“What Is Literature? In defense of the canon” has a lot of interesting things to say but one thing it doesn’t mention is the purpose served by the Canon, or a canon: as a guide through infinity. An individual needs some means for sorting through the millions of books that have been published, and an agreement on some of the “good” ones, even for an imperfect definition of “good,” is better than nothing. A map that says “there are mountains a hundred miles away” when there are actually mountains fifty miles away is better than no map at all: an awareness of mountains ahead is useful. Some writers also do more sophisticated and interesting things with words than others, and those are for the most part the writers who endure.
Krystal does write, towards the end of his essay:
Here’s the trick, if that’s the right word: one may regard the canon as a convenient fiction, shaped in part by the material conditions under which writing is produced and consumed, while simultaneously recognizing the validity of hierarchical thinking and aesthetic criteria
“Convenient” is key. An unusually dedicated reader of books for adults might get two books a week; a “professional” reader (academics, critics, some writers) might do more, but even five books is probably a stretch for all but the most voracious and speedy fast. If one reads two books a week starting at say age 15, that’s only 3,120 books over the next 30 years. There are more novels than that being published this year. How does one search and sort?
There is no perfect answer, but a canon of some sort, that other hard-core readers have thought about, is one possible and perhaps most importantly reasonable method. Krystal writes of how
canon formation was, in truth, a result of the middle class’s desire to see its own values reflected in art. As such, the canon was tied to the advance of literacy, the surging book trade, the growing appeal of novels, the spread of coffee shops and clubs, the rise of reviews and magazines, the creation of private circulating libraries, the popularity of serialization and three-decker novels, and, finally, the eventual takeover of literature by institutions of higher learning.
but while that is true “convenience” should probably appear as well, and appear prominently.