Pick up any list of greatest books and it'll be very similar to any other list of greatest books produced in the same time frame. There's going to have to be something by Dickens and the consensus says it should be Bleak House. The Brontes will be represented by Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, George Eliot by Middlemarch. 1984 is a shoe-in. There'll be very few surprises.
But taste does change. When I was a kid a lot of forgotten Victorian novelists were still canon. Kingsley for example. I read and hugely enjoyed Charles Reade's medieval epic The Cloister and the Hearth- and now it's gone, gone, gone. Reade was a very big gun in his day- as playwright as well as novelist. And now it's like he never existed.
One respect in which canon has changed is it used to be all about white males (dead or otherwise) and now not so much- though there's still room for improvement. Who would have guessed when I was a kid that in fifty years time people would say "Shelley" and be more likely to be talking about Mary than Percy.
The laziness of the makers of canon (cannoneers?) is nowhere more apparent than in the predictability of the choices they make from the oeuvre of a prolific writer. If it's Haggard it has to be King Solomon's Mines or She- no matter that Haggard wrote umpteen books and lots of them are just as good as the favoured two. My own choice would be Child of Storm. One suspects, though, that the canon makers rarely read beyond the works already anointed as classic by their forebears and peers- and it's understandable. Who- tasked with surveying the whole of world literature- is going to have the time and inclination to read the complete works of every middling-ranked author in search of buried treasure?
J.M. Barrie is an author whose considerable oeuvre is obscured by one enormous, super-colossal hit. I love Peter Pan but Dear Brutus and Mary Rose are as good. There are also the novels. The Little White Bird contains the genesis of what became the Peter Pan mythos and is surpassingly weird.
Let's talk about H.G. Wells. Wells is a giant. But no-one seems to bother with anything he wrote after the close of the Edwardian era. Terrible oversight and injustice. Yes, I love The War of the Worlds but I also love later forgotten books like The Dream and The Bulpington of Blup. They don't get read because they don't get read. Neglect is contagious. If I were to have to choose one book by Wells to go on my list of greatest novels I'd go for Christina Alberta's Father. Never heard of it? Pity.
Something I don't really get is why C.S Lewis is so huge and E. Nesbit who ploughs the same furrow but without the tiresome Christian moralising- and from whom he learned so much- remains marginal. Perhaps it's because people enjoy the tiresome Christian moralising. Ho hum.
I've just started re-reading Robert Aickman. Aickman is obscure. Someone I read said he's the nearest thing Eng Lit has to Kafka- which is misleading but at least accords him the sort of status he ought to have. Aickman should be canon but- blah- it's very hard- and expensive- to get hold of his books- even in the age of Amazon.
It works both ways. Canon excludes writers who have never been fashionable but also props up established reputations that should be being questioned but aren't because they support an academic industry. Virginia Woolf for instance. Now I don't want to be horrid about Woolf who can be wonderful in short bursts but I don't think she ever wrote a wholly satisfactory book- and her shortcomings are blatant. She deserves a reputation but the one she enjoys is inflated. Ditto Hemingway. Ditto Raymond Chandler.
My generation was mad for D.H. Lawrence- probably because they thought of him as a prophet of the sexual revolution. I have watched with satisfaction as that star has dimmed. Another over-inflated reputation. I never understood how my contemporaries could fail to see what a fascist he was.
Few things are more certain than that most of the best regarded writers of our own day will be forgotten/neglected in fifty years time. It's what happens. The most celebrated novelist of the late Victorian era was a man called George Meredith. I read one of his books last year. It wasn't rubbish but I don't think I have the stamina for another. Writers are sometimes discarded not because of a lack of merit but because they have nothing to say to later generations. Meredith is awfully clever and a brilliant stylist but he's talking to his age not ours.
Hardy owed a lot to Meredith. Hardy lives, Meredith doesn't. Not particularly fair but there you are.
Dare I make a guess as to who among our contemporaries will become canon? Here goes: Kazuo Ishiguro because he's an original, Sara Waters because she's such a brilliant storyteller. But I could be wrong. We have no means of telling what our descendants will be interested in. The Victorians thought we would be interested in the things Meredith was interested in and they were wrong.
Who'd have guessed that a pulp novel called Dracula would still be read over a century later? Or the Sherlock Holmes stories? Or that Agatha Christie would go on and on and on?
No conclusion: This isn't a considered argument just a compendium of the sorts of things I think about when I can't sleep at night.