At Prospect, Richard Jenkyns discusses what he calls canon anxiety. In a lengthy but never less than interesting essay, Do We Need A Literary Canon? he argues that our sense of belonging, our shared references, must evolve more organically.
Consider the most striking literary canonisation of our times. Jane Austen has always been esteemed, and FR Leavis sanctified her as one of the bearers of the “great tradition,” a sort of doctor of his secular church. But in the past 15 years she has turned into the English novelist, an inescapable part of the public consciousness, more universally present than any other writer bar Shakespeare. Some people think she owes her current prominence to popular fantasies of tight breeches and bosoms heaving beneath empire-line dresses. This does not seem likely: if that is what people want, they can get it more readily from Georgette Heyer. Another view is that she has benefited from nostalgia for a safer, quieter and more decorous world; but the idea that the world of her novels is cosy and comfortable can hardly survive the reading of them. Most of her modern popularity is the result of her actual merits, and in a broad sense the highbrows and the lower-middlebrows are admiring the same things: well-made plots, perceptive depiction of character and the acute study of social interaction. It is a genuine popular canonisation.