Imagine the carefully catalogued books available in your favorite library. The rows on rows and stacks on stacks, categorized with little regard for how they participate in the literary canon. There is, in libraries, a certain egalitarianism about book order. A follows B. Yet when the cover is opened, the number of cancelled due dates are immediately telling: you know about the popularity of that book, how often it is removed from the shelf. You get a sense for its circulation-worthiness, and how fleeting or lasting that moment of worthiness is or was.
The formation of the canon has been integral to the development of literary trajectories and to the way books inhabit one another. Canon formation was more straightforward when there were fewer books published, when (usually) only wealthy, racially privileged individuals could publish and see their books reach wide dissemination. Google claimed in 2010 there were 129,864,880 books in the world, a number of which some were suspicious. Yet regardless of the precise number, more books exist now than anyone could hope to read in an individual lifetime. With so many books available to us, how do we find the signal among the noise? How can we best rejoice in a new, more horizontal, mode of open canon formation?
Finding Signal in Noise
The traditional way to find the signal among noise is via recommendation: from professors, friends, references in other books, etcetera. The books everyone has heard about and read (and taught and cited) form the basis for the canon. Another traditional way to find the signal among the noise is by searching through libraries in search of gems: a lesser-known book, important for its artistic influence, might be shelved next to a more popular sibling.
The interrelation of quality and popularity fascinates me. Why is it that the copy of Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Man who Lost the Sea” I have out from the library is in near-perfect condition, with five or six cancelled due dates, yet Lorrie Moore’s “Birds of America” has a snapped spine, heavy shelfwear, and pages upon pages of due dates? The due date marks provide concrete evidence of how much and for how long this particular book has been out and about in the world.
Could it merely be a quirk of location and demography for my particular library, at Cornell University? Is it because Moore’s set of stories is more enjoyable, more readable, or more popular than Sturgeon’s? Or is it because she has become a large part of the canon of short story writers, while he has not?
Crowdsourcing the Canon
We are all now, more than ever before, participants in the live formation of the canon. While vertical modes of canon formation still exist—and, indeed, support literary community by publicizing books—horizontal modes of canon formation have not only rapidly emerged but have in some cases supplanted vertical modes. The Pulitzer Prize forms the canon vertically, but web forums, Goodreads and Twitter form it horizontally.
Literary magazines are adapting to this new digital paradigm, and so are publishers. To factor the daily conversations that hundreds of people have around the globe every day about literature is a vital and necessary part of creating a canon that will survive the test of the digital age. We are all participants. We must push not only for our culture as a whole to be more free, open, and democratic, but for the methods of canon construction to be markedly more so. The only way to help our literary culture flourish is by encouraging active participants—by reading, and by encouraging readers.
Canon Construction in Sci-Fi
In science fiction, the most well-known canon-constructers (the Nebula award and the Hugo award) not only accept but require community input. The Nebula is decided by ballot by the members of the nonprofit Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, whereas the Hugo is decided by ballot at the annual Worldcon. It is a more democratic system of selecting not only candidates but winners, too.
Another thing that sets canon construction in science fiction apart is that the community also recognizes the supportive infrastructure that allows great science fiction to flourish. Incubators of good science fiction, such as editors, fan ‘zines, and semi-professional ‘zines, are celebrated alongside published fiction. Members of the science fiction fandom and the larger community actively participate in shaping their canon in the moment it occurs, and their informed voting is based upon direct familiarity with the works voted upon. The Hugo celebrates “fan writers” alongside writers in a way that honors both.
Science fiction has nourished work from the misfits, the beautiful weirdos, and the marginalized of many stripes. Since it resided in galactic suburbia for so long, away from the sleek downtown of capital-L Literature, pressure from blockbuster critics has tended to avoid it. With the great leveler of an open and free Internet, participants of all stripes have flocked to forms traditionally used to discuss science fiction: web forums and discussion groups, websites and podcasts.
Continue, dear reader(s), to participate in the horizontal formation of the canon. Take a page from science fiction and use your status in, yes, a worldwide literary community to advocate for the work you love.
Read.Might we be so bold as to suggest that you subscribe to Ploughshares?