Literature sits right in the middle of the crossfire. Battles are fought not only over which texts form the core of Western inheritance, but also over which approaches best serve to foster comprehension. Marxist? Deconstructionist? And behind these disputes is yet another – dispute over what constitutes literature. Where are the boundary lines to be drawn? What do we include and exclude, and why? Do women’s dairies from the nineteenth century count as worthy objects of literary study? How about African American slave narratives? Who will decide?

Critics have wrestled with these questions at length in recent years, English critic Terry Eagleton, for instance, looks back at the history of English Literature and find that there are no consistent guidelines for inclusion, and never have been. In some periods, memoirs and works of history or speculation were accepted as literature, others, not. Moreover, works dismissed as inferior in one epoch may be crowned as masterpieces in another. Poets like John Milton and John Donne have not always been regarded as great; especially cursed with obscurity for centuries. Seen from the longer vantage of history, every attainment is to some degree temporary. What is “literary” and what is “great” are both to a large degree the product of consensus. That is, they are what people at any one time agree they are.

The agreement, of course, is no simple thing, and the opinions of the man or women in the street do not have much to do with it. What finally matters is institutional consensus, which really means a series of tug-o-war matches fought out in conference room and in the pages of academic journals. Back-room votes determine policy; policy shapes curricula; and curricula decide, to a significant extent, what we learn and carry as our picture of the world.

The student is not generally aware of this chain of influence. He or she opens the textbook and finds set, out, in bold lettering, the principal fields, authors, and approaches to study. This is literature. Here are the elements of fiction, poetry, and drama. And participation in reading and writing about these texts makes it so. The ideas and valuations crystallize in millions of separate sensibilities.

Source: Literature: The Evolving Canon, by Sven P. Birkerts

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