Revising the Literary Canon

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Is there a general agreement about which literary works are most important to study?

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Unfortunately, this question contains an undefined term and a somewhat obfuscatory use of passive voice. "Surprising" isn't really something one can measure and one cannot judge whether a person or group of people will be surprised or won't without knowing their identities. Similarly, in stating "there is ... agreement" the question evades the issue of who is agreeing.

Most cultures do have what is known as "literary canons," standard works that are part of the school curriculum and that form part of the traditions of a particular culture. These canons, though, vary with time and region. The literary canon of Japan is not that of Nigeria and that of Tunisia not that of Germany. Even within the United States, canons have varied. Many of the writers belonging to ethnic minorities whose works are now considered standard elements of a literary curriculum, such as Zora Neale Hurston or Louise Erdrich or Alice Walker, would have been unknown two or three decades ago. Many critics in the UK and the US now include works of popular culture such as the novels of M. E. Braddon and Wilkie Collins in the canon, but others do not. The Letters of Phalaris, which were standard reading before Bentley attacked their authenticity, are now only known to specialists. Alcibiades I, which was the standard introduction to Plato among Middle Platonists is now also only read by specialists.

While some older works have solidified their positions in the western canon and are unlikely to fall out of favor (e.g. Homer, Virgil, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Goethe, Austen, Baudelaire) other elements of the canon are constantly changing.

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