The term “Canon” which descends from the ancient word ‘kanon’ developed the secondary sense of “rule” or “law” and later came to be applied to the list of books in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. It was in the fourth century AD when “canon” used to signify a list of texts or authors, specifically the books of Bible and in this context canon suggested to its users a principal of selection by which some authors or texts were deemed worthier of preservation than others.
The cannonizers of early Christianity were concerned neither with the beauty of the texts nor with their universal appeal but acted with a clear concept of how texts would “measure up” to the standards of their religious community.
It was much later that the term canon was used to signify the list of secular works accepted by experts as genuinely written by a specific author.
The literary works by canonical authors are the ones that at a given time are most kept in print, most frequently and fully discussed by literary critics and historians and-in the present era-most likely to be included in anthologies and syllabi of college courses.
The social process by which an author or a literary work comes to be widely known although tacitly recognized as canonical has come to be called “canon formation”.
In recent years many literary critics have become convinced that the selection of literary texts for canonization operates in a way like the formation of the biblical canon but in what social context does this process of canon formation occur?
It is known that for biblical canon the institution is church. Here the canonical selection takes the form of a rigorously final process of inclusion or exclusion but does this process work in the same way for literary canon?
It is a historical fact that works are continuously added to as well as subtracted from this canon. It may be conjectured on this basis that acts of judgement concerning literary works have a different social agenda than the dogmatic or the ideological.
On viewing the other side of the canon formation many feminist critics have opined that the majority of canonical authors are men and that before 18th century hardly any canonical authors (women) are found. But it would be historically anachronistic to claim that it was a general practice to exclude women from the canon before the 18th century because on that period of time men were only taught to read and write.
Conversely when more women (after the 18th century) were taught to read and write, works by women did begin to appear in the canon (for ex. Jane Austen).
But the question remains how does a work become canonical?
It has long been known by historians of literature that the process we call “canon formation” first appeared in ancient schools in connection with the social function of disseminating knowledge of how to read and write.
Remarkably, the social function of the literary curriculum within the institution of the school continues to operate in much the same way 2000 years later.
Through the course of education, when one is asked to read any novel, essay, poem, or some other sort of text, it is because a teacher or some other entity decided the text should be canonized. Canons, then, can be understood as value-determining lists that are ingrained in our education system, perhaps unavoidably so. However, the political process of deciding what makes it into a given canon and what does not has long been a topic of scrutiny and debate for scholars of all academic disciplines.
At any time the boundaries of a literary canon remains indefinite and the dispute, while inside those boundaries some authors are central and others marginal.
Occasionally, an earlier author who was for long on the fringe of the canon, or even outside it gets transferred to a position of eminence. A conspicuous example is John Donne.
A widespread change which occurred in the canon formation is that the standard canon of great books not only in literature but in all areas of humanistic study has been determined less by artistic excellence than by politics of power.
Despite strides made in recent decades to reform literary canons, issues and controversy still exist. Thus, examining how the institution of the canon was formed, how canons have been revised over the years and how canons function today can help to illuminate the pitfalls of canonization, many of which have yet to be overcome.