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On the Canon  

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  1. 1. Do you support a canon of literary works?

    • Yes, I support the classical canon (i.e. before the culture wars).
      10
    • Yes, I support a revised canon (i.e. after the culture wars; including both European/Western classics as well as classics by minority, women, LGBT, etc. writers.)
      84
    • Yes, I support a new canon (i.e. one that largely excludes European/Western classics and focuses primarily on LGBT, minority, and women writers.)
      3
    • No, I don't support any sort of canon: they are racist, (hetero)sexist, and/or imperialist.
      16
    • No, I don't support any sort of canon: they are aesthetically untenable and/or elitist.
      24


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Hopefully I get a decent response rate with this.  I'm curious: for prospective academics in English and cognate disciplines, how do you feel about the "canon"?  If you're torn between two or more responses in the poll, please select the response with which you most agree.

 

Thanks, and feel free to discuss the results below!  :)

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As much as I should probably let this thread stagnate, I must say that I've largely changed my opinion on this after thinking about it for a few days.  I do think that aesthetic concerns still matter,

At the risk of repeating myself: aesthetics can be (*is*) something more than dry, formal, irrelevant and a-political metrical scansion. If this is what people think "aesthetics" means than we're obvi

I really don't think Toni Morrison is a good writer at all.

I wanted to write a little note supporting my position. I believe in a canon as a foundation, as a precursor. I think a canon is an immensely useful tool to introduce students to the field in a historical sense, to provide them a basis. To say: "This is what was, this is what happened afterward. From homogeneity to heterogeneity, from Renaissance to Modernism, from one to many." The canon that I support is a canon that has been conceptually repositioned to serve such a foundational basis, rather than the classical definition of the canon. Therefore, this canon does include the great works that ruptured the classical notion; it is a revised canon.

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I ended up voting for "no canon," but I do think that is is necessary to understand and view a wide range of works, and that no matter one's focus, just about everyone in English studies should be familiar with a few medieval and renaissance texts, as well as with the likes of Aristotle, primarily because of how important they have been historically, and just how many other texts include illusions to these works. The canon makes more sense for works that are pre-printing-press to me.

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I don't understand the 3rd option - who would pick a canon that excludes in order to displace a canon that excludes? I just have a hard time with the idea of "canon" - so much is lost in one overarching canon of "literature" (which often includes philosophy and other "non-literary" works). Also, any large field (like Chican@ literature, Reniassance literature, modernism, etc.) all have their own canon as well. So, I guess I would say the idea is just unstable and untenable.

Edited by GuateAmfeminist
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I'm not sure that I'd throw away the traditional canon, but revise it. It might be important for students to have a sense of what used to be considered the canon in order to better appreciate the progress, if that's what it is, the new canon exemplifies. 

Edited by JoshBarblahblah
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I'm going to explain my vote, because I could have conceivably answered in a few different ways, and it depends on which "canon" we're talking about. I think the emerging "world literature" canon is totally problematic in how it promises a "world" audience but ends up reinforcing a Western perspective of history. For me, the idea of a canon is ahistorical, though I find the histories of how canons are constructed really interesting.

 

This is why I ended up answering #4: if we're talking about an English canon, I find it really significant that the development of a canon and the education thereof was in origin a management tool for colonizing India.

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I wanted to write a little note supporting my position. I believe in a canon as a foundation, as a precursor. I think a canon is an immensely useful tool to introduce students to the field in a historical sense, to provide them a basis. To say: "This is what was, this is what happened afterward. From homogeneity to heterogeneity, from Renaissance to Modernism, from one to many." The canon that I support is a canon that has been conceptually repositioned to serve such a foundational basis, rather than the classical definition of the canon. Therefore, this canon does include the great works that ruptured the classical notion; it is a revised canon.

 

Yes. This. And haha, it looks like I'm the only one that voted for #1, but I think that just proves that I need to clarify. I think the classical canon is important for the history of ideas,but I think it should stop at the point of popular literacy (i.e. sometime in the 18th century), and everything after that should be considered fair game. Actually, anything "non-canonical" before that point is fair game, too, but I think learning the classical canon up through that point is important as a foundation for everyone studying Western literature. I say this kind of as an impostor, because my canonical knowledge is greatly lacking: I'm aware of how important it is to have that foundation because I have so little of it (non-English BA, now struggling to catch up).

 

So maybe I should have voted for #2? But I don't think the canon needs to be revised so much as truncated after a certain point, at which time we recognize that canonizing literature after that period is useless and counter-productive.

 

Does that make sense?

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Yes. This. And haha, it looks like I'm the only one that voted for #1, but I think that just proves that I need to clarify. I think the classical canon is important for the history of ideas,but I think it should stop at the point of popular literacy (i.e. sometime in the 18th century), and everything after that should be considered fair game. Actually, anything "non-canonical" before that point is fair game, too, but I think learning the classical canon up through that point is important as a foundation for everyone studying Western literature. I say this kind of as an impostor, because my canonical knowledge is greatly lacking: I'm aware of how important it is to have that foundation because I have so little of it (non-English BA, now struggling to catch up).

 

So maybe I should have voted for #2? But I don't think the canon needs to be revised so much as truncated after a certain point, at which time we recognize that canonizing literature after that period is useless and counter-productive.

 

Does that make sense?

 

It makes complete sense. Even though I ended up choosing a completely opposite choice, I pretty much agree with this, even the part of about knowing it one of my weaknesses.

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I have a lot of mixed feelings about the canon in general. I understand the idea of having base texts to start with, but part of me wonders if certain books really are as great as I've been made to believe. It also seems to me that there are still often biases at work when people try to be more in inclusive in the canon. Like certain LGBT writers or minority writers are acceptable when others aren't. And it doesn't seem to be based on any solid reasoning that I can wrap my head around. I also hated being handcuffed to the canon when I was student teaching/substitute teaching in high school when I knew that there were other texts my students would probably benefit from and relate to more easily. I'm not saying the canon has to be completely thrown out, but I have a lot of general distrust in it.

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We had this conversation in a class recently. I like the canon. It gives me something to paranoid read.  ;)

 

Seriously, though, I do mostly af-am and queer, but I think the canon is pretty useful for knowing what people deem "literary." Taste, attitude, and dominance is never going to go away. I don't think you can avoid "canon." You just gotta know what it is and what your relationship is to it. I chose "revised canon."

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The better question might be whether there is even such thing as a canon.

I know I am not saying anything others haven't heard, but I believe canons and the idea of them exist to reinforce power and/or epistemological coercion.

I mean even look at the books that are canonized in the "multi-ethnic lit" or Queer realm. They often have (And here I realize I am being a bit simplistic and reductive, but...deal with it) similar ideological frameworks as traditional canonical works.

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Some other questions to consider: is the canon static or dynamic? What is the function of a canon? Should every field within English studies have to subscribe to the same core canon? Who or what gets to decide what is in the canon? And who or what should get that power? What merits a canonical text? Quality? Historical significance? Popularity? 

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So with 52 responses as of this posting, I'm genuinely surprised by the results.  I thought that there'd be a stronger anti-canon contingent, and I certainly didn't expect over 60% of respondents to favor a canon, whether revised or classical.  I guess I'm not as radically traditionalist as I thought?  ^_^

 

I don't understand the 3rd option - who would pick a canon that excludes in order to displace a canon that excludes? I just have a hard time with the idea of "canon" - so much is lost in one overarching canon of "literature" (which often includes philosophy and other "non-literary" works). Also, any large field (like Chican@ literature, Reniassance literature, modernism, etc.) all have their own canon as well. So, I guess I would say the idea is just unstable and untenable.

 

Yes, that's the most ridiculous response in the poll.  I included it anyway so as to cover all possible general perspectives, but I didn't think anyone would choose it.

 

This is why I ended up answering #4: if we're talking about an English canon, I find it really significant that the development of a canon and the education thereof was in origin a management tool for colonizing India.

 

Yes, the English canon--and English as an academic discipline as well-- pretty much arose for nationalistic/imperialist causes.  But that doesn't automatically invalidate a canon as such.

 

I just don't think of a canon as an even minimally useful frame for understanding. When a concept is so universally controversial, and no two definitions are substantially alike, it's an idea that confuses more than it clarifies.

 

Well, let's work to create a stronger, more watertight conceptualization of the canon then!

 

For the significant anti-canon minority: if we cannot make value judgments and favor some texts over others, how does this translate into teaching literary works in the classroom?  Do you admit that your selection of texts is utterly arbitrary, and that there'd be nothing wrong with replacing your chosen texts with dollar paperbacks from your local supermarket, or even with cereal boxes, such as is sardonically depicted in Delillo's White Noise?

 

I'm an aesthetic traditionalist: there is such a thing as good and bad literature; there are shitty works by dead white European males and shitty works by women, minorities, LGBT, and so on.  Obviously, we'll never make a perfect, rigid canon, but that doesn't mean we can't devise a more fluid body of great works.  We should be teaching "the best that has been thought and said," not analyzing reality TV.  Sure, there might be minimal value in using different theoretical lens on reality TV, but that comes from the theoretical lenses themselves; when we're teaching great literature, there is value in the theoretical lenses you apply as well as in the works themselves.

 

I know many of you will disagree with this... <goes and hides>  :ph34r:

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I'm an aesthetic traditionalist: there is such a thing as good and bad literature; there are shitty works by dead white European males and shitty works by women, minorities, LGBT, and so on.  Obviously, we'll never make a perfect, rigid canon, but that doesn't mean we can't devise a more fluid body of great works.  We should be teaching "the best that has been thought and said," not analyzing reality TV.  Sure, there might be minimal value in using different theoretical lens on reality TV, but that comes from the theoretical lenses themselves; when we're teaching great literature, there is value in the theoretical lenses you apply as well as in the works themselves.

 

- Who judges the shitty works and the 'great' works, whether by dead white European males or minorities? And who judges the judges?

- Why should we not analyse reality TV? The Jersey Shore conference at UChicago began as a tongue-in-cheek thing, but the range of critical perspectives that emerged at the conference was delightful, and definitely allowed me a shockingly pleasant glimpse at how "bad objects" may nevertheless be deserving of critical attention. As someone who detests Quentin Tarantino's work, I often confront popular animosity. When I point out the ideological whitewashes and cavalier revisionism that mark his movies, I get the familiar refrain of "Oh, it's just a movie!" But I don't believe that popular art should go uncritically viewed, allowing insidious perspectives to slip into the mass vernacular.

- The theoretical lenses you speak of showcase their powers and failings when applied to 'worthy' objects just as well as 'bad' objects. If anything, at a time when the humanities are under ever-increasingly-rabid assault from the right wing of society, I would argue that expanding the scope of our theoretical arsenal is a powerful response to allegations of navel-gazing pedantry. 

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I'm not sure that as long as the university system exists it can be possible to not have some sort of canon. We can of course point out the tremendous amount of flaws with the traditional canon and emphasize to students that the works taught in courses shouldn't be thought of as "canonical" in the traditional sense, but that can't entirely undo the weight of authority that comes with teaching works in a college classroom. One can only teach an undergraduate English major so many works of literature over the span of roughly 4 years, and it's inevitable that many students will come away with the impression that the works they were given were the most important and most worth studying; why else would professors choose them? Thus the works that they saw on a syllabus during their undergraduate education become, for all practical purposes, their "canon."

 

I realize, of course, that undergraduate education is not the only area in which canon discussions are important, but it is a significant one. I voted for the revised canon, again with undergraduate education in mind. If we can't avoid teaching them a canon of some sort, we should attempt to teach them the most equitable one possible, although that obviously is much, much more easily said than done. The sad reality of budget and curriculum constraints is that there will almost always have to be exclusions of some sort. 

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We should be teaching "the best that has been thought and said," not analyzing reality TV.  Sure, there might be minimal value in using different theoretical lens on reality TV, but that comes from the theoretical lenses themselves; when we're teaching great literature, there is value in the theoretical lenses you apply as well as in the works themselves.

You had me until this moment. I agree that the existence of an inclusive and evolving canon is a necessity. As a literature student, I appreciated learning about the historical and literary developments throughout time; also, studying the canon gave me the ability to trace literary lineage from multiple texts. However, where I disagree, is the assumption that literary study about the canon has automatically more merit than literary study outside of the canon simply because of the status of the texts being analyzed. 

 

My MA thesis revolved around TV and poetry. I had to include poetry, but I didn't mind because I was able to devote an entire chapter to my favorite poet, Gwendolyn Brooks. However, I feel like my chapter analyzing the rhetoric surrounding the abortion narrative in Degrassi: The Next Generation was my most significant chapter. Why? Because I felt that analyzing how the stories of abortion are censored and circulated, how they resist the political spectacle, and how they affirm or complicate the assumptions surrounding abortion really fucking matters. Looking at how we tell the stories of abortion in public spheres not only supplied me with a wealth of material to analyze, it also, I believe, could have real, tangible effects on the political and interpersonal discourse surrounding abortion. I'm not saying that literature also doesn't have that power; I'm saying that texts from all sorts of medium do.

 

Furthermore, it's critical to acknowledge how our definition of texts are evolving. Let me just quickly assume that the definition of great literature is the telling of a great story that also grapples with significant philosophical questions. Given that definition, if I were asked, what was the greatest piece of literature to emerge in the past five years, I would say Mad Men. The language, the stories, the characters, the symbolism, the grappling: it's all there. Yes, it's a TV show, but how is a weekly episodic telling of a story for popular culture any different from A Tale of Two Cities? How we tell stories and create texts is changing, and I believe we can both celebrate and teach the canon while reaching out to other forms of text for rich and significant literary study.

 

ETA: The f-bomb in the second paragraph isn't meant to be aggressive, FYI. I just like how it sounds in that sentence. :) Great discussion happening here!

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- Who judges the shitty works and the 'great' works, whether by dead white European males or minorities? And who judges the judges?

- Why should we not analyse reality TV? The Jersey Shore conference at UChicago began as a tongue-in-cheek thing, but the range of critical perspectives that emerged at the conference was delightful, and definitely allowed me a shockingly pleasant glimpse at how "bad objects" may nevertheless be deserving of critical attention. As someone who detests Quentin Tarantino's work, I often confront popular animosity. When I point out the ideological whitewashes and cavalier revisionism that mark his movies, I get the familiar refrain of "Oh, it's just a movie!" But I don't believe that popular art should go uncritically viewed, allowing insidious perspectives to slip into the mass vernacular.

- The theoretical lenses you speak of showcase their powers and failings when applied to 'worthy' objects just as well as 'bad' objects. If anything, at a time when the humanities are under ever-increasingly-rabid assault from the right wing of society, I would argue that expanding the scope of our theoretical arsenal is a powerful response to allegations of navel-gazing pedantry. 

 

The quality of the arguments for or against the value of a literary work should stand by itself.  Again, there either is or there is not such a thing as good and bad literature.  It's a tautology.  If we're going to say that there isn't such a thing as good and bad literature, then your selection of texts is completely arbitrary.  There'd be nothing wrong with teaching fast food menus and cereal boxes in your classes as your "texts."

 

You had me until this moment. I agree that the existence of an inclusive and evolving canon is a necessity. As a literature student, I appreciated learning about the historical and literary developments throughout time; also, studying the canon gave me the ability to trace literary lineage from multiple texts. However, where I disagree, is the assumption that literary study about the canon has automatically more merit than literary study outside of the canon simply because of the status of the texts being analyzed. 

 

My MA thesis revolved around TV and poetry. I had to include poetry, but I didn't mind because I was able to devote an entire chapter to my favorite poet, Gwendolyn Brooks. However, I feel like my chapter analyzing the rhetoric surrounding the abortion narrative in Degrassi: The Next Generation was my most significant chapter. Why? Because I felt that analyzing how the stories of abortion are censored and circulated, how they resist the political spectacle, and how they affirm or complicate the assumptions surrounding abortion really fucking matters. Looking at how we tell the stories of abortion in public spheres not only supplied me with a wealth of material to analyze, it also, I believe, could have real, tangible effects on the political and interpersonal discourse surrounding abortion. I'm not saying that literature also doesn't have that power; I'm saying that texts from all sorts of medium do.

 

Furthermore, it's critical to acknowledge how our definition of texts are evolving. Let me just quickly assume that the definition of great literature is the telling of a great story that also grapples with significant philosophical questions. Given that definition, if I were asked, what was the greatest piece of literature to emerge in the past five years, I would say Mad Men. The language, the stories, the characters, the symbolism, the grappling: it's all there. Yes, it's a TV show, but how is a weekly episodic telling of a story for popular culture any different from A Tale of Two Cities? How we tell stories and create texts is changing, and I believe we can both celebrate and teach the canon while reaching out to other forms of text for rich and significant literary study.

 

I never said that television couldn't be art, or that there couldn't be such a thing as a visual canon.  Indeed, art isn't limited by medium.  I know nothing about television (I don't watch it for the most part); Mad Men could be a great, canonical, artistic TV show.  Video games can be art too, although that medium has produced minimal artistically significant works (I say this as a gamer.  Games are the medium that is most saturated with shit, in my opinion).  I limited myself to written works in this survey because I know nothing about other forms: my academic work is strictly concerned with the written.

 

There could be separate canons for separate mediums of artistic expression.  All I'm saying is that it is in fact possible to make value judgments about literature, television, film, paintings, video games, etc. that hold water.

Edited by Two Espressos
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I'm an aesthetic traditionalist: there is such a thing as good and bad literature; there are shitty works by dead white European males and shitty works by women, minorities, LGBT, and so on.  Obviously, we'll never make a perfect, rigid canon, but that doesn't mean we can't devise a more fluid body of great works.  We should be teaching "the best that has been thought and said," not analyzing reality TV.  Sure, there might be minimal value in using different theoretical lens on reality TV, but that comes from the theoretical lenses themselves; when we're teaching great literature, there is value in the theoretical lenses you apply as well as in the works themselves.

 

I definitely respect this position, because I'm definitely not saying that works thought to be inside the canon shouldn't be read. I am saying, though, that when someone says the "traditional canon," I don't know quite what they mean, because canons have always been evolving and serving specific political moments. But I don't think the canon is only a question of representation, but also of accuracy. If one of the purposes of literary study is to examine how culture is produced and circulated globally (at least I think it is), then I think national canons are at best misleading in how they suggests isolated national traditions that clash with each other (rather than highlighting their interconnectedness).

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The quality of the arguments for or against the value of a literary work should stand by itself.  Again, there either is or there is not such a thing as good and bad literature.  It's a tautology.  If we're going to say that there isn't such a thing as good and bad literature, then your selection of texts is completely arbitrary.  There'd be nothing wrong with teaching fast food menus and cereal boxes in your classes as your "texts."

 

 

I never said that television couldn't be art, or that there couldn't be such a thing as a visual canon.  Indeed, art isn't limited by medium.  I know nothing about television (I don't watch it for the most part); Mad Men could be a great, canonical, artistic TV show.  Video games can be art too, although that medium has produced minimal artistically significant works (I say this as a gamer.  Games are the medium that is most saturated with shit, in my opinion).  I limited myself to written works in this survey because I know nothing about other forms: my academic work is strictly concerned with the written.

 

There could be separate canons for separate mediums of artistic expression.  All I'm saying is that it is in fact possible to make value judgments about literature, television, film, paintings, video games, etc. that hold water.

 

I think this is the sort of essentialist, reductiionist impulse I've always resisted, and have thus affiliated myself with scholarship that goes against this sort of separation. You keep talking about Mad Men as a TV show. Why is it that you cannot recognise it as a text? Why does there have to be a "visual canon," as though a film, television show, anime, etc. are not, also, texts? I'm unsure if this is just a semantic slip on your part or if there is a deeper significance, but it's something I always find troublesome. I do not believe that we must have separate canons for separate mediums of expression, for the simple reason that medium-specificity is dead. Gone. The digital has erased that. In this context, you should definitely read Rosalind Krauss on the "post-medium condition." Medium specificity is not tenable in an era when letter, sound, and image can all be collapsed to binary bits of data. 

 

Making value judgments about text (and this is why I insist upon defining text as emanating from any 'medium'--defined in the classical sense for lack of a suitable replacement) is not our goal, to my mind. My work is to question, theorise, excavate, contextualise, but not to make value judgments that define this film (or text) as "good" and that as "bad."However, resisting such value judgments doesn't imply that the selection of texts is arbitrary. The canon includes texts by judging them against their individual merits, as you rightly note. It's just that these merits are not fixed. 

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But an "aesthetic worth valuation system" is necessary to determine what works are used in the more interesting pursuits. If not, we enter a nihilistic abyss. Aesthetic value is irrelevant in choosing the african-american and queer works you study? Why do you study them then? 

 

Two Espressos isn't saying our entire project should be to categorize and rank works based on aesthetic value. I believe he's saying, as literary scholars, aesthetic value should play a role in determining which works we choose to study; otherwise, we just become second-rate social scientists. 

 

ETA: This was in response to Trip Willis.

Edited by Rupert Pupkin
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I think this is the sort of essentialist, reductiionist impulse I've always resisted, and have thus affiliated myself with scholarship that goes against this sort of separation. You keep talking about Mad Men as a TV show. Why is it that you cannot recognise it as a text? Why does there have to be a "visual canon," as though a film, television show, anime, etc. are not, also, texts? I'm unsure if this is just a semantic slip on your part or if there is a deeper significance, but it's something I always find troublesome. I do not believe that we must have separate canons for separate mediums of expression, for the simple reason that medium-specificity is dead. Gone. The digital has erased that. In this context, you should definitely read Rosalind Krauss on the "post-medium condition." Medium specificity is not tenable in an era when letter, sound, and image can all be collapsed to binary bits of data. 

 

Making value judgments about text (and this is why I insist upon defining text as emanating from any 'medium'--defined in the classical sense for lack of a suitable replacement) is not our goal, to my mind. My work is to question, theorise, excavate, contextualise, but not to make value judgments that define this film (or text) as "good" and that as "bad."However, resisting such value judgments doesn't imply that the selection of texts is arbitrary. The canon includes texts by judging them against their individual merits, as you rightly note. It's just that these merits are not fixed. 

 

How do you determine what works you study? Whatever you happen to stumble upon? If we've entered a "post-medium condition," why not read your grandpa farting as a "text"? 

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I just think some kind of aesthetic worth valuation system is a less interesting critical pursuit than what we could be doing, at least as a primary focus.

Aw man I feel like the actual debate about canon itself is what's the *most* interesting to explore. I love reading criticism and opinionated pieces from centuries ago that rail against the supposed artlessness of texts that are perhaps considered 'fine art' to a different generation, because it allows us to think critically about the forces behind the evolution of popular opinion itself.

I chose the revised canon option out of a 'more is better' logic, but I like the first choice as well, because I feel like if we maintain the canon as a constant, then the variables that arise in each time period and genre can be examined more empirically.

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