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Criteria and Canons


What makes a work of literature good? This simple sounding question is often evaded. Most academic critics claim to be sure that popular literature, such as mysteries and science fiction, is inferior to the classics of serious literature. Yet attempts to define explicit criteria for artistic success in literature often meet with roadblocks. An investigation of literary canons suggest some surprisingly simple concepts, however.

Most of the classic English poetry that is admired today is by authors who were very good with words. By classic English poetry we mean writers from Skelton to Emily Dickinson, the sort of writers found in standard anthologies of pre-Twentieth Century English language verse. Today, academic critics seem overwhelmingly interested in the political, social and religious contents of poets. But it is clear, that when poets' reputations were being made in previous centuries, that "good poets" were those who wrote English beautifully, and "bad poets" were the ones whose verse sounded flat and stilted. Critics were totally uninterested in whether poets were conservatives, like Spenser, or liberals, like Shelley. Both wrote beautifully, and both were considered great writers.

The criterion of beautiful writing extends to certain classic novelists. Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, W.H. Hudson, Sarah Orne Jewett and Stephen Crane all wrote beautiful, complex prose. While their subject matter is wildly various, they maintain a common standard of stylistic excellence. Such writers are often classified as "poetic novelists", a term that probably indicates that they share beautiful writing like that of the outstanding poets.

With an explicit criterion like this, it is fairly easy for educated people to come to a conclusion whether a poet was good, or not. Despite the difficulties of making aesthetic judgments, and despite the differences in personal taste, there is a substantial amount of agreement about who excels at poetry. Most poetry lovers agree that Keats was a vastly better writer of verse than Kipling, for example.

This is not to say that existing canons are always good or complete. Judgments of quality depend first of all on the availability of an author's work. When Roger Lonsdale unearthed a vast number of obscure poets for The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse, he triggered a revolution in taste for that period. Many of these writers had not been reprinted for two hundred years. Nor is taste in poetry guaranteed to triumph over prejudice. For example, Emilia Lanier's work was completely ignored in her lifetime, and only six copies of her work survived, unreprinted for 400 years. Like many women and minority authors, her work faced discrimination leading to its dismissal.

Still, once available, contemporary lovers of poetry were able to get real, immediate pleasure from these finds. These writers are clearly "good" poets according to the traditional criterion of beautiful writing.

A Criterion for the Classic Mystery

One can come up with a similar simple criterion for evaluating the classic mystery. Good writers are those who plot well, and bad writers are those who plot poorly. Writers' works have many other merits, of course, and one can always find exceptions. But it is the main criterion of excellence shared by the writers on my list.

There are some side issues that need to be explored here. One, is that I am largely interested in "mystery stories" rather than "crime fiction". By a mystery story, I mean a work of fiction including mysterious events, events that are eventually explained in the tale. Works that are not mystery stories include many kinds of suspense fiction, tough tales of action, books about criminals, looks inside the minds of killers, and thrillers. These books are not necessarily bad. However, I know by experience that I personally don't usually find them very interesting. Despite being about crime, they are very different as reading experiences from mystery stories.

Secondly, the distinction between "cozy" and "hard-boiled" that is so important to contemporary publishers means little or nothing to my enjoyment of a book. I like both Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett, for example. I want a well plotted mystery, and I don't care if it is cozy or not. The Form of good plotting is far more important to me than the Content of social setting.

I do not agree with the view that mystery fiction is inferior to "literary" fiction. I believe that the brilliant plotting in classic mystery fiction is a great artistic accomplishment. It has a produced a large body of fiction whose artistic quality is equal to that of any other art form, whether serious or popular.

Missing Criteria in Modern "Art" Literature

One problem with 20th century "serious" literature is that any criteria have simply vanished. Authors have been put into canons, without any clear accomplishment that can be pointed out to disinterested observers. To take one especially flagrant example, why is Ezra Pound considered a great poet? I have no idea. His verse seems both ugly and obscure to me. Nor does he have any redemptive social value - after all, we are talking about a man who was a Fascist propagandist during World War II. Most contemporary canonized writers are not as offensive as Pound, but their merits are often almost as elusive.

Fiction as a whole faces a similar problem of missing criteria. Why is one fiction writer good, and another bad? There are no common standards. Attempts to set up a "realism" criterion for fiction have been popular, but usually ignored in practice. For example, Samuel Beckett is clearly not a realist, but he is in the canon. For that matter, a great deal of F. Scott Fitzgerald's work, for example, deals with individual people, and does not function as a realistic "portrait of his society". "Realism" is most consistently invoked simply to exclude mysteries and sf from serious consideration. It is like a bar keeping certain types of literature out of the country club. (No one should deduce from this that I am trying to throw Beckett or Fitzgerald out of the canon. In fact, I chose Beckett and Fitzgerald partly because I admire their work. I am simply trying to point up the lack of standards among critics.)

One could certainly argue that fiction is very diverse, and that each writer should be judged on their individual merits. This point of view is defensible, but its immediate logical corollary is that mystery and sf writers should be admitted for immediate consideration on their individual accomplishments.

Literary Merit

Ascribing "literary merit" to works of fiction, seems way too vague to be a successful criterion. What does this mean: complex prose style? characterization? atmosphere? social insight? symbolic structures in the book? faithfulness to realism? spiritual meaning? Any one of these more explicit concepts can serve as a good criterion. They are well defined, and discussible by most educated readers. Simple assertions of "literary merit" are vague to the point of meaninglessness, however. Mystery critics have a bad habit of using the term "literary merit" when they really need to talk far more explicitly about a book's achievements.

Criteria in the Drama

There are branches of "serious modern literature" where there are criteria, the drama, for instance. Most theater historians seem to agree that an important criterion for a good play is that it "works in the theater". By this they seem to mean that the author is a good storyteller, relative to the special needs of the stage. While this criterion sounds vague, it is quite visible in production to experienced theater goers. One play, its story and its characters seem to come alive on stage and be gripping, and other plays do not. This quality of storytelling unites such otherwise diverse looking authors as Richard Sheridan and Samuel Beckett, for example. Plays can be more than this, of course, but most drama historians have insisted that they never be less (to borrow a phrase from Andrew Sarris).

Benefits of Criteria

The theater has benefited in several ways from such a criterion. For one thing, students and novices of the drama can be taught to understand why certain plays are admired. Secondly, by insisting on good storytelling, the theater has never abandoned certain roots in human culture, one that regards good storytelling as important in literature. Third, it gives the drama a common platform from which both avant-garde and traditional works can be admired.

Poetry has also benefited from its clear criteria - and so have readers of poetry. One big issue that is often evaded by scholars is "Why should I study this field. How does it benefit me?" Students often ask this question, one that is legitimately important to them. In the field of classical poetry, the adherence to a clear criterion allows a satisfactory answer to this question. Students benefit from poetry in two ways. One is that the beautiful complex writing gives pleasure. In societies that produced the great traditional poetry, poetry was often treated as a form of entertainment. In Elizabethan England, poetry and airs (sung poetry) often formed the center of social get-togethers. And the theater featured poetry. Poets have been "selected" as good for how much delight their writing gives to readers. In other words, poetry's criterion includes fun. A sense of artistic pleasure and delight was central to the belief in a poet's excellence. Classical music and painting have also included aesthetic delight as key elements for inclusion in the canon. As a result, listening to classical music or looking at paintings can be an overwhelmingly pleasurable experience. By contrast, modern fiction critics have disdained any sense of pleasure or delight in their choice of outstanding writers. Words like "disturbing" or "wrenching" are often used to valorize "great writers" of fiction. The canon of literary fiction is full of writers like Dostoyevsky whose works are overwhelmingly depressing.

The second key benefit of classical poetry is that studying it trains readers to express themselves well using language. Studying poetry can help people excel at both oral and written expression. Since the days of Ancient Greece, studying poetry has been seen as the central road for developing skill in oratory. In Elizabethan England, skill with words was viewed as being the main test of a person's intelligence and education, and hence their fitness to hold jobs. So people had strong economic incentives to perfect their verbal skills as much as possible. The constant immersion in poetry in Elizabethan times, even in activities described as entertainment, was not only for fun. It was also a way to keep job skills honed at all times.

One reason, I believe, that modern Americans have such trouble with verbal expression, whether written or oral, is the removal of training in poetry from the curriculum. Earlier societies correctly saw training in verse as the main road to verbal fluency for their citizens. Studying poetry has immediate practical benefits in promoting students' skill with words.


Canons are very controversial today. I would like to stick my oar in these troubled waters. I neither think that existing canons are perfect, nor rather that they are an abomination. Rather, the point of view expressed here, is that canons are a good thing, in branches of art where there are clear criteria for excellence. In literature, such branches include poetry, mystery fiction, and the drama. In such branches, the majority of the canonized works are good, and should be left in the canons. But many deserving works have been omitted, often due to such factors as obscurity and bigotry. Critics need to research and include such works, to make bigger, more inclusive, and hence better canons for the future. By contrast, in fields where there are no clear criteria, such as literary fiction, canons are often a mess. Works have been included arbitrarily, and inclusion and disinclusion seems to be at random. The problem in these fields is not canons per se, but a complete lack of open thinking and discussion about what the critics value in a work of art.

Canons are much less controversial in fields where there are clear criteria, because readers can independently judge whether a work should be included. Where there are no criteria, the canon simply becomes a voice of irrational authority.

Canons are especially important in teaching newcomers about a branch of art. They have their greatest value in encouraging students to experience certain works. This is why the field of African American Studies, for example, is working so hard to today to build canons - it wants a way for young people to experience the best works of a neglected literature. Canons are worst when they are used to exclude or hide works of art from view. Given the incompleteness of even the best current canons, using a work's absence from existing canons to discourage people from studying it is especially illogical.

My not so modest hope is that we - mystery fandom - can build good canons for the study of mystery fiction. I hope that the recommended reading lists in this website can serve as contributions to such a canon. Of course, a real canon for mystery fiction will be much, much bigger than the reading lists here, and include many works I have not read yet, or even heard of.

To build canons, we will have to discuss authors' works novel by novel and short story by short story. All too often, mystery criticism in the past has only rated authors as a whole. Worse, it has often not even rated writers - instead we get statements like "Rex Stout is one of the most prominent modern mystery writers". Well, does the critic really think he is any good? If so, which of his works are outstanding? These are the questions we have to answer to build a canon.