The word canon comes from an ancient Greek word which means "standard" or "measuring rod." This meaning has not changed over time, as a canon has come to represent, ideally, the best and/or most representative works of a certain kind.
The Biblical Canon is probably the most familiar, and it was painstakingly compiled, with Divine inspiration, to represent the works which every Christian should read. While there are perhaps some religions or sects that have added to or taken away from it, the traditional Bible is the standard.
The Literary Canon is not so easily identified and adhered to, as different groups of people at different times have established and re-established the list of literary works which set the standard for all other literature.
A Literary Canon is useful for several reasons. First of all, a canon does establish the best works, for
not all works merit an equal claim on humanity’s limited attention.
Second, since so many new books are being produced each year in addition to all those that have already been written, readers have to establish priorities based on something. A canon helps identify which works are worthy of our time and intellectual energy. Finally, a canon does provide some uniformity in education and scholarship. If everyone in the country adheres, at least generally, to the canon, the people of that country share a common literary knowledge base.
Those who establish the Literary Canon wield a lot of power, then, and the problem is, of course, that there is not one uniform Literary Canon for the country because many groups and educational institutions do not want to be dictated to regarding what is "best." Thus we have no perfect, universally agreed-upon Literary Canon.
That does not mean that we can't identify some characteristics for works which are generally considered to be part of the established Literary Canon.
- Aesthetic elements: language and style which are innovative, artistic, and complex.
- Subject matter: sharing experiences that have a universal quality or elements which transcend time and place (are true for all men for all time).
- Innovation: the superiority of a work based on its own merit but also upon it measurement against other works that have come before.
- Authenticity: sharing truths from some foundation of experience or observation over time.
Notice what is not on this list: language or plot lines used simply to shock or entice readers. While many works in the canon were shocking to readers at the time they were written, authors generally did not use this simply to sell books or maintain a reading audience.
There is little disagreement that the traditional canon in literature consists primarily of white, educated males--they were the primary writers of their day. Feminists argue that there are not enough women writers on the list; multiculturalists argue that there are too many European writers and not enough representation of other ethnicities. They do have a point; however, adding works by these groups just to broaden the canon is antithetical to the concept of excellence.
So many college campuses, in particular, have created their own more modern literary canons, dismissing the more classic choices in favor of a more diverse authorship. While this is their right and it certainly provides a variety of reading experiences for students, it often lowers the standard of literary excellence as defined by the Literary Canon and does dilute the collective literary knowledge base of the population.