The Literary Canon Today, Part 2: The Mainstream and the Marginal

by Joseph Carter Milholland

In my last column, I wrote about the interconnectedness of the literary canon. My argument was that canonical books are best read in the context of other canonical books – that we only fully appreciate a great work of literature when we also appreciate the other great works it is inextricably bound to – both the books that influenced it, and the books it influenced.

I will admit that this argument can lead one astray: if applied improperly, we lose sight of individual authors and individual works, and only focus on the narrative of literary history. Worse yet, we will arbitrarily force certain books to conform to our expectations of the canon, instead of reading them on their own terms. I do not think that there is anything in what I proposed that would necessarily lead to this kind of reading, but it is a very easy mistake to make (and one I will confess to having made in the past). To avoid making this mistake, I will now propose a complementary method for reading the canon: to seek out and understand the difference between what I call the “mainstream” and the “marginal.”

I am using the terms mainstream and the marginal to denote two types of literary artistry. Whenever we read a great book, there is a wide spectrum of ways in which we enjoy it: on the right end of this spectrum, we have the kinds of enjoyment that we can find in almost every great book, no matter where or when it was written; in the center is the ways in which the book reflects the finest features of a specific genre or literary tradition; and on the far left is the way in which that particular book gives us its own unique pleasures. The literary artistry that falls in the right hand end of this spectrum I call the mainstream, and the artistry on the left hand side I call the marginal. I realize this definition is abstract and somewhat cumbersome, so throughout this essay I will supply examples that I think better illuminate what I am getting at. My first example: the catharsis we experience at the end of great tragedy is an example of mainstream artistry; the caesura in Anglo-Saxon verse is an example of marginal artistry.

Some more clarifications are in order.

First of all, we are talking about literary artistry – that is, what hits our aesthetic sense. We are not using these terms to dryly catalog cliches, or the requirements of form or genre, or any extraliterary matter. And my distinction between the mainstream and the marginal should not be confused with the more common distinction between the particular and the universal. The two types of categorization only partially overlap: a work of surrealism or outsider art may be marginal in how it resists established forms and forsakes any recognizable tradition, but also universal in how it evokes feelings or experiences shared among almost all human beings. 

A better comparison comes from a blog post David Auerbach wrote some years ago about the difference between exemplary and exceptional genres. Auerbach argues that there are “exemplary genres, where the best work represents the ideal summation of what all the genre product aims at, and second, exceptional genres, where the best work stands out because of its departure from the genre’s standards” (emphasis is Auerbach’s). This distinction is the closest to what I have in mind between mainstream and marginal; the categories of mainstream and marginal apply the concept of exemplary and exceptional genres to matters of form, subject matter, and referentiality. Is an author trying to write a novel that can be read alongside DeFoe, Tolstoy, and Marquez, or is she trying to write one that will make fullest use of the unique features of the Hindi language and capture the essence of Jaipur? This is what distinguishes the mainstream and the marginal in literature.

If you read through a great books list, or take a survey course in a university literature department, you will probably be exposed mostly to the mainstream aspects of literature: those themes and styles that have proved most durable across centuries. You will read plays about the downfall of kings, poems about the natural world, and novels about alienation, and you will see how these themes connect to one another and are altered over time. Conversely, if you study a book in a foreign language class, you will likely be exposed to its marginal elements: its use of the specific features of its language, the small details of word choice and syntax, how it fits into a local tradition. To truly understand the marginal in a work of literature, it is necessary for you to read it in its original language.

We can see the mainstream-marginal tension in the two great epic poems of ancient Rome, The Aeneid and Metamorphoses. The Aeneid may be the most mainstream work in the whole literary canon. It takes the core myth of Greek literature – the Trojan War – and extends it, connecting the myth to the founding of the Roman empire. It fuses the Greek and Roman literary tradition and imitates the works of Homer in many respects. It defined the use of dactylic hexameter in Latin verse. It praises and was praised by the emperor Augustus himself. Conversely, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the other great epic poem of the Roman Empire, is not the most marginal work in the literary canon, but it’s pretty close. It is based, mostly, on significant myths from Greek and Roman literature, but it twists and distorts them all, changes critical details, and most of all focuses on the parts of myths that are neglected by other storytellers. The violence is grotesque, great mythic heroes are satirized or undermined, and overall the narrative lacks a clear plot or theme.

But I should be clear that no literary work is completely mainstream or completely marginal; they are two elements of all great literature. You can even delineate what is mainstream and what is marginal in the work of individual authors:


Charles Dickens: Mainstream in his incredible popularity that continued after his death, in his very English values and characters, in his broad humor, in his commitment to both preserving and extending the possibilities of the novel as a literary art form. Marginal in his focus on the lower classes, in his use of local details and dialects, in his strange way of creating psychological complexity, in the darkness and agony that pervades his later work and made him so much more than a Victorian bestseller.

Baudelaire: Mainstream in his Parisian sensibilities, in his depiction of urbanity, in his admiration for classicism and neoclassicism, and in the influence of Greek and Latin on his poetics. Marginal in just about everything else – his bohemian attitudes, his interest in the seedy, depraved underside of civilization, his rejection of poetic clarity for mystery and ambiguity. 

Tove Ditlevsen: Mainstream in her popularity, in her focus on the emotional flavor of everyday life, in the lucidity and smoothness of her prose. Marginal in geography and language, in writing unashamedly about being a woman, and in her utter strangeness.


This little exercise can show us that, among other things, an aspect of a writer’s work that is marginal in their lifetime may become mainstream in later generations: writing about the working classes, urban bohemians, and the experience of women are no longer marginal themes in literature. When we encounter once-marginal writing, however, very often we are shocked: we had not thought that ideas and styles that are so familiar to us could once have been so strange.   

To understand the mainstream in a work usually compels you to look at the work as a whole, but to understand the marginal typically requires a close reading of individual passages, an attention to the historical and philological details of individual words of sentences. Write about the themes of Paradise Lost, and you will end up writing about Christian theology and the history of English poetry. Yet turn to an individual passage of book one, and you will find, along with startlingly complex poetic language, references to Middle Eastern deities such as Astoreth and Thammuz, not exactly the commonest names in 17th century English verse. To write of the Heavens, Milton needed to summon the whole of human culture, even that which was on the fringes of 17th century England’s terra cognita. As Ed Simon writes in a recent essay, “No other book encompasses the maximalist perspective which Milton was somehow able to conjure, ranging from Copernican physics to Lapland witches, New World discoveries to the nature of the Trinity.”

What is marginal can vary from context to context. Medieval Persian poetry and classical Chinese novels were not marginal in the time and place they were written (at least not all of them were), but, due to the still present (though declining) eurocentricity of literary study and publishing in America, they remain much more marginal to readers of this country than classic European literature. 

There is also a tradition of writers who have purposely adopted a marginal persona: Kafka, Pessoa, Kharms. Though actually, it is an interesting question whether Kafka thought of himself as “marginal” or whether this is something we have assigned to the strangeness of his writing: while he was aware of his individuality and loneliness, he also saw himself as writing within the league of Balzac and Flaubert. Whatever the case, the tradition he inspired of writerly self-marginalization has been a strong one and has, indeed, very much entered the mainstream.

The marginal can be taken from the marginalized – from traditions and subject matter that have been de-emphasized for social or political reasons, from genres that have been overlooked or derided, from people whose lives exist outside of what is considered “normal” in a certain place. But the marginal comes just as much from marginalia – often literally: we alight on an unusual word, a striking scene, or an anomalous idea, and we note it down at the edge of the page. These odd details become the center of our attention when we focus on the marginal. “Writing from the margins” is a phrase from academia (I am unsure of its original coinage), and I think it describes something real, though in a sense all good writing is writing from the margins, just as all good reading is a reading of the mainstream. We read the classics to absorb the mainstream, to become immersed in the writing that has survived through the centuries, but we write due to the marginal, due to the small crevices in which we believe we can find vast chasms.

Finally, before I make it to my last point, I want to reiterate that I am not arguing that the mainstream is bad and the marginal is good. Both are vital to how we read and write – and indeed, The Aeneid is very much a literary masterpiece due to how well it channels the mainstream. Still, I think it is worth asking whether we have too much mainstream literature and not enough marginal literature today. I think the answer is yes, but I need to be clear about what I mean. A writer of 300-page novels about the professional and personal lives of young people in Shanghai will have much more mainstream material for most readers in London than a Welsh poet influenced by the mythology and language of medieval Britain. The easily-translated literary novel of social and psychological realism dominates the major publishers and book review websites, and whatever you want to say about this genre, it does not seem particularly interested in the marginal as I have defined it.

What I would propose is that we need a return to the marginal: we need writers who pursue what is at the fringes of our culture, writers who have an interest in learning multiple languages, in smashing together radically different styles and forms, in resurrecting obscure and irregular ideas from the archives of human knowledge. Out from the marginal we will create a new mainstream. 

I wrote that above paragraph as if I was a lone voice in the wilderness, but in fact, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, I was only predicting something that is already taking place. There is currently a growing interest in the marginal, and I will address this matter in my third and final column in this series.