Is William Faulkner the Most “Canonical” American Novelist of the Twentieth Century?

faulknerAccording to the data, the answer is yes; but canonical status shouldn’t be confused with aesthetic value.

Metacanon measures the “canonicity” of individual works of literature by counting the number of times they’re mentioned in scholarly journals and converting this data into a uniform score for each work. Right now, it only covers twentieth century American fiction, but I’m working on expanding it.

I recently added a new feature to the Metacanon statistics page that calculates the total points received by each author in the database. The result is the following list of twenty-five top-scoring authors:

William Faulkner: 177.85
Willa Cather: 112.58
Philip Roth: 111.35
Toni Morrison: 105.59
Ernest Hemingway: 95.77
Saul Bellow: 84.22
John Steinbeck: 75.06
Vladimir Nabokov: 69.93
Don DeLillo: 69.31
F. Scott Fitzgerald: 65.70
Sinclair Lewis: 64.93
Thomas Pynchon: 63.75
Alice Walker: 60.74
John Barth: 54.96
Henry James: 53.44
Cormac McCarthy: 52.41
Edith Wharton: 51.48
Kurt Vonnegut: 49.34
Theodore Dreiser: 48.54
James Baldwin: 47.12
Richard Wright: 45.83
Walker Percy: 44.79
Jack London: 41.35
Zora Neale Hurston: 41.17
Flannery O’Connor: 40.73

As you can see, Faulkner is ahead by a wide margin. This is primarily the result of decades upon decades of scholarship on Faulkner’s sizable oeuvre. Faulkner is often thought of as one of the “greatest” American writers, but as Lawrence Schwartz points out in his Creating Faulkner’s Reputation (1990), this has at least as much to do with the political context of post-WWII America as it does with any aesthetic value inherent to Faulkner’s works. Faulkner’s 177.85 score is a reflection of this critical history.

After Pierre Bordieux’s La Distinction (1979), this caveat also goes for literary canons and aesthetic value more generally. Far from merely reflecting inherent value, canons reflect a socially constructed consensus. While it is tempting to think that the objectivity of a number like 177.85 represents something more concrete than the social construction of literary value, it would be a mistake to assume so.

So what does this list mean then? While I’m willing to venture that it is a fairly accurate measurement of the “canonicity” of these authors, the catch is that here “canonicity” means only the degree to which an author has been mentioned frequently in scholarship, giving the concept an awkward circularity. The authors in the canon are canonical because they are written about a lot, i.e. because they are canonical. It’s best not to venture beyond this humble assertion. These numbers tell us something that we already knew: there are a few authors who have been talked about more than the rest. They do not tell us why.

They do, however, give us a somewhat more precise representation of this distribution of values that we call “the canon.”

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