If you’re planning on going to Sweden anytime soon, and you want to steer clear of heated political debates, make sure you avoid the C-word. That’s C as in Canon.

The word itself originates from the Greek “κανών,” meaning a rule or measuring stick, thus implying a set of standards or norms.

In music, a canon is defined as a piece of voices (or instrumental parts) that sing or play the same music starting at different times.

The word is also used in mathematics, where it can refer to something reduced to its most basic form.

In religious contexts, “canon” alludes to a collection of texts which a particular community regards as authoritative scripture.

When a critic list “the 99 movies you must watch“, that’s sort of a playful example of a canon. Playful in the sense that nobody is going to excommunicate you from their church if you suggest that The Lord of the Rings movies really has nothing to do on the list (they don’t!) and that they should be replaced byThe Big Lebowski, The Royal Tenenbaums and Dog Day Afternoon. Everyone’s entitled to opinions, and lists like these really just represent someone’s opinion.

Same goes for music. We understand tat the “500 best songs of all times” aren’t really that, but we can still enjoy browsing a well tailored compilation representing someone else’s taste.

Literature is very different, or at least that’s how most Swedes seem to feel.

Plenty of people argue that attempting to establish a national canon, is tantamount to prescribing taste.

Mats Malm feels that way. As chair of the Swedish Academy (he’s the tall thin fellow who’s announcing the Nobel Prize in literature) he says to the press that:

Nothing we do in the Academy is a directive on what people should read. Our role is to show what possibilities exist. Canon is a concept that is imbued with power, it’s the type of policy document we have no interest in contributing to in the Swedish Academy.

Meanwhile Parisa Liljestrand, Sweden’s minister of cultural affairs believes that:

It’s incredibly positive that we can produce something that can give us common frames of reference. Something that can help us form an opinion about both the past and the present … But also to understand written, and especially unwritten, laws and rules. There, I believe that culture has a tremendous ability to unite people. I think we can get to know each other and create understanding among ourselves with the help of culture.

She also says in the same interview what an important role literature played for her when she came to Sweden as a refugee at age four.

Try as I might, I can’t seem to clearly pick a side in this dispute.

On the one hand I share our young minister’s view that literature is a great entry-point for understanding a foreign culture. But then on the other hand I’m really not sure the idea of a canon can ever be implemented. Because the idea of a canon is that you can see some kind of a big picture while at the same time enjoying the details. That you can see the woods and all the wonderfully unique trees at the same time. Which I’ve personally found to be challenging.

I first experienced this when I decided to read all Booker-winning novels of this century, only to find that there was really no common denominator to be found. (Or there might have been one, but it wasn’t what I expected. I’ve written about that here).

The next time was when I went on to do the same thing with both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This time I was out to crack the code to American literature.

After hundreds of hours of reading however, I eventually had to come to terms with the fact that there simply was no pattern to be found (that project is chronicled here).

I thought of this the other day when I came across a list of 136 books which all allegedly represent the notion of “the Great American Novel”.

The concept of the Great American Novel was originally defined by 19th century writer John William DeForest, who thought of it as “a work of fiction that accomplished the task of painting the American soul“.

DeForest himself thought of it as an ideal form, not necessarily as something which would ever be instantiated in the phenomenal world. Ever since then however, critics have loved to use the term as the ultimate hyperbole.

The editorial team of The Atlantic—one of Americas oldest continuously published magazines—recently set out to create an authoritative list of all books that they think lives up to DeForest’s ideal. Here they are outlining their guiding principles:

We didn’t limit ourselves to a round, arbitrary number; we wanted to recognize the very best—novels that say something intriguing about the world and do it distinctively, in intentional, artful prose—no matter how many or few that ended up being (136, as it turns out). Our goal was to single out those classics that stand the test of time, but also to make the case for the unexpected, the unfairly forgotten, and the recently published works that already feel indelible. We aimed for comprehensiveness, rigor, and open-mindedness. Serendipity, too: We hoped to replicate that particular joy of a friend pressing a book into your hand and saying, “You have to read this; you’ll love it.”

The Great American Novels | The Atlantic, March 14th, 2024

Now, nobody wants to challenge the editors of The Atlantic to a word-mincing match, but I just can’t help myself in noting that it seems really hard to create a list which is both comprehensive and rigorous and open-minded.

In my humble opinion, it can’t. Not if it’s supposed to be a canon. Which is explicitly stated to be the intention here:

The American canon is more capacious, more fluid, and more fragile than perhaps ever before. But what, exactly, is in it? What follows is our attempt to discover just that.


I agree with the observation that the American literary landscape seems to get ever-more fluid, and that’s exactly my point: this increasing diversity is just what makes the notion of a canon lose its relevance.

You would never try to elect ‘the canonical animal of the rainforest’ because the diversity of the rainforest is simply too vast and rich to boil down to a single representative species. In much the same way, the vibrant mosaic of American literature resists simplification into a single narrative—or even 136 of them—that can claim to speak for all.

To elaborate on my point, I went through the list of 136 and picked out the ones that I’ve read, which happens to be the following 32 titles:

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
  • Couples by John Updike
  • Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  • The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
  • Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth
  • Underworld by Don DeLillo
  • Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
  • The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt
  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  • A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  • Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
  • The Round House by Louise Erdrich
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty
  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I then looked for a common denominator, but found instead three different themes.

First of all this list contains a few gems that would be on my list of most *enjoyable* reads. Certainly both books by Philip Roth belong to this category.

Second of all, there are also a few of the above titles that actually fit with my idea of what constitutes The Great American Novel. Titles like The Grapes of Wrath, Underworld and maybe also Catch-22 are all trying to tell the story of a system and the state of mind it induces, rather than about individual protagonists.

Lastly, I see a number of books that fit absolutely no category. For instance, I’m really happy to find Paul Beaty’s The Sellout on the list. This was the first book written by an American to be awarded the Booker prize, and in my previously referenced post I’m singling it out as so:

If my sample of winning novels were a distant mountain range, then while each peak would certainly be majestic in its own right, perhaps after all Paul Beaty’s book would loom the highest.

I said that because of how much I liked it, but also because The Sellout was like nothing else I’ve ever read.

Another book on the list of 136, which really blew my socks off, is The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt. On the face of it, this is a story about a destitute American woman living in London with her prodigiously gifted son Ludo, whom she teaches Greek, Latin, Arabic and Japanese. That’s just on the face of it though, because what this book manages to do, is to invent a whole new genre wherein there will only ever be room for one book.

What I don’t see, by any stretch of definition, is a canon. I don’t see the literary equivalent of “voices that sing or play the same music starting at different times“.

Not that this is a problem however, because what we’re left with in a post-canonical world, is lists.

Lists are great as long as we take them for what they are. And as anyone old enough to have curated mixtapes will know, coming up with a list is a creative act. As such they’re uniquely reflecting their creator’s point of view in ways that make for great conversation starters.