AQA LITB4 – Further and Independent reading – Notes on the canon

If you’re preparing your critical anthology coursework piece, you might find these helpful. The vast majority of these notes are taken directly from the anthology, but I’ve divided them into sub-sections for ease of reading and included some extra content that isn’t included.


  • Aesthetics = refined pleasure = art = beauty
  • Derives from a Greek word meaning ‘things perceptible to the sense,’ ‘sensory impressions’.
  • The concept of ‘good taste’ is melded with idealised and socially elitist notions of ‘the sublime’.
  • At its crudest, an aesthetic sense was simply a sign of good breeding.
  • Art for art’s sake” – is the aesthetic nothing more, nor less, than a sensitivity to the sublime and beautiful and an aversion to the ordinary and the ugly?
  • The intrinsic value of art, and the only “true” art, is divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function.
  • Nb: Think Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ – you can set up some interesting debate with aesthetic value here. Wilde claims in the preface that ‘all art is quite useless,’ adopting the mantra of ‘art for art’s sake,’ yet the story is rather ironically, didactic. I’d probably use this for my coursework piece if I hadn’t already used it for my comparative essay! 
  • Canon of literature = high art
  • Popular writing/mass media = treated as artisanal, applied, commercial and ephemeral and therefore, left to communication, cultural and media studies.
  • There is an inherent willingness to play down the fact that many works that are now canonised as timeless classics (Ie. Shakespeare/Dickens etc) were highly popular, commercial and designedly ephemeral in their own day.

Judgement and value

  • Not all literature excites critical interest and comment
  • Literary critics have usually assumed that the texts which seem to repay special attention by many readers over a long period of time, thereby attaining ‘classic’ status, do so because they are intrinsically valuable.
  • Value is seen as a quality residing within the texts themselves – critics stress the importance of characteristics such as aesthetic unity, complexity, literary language, subject-matter and canonical status.
  • Literary texts which are assumed to be of special value are generally characterised by complexity of plot, structure, language and ideas.


  • In this context, used as a synonym of value.
  • But, there are many different forms that ‘complexity’ can take;
  • The existence of a skilfully constructed plot and the co-existence of this plot with sub-plots that mirror and highlight the events and themes of the main one.
  • Language is also typically considered to be complex – writers don’t simply choose ‘ordinary words,’ but instead, words with resonance, historical associations, beauty, or ‘rightness’ for the particular context.
  • The language, structure, plot ideas etc. can be seen to constitute the aesthetic unity of the text.
  • If these elements aren’t cohesively linked to form the same overall structure within a text ad the reader is unable to find complex, unified patterns, the text will not be regarded as high literature and will be judged to be flawed.


  • Language in valued texts is described as elegant, witty, patterned controlled; in short, the author is considered to have taken care in his or her choice, and the reader takes pleasure in the skill which the author displays.
  • Literary language, for critics such as the Russian formalists, is seen to constitute a separate type of language where the author plays conscious with the possibilities of expression i order to produce verbal art that has aesthetic qualities.

Subject matter

  • Generally considered to be serious, dealing with moral and philosophical topics of acknowledged importance.
  • Valued texts are supposed to give the reader an insight into fundamental questions which are of universal concern, such as the nature of evil, the corrupting effect of money, the value of love, etc.
  • Comic texts are rarely accorded status unless they appear to discuss such universal themes.
  • Valued texts = universal themes = durability. Eg. Shakespeare’s texts have significance not only for his time, but for all time.
  • When texts evidently discuss specific political questions in detail (political polemic), they are generally, at odds with literary worth.
  • Nb: Orwell’s ‘1984’ might be a text to consider here (or other dystopian text, but this one springs to mind as it is generally considered as canonical). It clearly discusses very specific issues, so perhaps the canon is somewhat more flexible than we give it credit for.
  • Satire is valued for its observations about humankind in general, not more specific criticisms of specific societies.

The Canon

  • Texts considered to be of the highest value.
  • Constantly changing (especially in schools), but generally taught in schools, colleges and universities.
  • Writers/dramatists poets. etc. belonging to the canon: Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer.
  • Others debated on being included: Dryden, Lawrence, Pope, Swift, Woolf, Joyce, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Jonson, Dickens, Hardy, Burns, Austen, Eliot and the Brontes.
  • Most of these writers are male, middle/upper-class, dead and are all white.
  • Is it a coincidence that most of these writers belong to the same ethnic, socio-economic and gender group, or does the canon support ruling ideologies?

Perspectives on value

– Barthes

  • Shifted the attention from assuming that ‘value’ resides within the text and focused on ‘the pleasure of the text’.
  • Not scholarly enjoyment, but the sexualised pleasure of reading.
  • Realist texts = readerly.
  • In reading ‘readerly’/realist texts, the reader begins not to be aware of the fact that he/she is reading and starts to get caught up in the pleasure of the narrative.
  • Barthes prefers ‘writerly’ texts (experimental/avant garde texts) which force the reader to ‘work’ and ‘play’ more in rode to make sense of them.
  • In ‘writerly’ texts, more attention is drawn to the process of writing (Nb: does this sound familiar??!?!?!) ; we are unable to become lost in the narrative in the same unthinking way as with readerly texts.
  • Though Barthes claimed to be opposed in constructing hierarchies, there does seem to be a value judgement made between readerly and writerly texts.
  • Yet, his writing about the pleasure of the text does question the traditional notion of canonical texts as somehow intrinsically more valuable than others.
  • Here, the reader plays an important role in attributing value to a text.

– Eagleton / Marxism

  • Attacks the concept of the canon, arguing that texts become canonical precisely as they serve to support the ruling ideology.
  • He doesn’t want to dispense with the notion of value completely, since he also thinks that there are literary texts which question or ‘escape’ ideology, and so, force the reader to consider his or her position, and perhaps lead to a form of consciousness raising.
  • Ie. Within The Women’s Movement, feminist novels written by Fay Weldon, Jeanette Winterson, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter have been very important in bringing about changes in women’s thinking.
  • These literary texts have brought about a questioning of certain ideological assumptions about the position of women and can therefore, be seen as ‘valuable’ for this reason.

– Michael Foucault

  • Questions the idea of attributing value to texts at all.
  • He argues that literary texts are really, empty texts, containing less rather than more than other texts.
  • They display ‘enunciative poverty’.
  • With literary texts, critics have to work hardest in order to fill gaps that the text leaves gaping open.
  • It is the critics themselves, writing scholarly articles and books on canonical writers, who repeat over and over the message which the text itself failed to tell.
  • Foucault also questions the notion that the writer is in total control of what is written.
  • He draws attention to the importance of other factors in the writing process, such as the common-sense knowledge of time, literary traditions and the economic and literary pressures which lead the writer to write within certain genres or styles, and on certain subjects.

Additional Notes

  • Deciding what belongs in the canon – nostalgia, aesthetics, political status etc.
  • Should it be timeless?
  • unlike the other arts, [literature] can criticise itself. Pieces of art can parody other pieces, and painting can caricature paintings. But this does not amount to a total rejection of music or painting. Literature, however, can totally reject literature, and in this it shows itself more powerful and self-aware than any other art’ – John Carey, What Good Are The Artss? (2000) (p.175)
  • ‘…the so-called ‘literary canon’, the unquestioned ‘great tradition’ of the ‘national literature’, has to be recognised as a construct, fashioned by particular people for particular reasons at a certain time… ‘Our’ Homer is not identical with the Homer of the Middle Ages, nor ‘our’ Shakespeare with that of his contemporaries; it is rather that different historical periods have constructed a ‘different’ Homer and Shakespeare for their own purposes, and found in these texts elements to value or devalue, though not necessarily the same ones.
  • Some texts are born literary, some achieve literariness, and some have literariness thrust upon them.

Some Opinions

  • Whilst the canon is essentially an elitist, perhaps even pretentious construct, it is however, necessary.
  • How else would we decide which texts merit teaching? Are some texts simply better?
  • The problem is not the canon, then, but who decides which texts go into the canon.
  • A text does not have to be structurally and linguistically complex to constitute as ‘great literature’ – complexity of theme is of great importance. Camus’ ‘L’etranger’ is a seminal piece of existentialist literature, yet only compromises of two parts and is written in a concise, economic way. It poses hugely philosophical questions, but with regards to both style and structure, is very accessible.
  • Complexity is necessary, ultimately, because it makes us think. When we read Shakespeare, we do not read in the same, passive way that we would if we read, say, Harry Potter, or other popular escapist literature. Reading becomes a more active process and we are challenged to question things that are of importance that we perhaps, wouldn’t otherwise.