The literary canon, theorists contend, is a selection of reputable works that abstracts their value for specific purposes: to safeguard them from neglect or censure, reproduce social and institutional values, maintain them as exemplary in the formation of personal or communal identities, or objectify and enshrine standards of judgment. The value of canonical works is not felt reducible to these uses or the interests that canon-making may serve, but canonization is nonetheless thought to be a recognition of their value, even confirmation that this value has been sufficiently established, by consensus or institutional edict, that it no longer requires demonstration. The discourse of canonicity thus relies on an economy of belief about the possibility and validity of agreement about literary value. Within this economy, the canon, in whichever composition, is both the evidence and the outcome of agreement, without which value would seemingly become entirely speculative. At the same time, canonicity is also a form of attention paid to valuable works, and it is not the only such form. Canonical works are treated differently than are other valuable works, and the value of the same work may be described in a different rhetoric of valuation depending on what kind of valuable work it is perceived to be. A work may be treated as a reference point, a familiar and influential text whose contribution to culture is measured relative to one context. It may be viewed as a classic, a singular and standard work whose value is perceived across a distance of time or culture. Or it may be esteemed as a canonical text, whose vital and indefinable contribution is not seen as relative to any particular time or place. The discourse of canonicity thus serves to generate belief in the possibility of suspending, however provisionally, speculation and contingency.
Jennifer A. McMahon
Literary beauty was once understood as intertwining sensations and ideas, and thus as providing subjective and objective reasons for literary appreciation. However, as theory and philosophy developed, the inevitable claims and counterclaims led to the view that subjective experience was not a reliable guide to literary merit. Literary theory then replaced aesthetics as did philosophy’s focus on literary truth. Along with the demise of the relevance of sensations, literary form also took a back seat. This suggested to some that either literature communicated truth like any other literal form of communication or it was a mere diversion: a springboard to harmless reverie or daydreaming. Neither response satisfactorily captured what was distinctive about literature: the love readers can have for literary texts and the edification or insight claimed of works within each culture’s respective catalogue of classics. However, a concept of literary beauty has again become viable due to developments in theories of pleasure and imagination. If the defining aspect of literature is the imaginative engagement it occasions, and if this imagining is constrained by plausibility and endorsed as effective relative to our goals, ideals, and interests, then literature is not reduced to either mere fact or wish fulfillment. An account of literary beauty is available which defines literature accordingly and explains how subjective and objective reasons for appreciation intertwine to evoke pleasure and insight.