ESTRAGON: That’s the idea, let’s abuse each other.
[They turn, move apart, turn again and face each other.]
ESTRAGON: (with finality). Crritic!
[He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.]
–Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
Back in the day, two of my college professors, who happened to be married, were old-school, medievalist, analytical bibliographers. That is, their work concerned the physical analysis and description of books. I took a research methods course from one of them, and although I am not an analytical bibliographer, my approach to language and literature is still heavily influenced by something they used to say, “You can be a critic, or you can be a scholar. It’s better to be a scholar.”
I realize the distinction could be called arbitrary, but it’s a quote that comes to mind when I read someone using the phrase “test of time” to describe how the modern literary canon came to be. “Time” is not an historical agent that conducts “tests” upon things to see what will survive and what will not. Writing exists in a world inhabited by people who make choices about what will be commissioned, copied, published, purchased, stolen, pirated, revised, taught in school, taught in church, read for pleasure, read for enlightenment, read for salvation, banned, smuggled, translated, adapated, bowdlerized, grangerized, set to music, given as gifts, and any number of other acts that take place among literate human beings.
These choices differ from one region to another and from one time period to another. We know these choices differ because we have a great deal of historical material from which we construct (and reconstruct) the complicated picture of literary history. Existing alongside these literate practices is the fact that texts themselves have physical properties that make them more or less suited to survival, and what we can and cannot recover from the past changes as new technologies are developed.
To believe that the canon is an example of literary justice is to believe that all of these things, across time and space, somehow conspired to present to you, the precious modern reader, only the best of what has ever been written. Man, you’ve gotta have some kind of big head to believe that, don’t you?
In his influential 1957 work, The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt argues that we must consider the importance of cultural context if we are to understand how this now prevalent genre first appeared:
Defoe, Richardson and Fielding do not in the usual sense constitute a literary school. Indeed their works show so little sign of mutual influence and are so different in nature that at first sight it appears that our curiosity about the rise of the novel is unlikely to find any satisfaction other than the meagre one afforded by the terms ‘genius’ and ‘accident,’ the twin faces on the Janus of the dead ends of literary history.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: having an opinion is fine. Having an informed opinion is even better.