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The Long Literary Canon

Sometimes I tend to be a few years late. Present example: I’m only now reading Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (2006). If you haven’t already heard of the Long Tail as a business or cultural catchphrase–aside from the book, you can see everything Anderson still has to say about the Long Tail here–then I’ll let him explain it:

Until the past few years, “If it is not a hit, it is a miss,” Anderson writes. “It has failed that economic test and, therefore, never should have been made. With this hit-driven mindset, history is written by the blockbusters, and the best test of quality is box-office gross. And this doesn’t just apply to Hollywood. It’s how we assign space on store shelves, fill time slots on television, and build radio playlists. It’s all about allocating scarce resources to the most ???deserving,’ which is to say, the most popular.”

Now, with an evergrowing swarm of Web tools to help us find and purchase everything we specifically want–no more settling for what Blockbuster has in stock, when you can order rare cult-classics on Netflix–our collective demand is moving ever further down a Long Tail of options. Anderson: “We are turning from a mass market back into a niche nation [as we were in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries], defined now not by our geography but by our interests.”

A lot of the discussion surrounding the Long Tail phenomenon has largely centered around popular entertainment and commerce. What sticks in my mind as I read Anderson’s work, however, is how the Long Tails that many of us now employ will disrupt or even annihilate so many cultural touchstones. I’m thinking, specifically, of the literary canon.

The notion that we have a literary canon anymore is, I know, pass??. But in truth, we still do. Many have derided the literary canon in principle, but the practice is still in effect. I seriously doubt that anyone presently in college can graduate without being assigned any or all of the following in a half dozen different humanity courses: Melville, Shakespeare, Morrison, Beecher-Stowe, Wordsworth, Langston Hughes, Marx, Freud, Austen, Homer, et al. Harold Bloom–despite his hand-wringing even fifteen years ago–can probably rest easy that his opinions will still find some resonance for the next few years.

As Barbara Herrnstein Smith points out–forgive the academic prose, here–our educational system reinforces itself by developing “pedagogic and other acculturative mechanisms directed at maintaining at least (and, commonly, at most) a subpopulation of the community whose members ???appreciate the value’ of works of art and literature ???as such.’” Smith goes on: “That is, by providing them with ???necessary backgrounds,’ teaching them ???appropriate skills,’ ???cultivating their interests,’ and, generally, ???developing their tastes,’ the academy produces generation after generation of subjects for whom the objects and texts thus labeled do indeed perform the functions thus privileged, thereby insuring the continuity of mutually defining canonical works, canonical functions, and canonical audiences.”

This system has long been due for some upheaval.

Long Tails in the world of reading will, to my mind, dismantle literary canon-making over the next few decades in two major ways. First, given the choice that present-day readers have and will continue to have between “classics” and “books they love”–of course I acknowledge inevitable overlap between these two categories I just made up–they will increasingly choose “books they love.” Because they can. Because when the option isn’t between “read the Scarlet Letter for class or watch TV,” but “read the Scarlet Letter for class, watch TV, or read these five other really good niche books my bookish friends have linked me to,” well, Hawthorne’s going to take a backseat increasingly often to his distant literary progeny. In turn, more of those books will nudge their way into the “classics” category, thereby flattening and complicating the canon. This won’t resemble the actions of a few renegade professors shoving writers like Philip K. Dick into the canon–it’s more likely that legions of professors will push legions of Philip K. Dicks into the canon. (Or, more accurately, into the many canons.)

The second development in the age of Long Tails may prove an even greater disrupter to literary canons. Namely, it’s not just the number of texts to which we will have access, but an insanely greater number of texts that will enter the reading marketplace. Jane Austen was not only uniquely talented among her contemporary scribes; she and her contemporary scribes were uniquely privileged to get enough time on the printing press to produce the physical copies of their work. The number of books that could be produced was limited by how many copies the presses could pump out.

Today, with all of the platforms that can host bookish content, that’s just not true anymore. I’m not speaking strictly of vanity presses, which have already been around for a while. I mean e-readers and print-on-demand–and whatever else will come along in the next decade or so. If you think you have a book in you, it’s entirely possible to write it, print it, market it online, and sell it. To hell with talent or merit. Ninety percent of the time, I agree, this won’t be a good thing. But when all the books that make up the other ten percent keep hitting the reading market, year after year, decade after decade, then the canon will be siginificantly disrupted. The Long Tail–to continue the metaphor–will just keep growing more and more little hairs to be plucked by curious readers.