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Canon Fodder

The Chronicle of Higher Education has outdone itself with two fascinating articles on the influence of copyright “permissions culture” on academic work. The first, “Writers Who Price Themselves Outside the Canon,” describes Kevin Dettmar’s struggle to assemble “20th-century selections for the Longman Anthology of British Literature.” There is a constant trade-off between the artistic and economic value of the selections. Five lines of Auden cost about the same as a page of Rushdie; some authors’ aggressive agents push themselves right out of the book (as Caryl Churchill’s did by demanding $10,000 + a percentage of the gross for rights to reprint a play).

Dettmar is trying to get us to see

the hidden forces shaping the evolving canon of modern literature, in ways not always having much to do with literary value. . . . If writers, or their agents or estates, [believe] that the greatest works of art transcend time and tide and petty interference . . . then they can afford to price their work without respect to the vagaries of the literary marketplace. If, on the other hand, one thinks of literary reputation as something like a stock market, driven by investor confidence, then one realizes that the best long-term investment strategy is to balance short- and medium-term profitability with protection of the brand, by making one’s work, or the work for which one is responsible, available. We might think of these as long-term and short-term investment strategies. . . .

Some astonishing distortions occurring as a result. The amazing “Thom Gunn . . . is gone . . . since his executors, following his death in 2004, doubled their fees between publication of our second and third editions.” If any areas seem to cry out for a compulsory license scheme, certainly academic literary anthologies are among them. Let canons be decided by editors’ visions of quality and importance, not some impossible triangulation process of investment strategy, cost-benefit analysis, and penny-pinching.