It’s been a long time since I’ve read any literary theory or criticism, but I’ve recently been enjoying Franco Moretti’s collection of essays Distant Reading, picked up in a Verso e-book sale.

I’d read some Moretti before — as a Marxist critic of a formalist and systematising bent, he’s very much my cup of tea — but I’d forgotten how fun he is. The title “distant reading” is intended in deliberately provocative contrast to close reading: Moretti’s point is that to learn anything about literature as a system, we need to be able to analyse a large sample of literary works, and close reading by its nature isn’t an activity that can be “scaled” (to borrow a term from my new field of work).

For Moretti, saying anything new about literature as a whole means giving up the fetish of close reading (a “theological exercise”, as he calls it), and even accepting that we can say useful things about books we haven’t read. This is an argument I wish I’d had at my disposal at the time when I was a would-be academic constantly worrying about my inability to keep up. (I didn’t even realise that most of my peers were routinely acting as if they’d read much more than they actually had, until I heard a senior member of my department not only admit as much, but take it for granted as the basis for a seminar paper.)

But the real epiphany for me in Moretti’s book comes in the essay “The Slaughterhouse of Literature” (the title refers to the quasi-Darwinian struggle for historical survival between literary works), where he turns everything I thought I knew about the literary “canon” on its head:

Readers, not professors, make canons: academic decisions are mere echoes of a process that unfolds fundamentally outside the school: reluctant rubber-stamping, not much more.

This is so counter-intuitive to anyone brought up in the literary studies over the past 30 years that it took me a while to realise how completely right Moretti is. Nobody, whether inside or outside an English department, gives two shits any more about what F.R. Leavis thought should be in the canon. But take a course in late nineteenth-century fiction — or look through the “classics” section of a bookstore — and you’ll inevitably be exposed to the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, and Robert Louis Stevenson, authors that Leavis would have hated but readers loved and still love.

The fact that these works are now on English Department syllabuses is not (as I previously imagined) a rejection of the notion of a literary canon, but on the contrary, a reassertion of the true canon against the puny efforts of mid-century dons to establish a purer canon of their own. We study Conan Doyle, not the hundreds of other late nineteenth-century writers of detective fiction, so it can hardly be the case that we’re rejecting the canon. Conan Doyle is the canon; he’s the winner!

Of course, just as Leavis’s efforts proved Quixotic, so too must the efforts of those who try to exercise top-down pressure on the canon in other ways, including political ones (stop trying to make Jean Rhys happen, I suppose). In a cheeky footnote, Moretti points on that in genres where the academy does seem to exert control over the contents of the canon (such as poetry), this is a sign not of the power of the academy, but of the cultural irrelevance of the genre in question. Perhaps the best hope for Jean Rhys, then, lies in the novel becoming culturally irrelevant…which may not be so far away.