a literary canon change and step out of context; they are included because they have been written during a different era, with varied customs, and have an authoritative style.


Outstanding Literary Style

  • A literary canon is a unique classification of literature. The works included in a canon need to exhibit outstanding literary style.
  • They need to have brilliant vocabulary, not too simple, not too complicated, but beautiful and apt, as per the plot.
  • Next, the author should have a unique style of his own.
  • His audience and critics must be able to identify his writing technique and the finer nuances in the work that are symbolic to himself.
  • The writing may be crisp or descriptive, but it should leave the reader with a feeling of contentment and intrigue and longing for more.
  • It should encompass all the artistic elements and provide authenticity and innovation.

Thought-provoking Components

  • It is vital that any work included in a literary canon invokes a thought in the reader's mind.
  • Besides books and poetry, a canon may also contain opinions and judgments from experts.
  • The works, thus, may need to have a subject that is considered strong enough to be respected, feared, and debated about.
  • They must initiate new ideas, thoughts, and literary inventions

Mass Appeal

  • The audience is the best judge.
  • The people who decide that a particular work will be canonized include literary experts, influential critics, professors of literature, research scholars, etc.
  • Every person has a different taste and opinion, of course, but the quality and artistic content of the work is considered while deciding if it is worth a canon inclusion.
  • The plot and style must matter both to the critics, and the readers, since their reviews play a significant role in deciding if the work is influential enough to be respected.


The examples of English literary canon can be classified into the notable works and their respective authors. You may find that some works included in the canon may or may not have a level of sophistication, yet their inclusion was apparent due to various other literary elements.

Literary Canon: Books

◼ Emma ― Jane Austen

◼ The Crucible ― Arthur Miller

◼ Animal Farm ― George Orwell

◼ Hamlet ― William Shakespeare

◼ The Tempest ― William Shakespeare
◼ Great Expectations ― Charles Dickens

◼ A Midsummer Night's Dream ― William Shakespeare

◼ The Scarlett Letter ― Nathaniel Hawthorne

◼ Frankenstein ― Mary Shelley

◼ Lord of the Flies ― William Golding

◼ Wuthering Heights ― Emily Bronte
◼ Romeo and Juliet ― William Shakespeare

◼ Pride and Prejudice ― Jane Austen

◼ Little Women ― Louisa May Alcott

◼ The Metamorphosis ― Franz Kafka

◼ One Hundred Years of Solitude ― Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Literary Canon List: Authors

William Shakespeare
  • Undoubtedly, William Shakespeare is one of the best examples of authors included in a literary canon.
  • His works exude affluence and class, right from the plot, verse, tone, and language.
  • His works describe the customs and traditions of his era, and are colorfully painted with artistic nuances and innuendos, thus earning him an influential place in a literary canon.
  • Homer's works, the legendary Greek epics, Iliad and Odyssey, have been considered among the highest works of literature.
  • History still does not have accurate evidence of whether Homer actually existed or not. Nevertheless, his work was mystic and contained the characteristics of the lore.
Jane Austen
  • One of the exemplary female authors, Jane Austen carved out her own space in a domain that was, back then, dominated by men.
  • Her works demonstrated style and simplicity, coupled with a unique sense of wisdom and beauty.
  • Her female protagonists were strong and shrewd, yet beautiful and vulnerable, and the combination of a woman being fearless and delicate at the same time, created ripples of anticipation in literary circles.
  • Her works most certainly deserve an entry in the elite.
Emily Dickinson
  • Infamous for having spent most of her life behind closed doors, reportedly undergoing psychological restlessness, Emily Dickinson is another of those exemplary female writers who deserves a mention in the canonized list.
  • She has written various pieces of poetry while in a depressed state, which was the main subject of her works.
  • Despite the fact that her works weren't exemplary, she gained popularity and recognition, much of it after her death, mainly due to the mysterious way she led her life, and partly due to the fact that no other author had so extensively explored the genre that she did.
Literary canons will cease to exist. The examples presented here may have given you an insight about the significance of literature in a certain era, belonging to a certain author.
Every form of literature finds an important place in a literary canon; it even includes snippets about politics, drama, economics, science, etc. When a piece of work is included in a canon, it commands authority, respect, and a certain official status.