Canon: Most generally, a body of written works accepted as authoritative or authentic. As a religious term, canon has been used with reference to Christianity since the fourth century A.D. to refer to books of the Bible accepted as Holy Scripture, that is, as being divinely inspired. The term is also used in the phrase Saints’ Canon to refer to the group of people that the Catholic Church officially recognizes as saints. As a literary term, canon may refer to the body of works that scholars generally attribute to a particular author or, more broadly, to those literary works that are privileged (accorded special status) by a given culture. Thus we speak of the “Shakespearean canon” (thirty-seven or thirty-eight plays that scholars believe can be definitely attributed to William Shakespeare) or the “Western canon” (the fundamental literary texts of Western culture). Works widely regarded as classics, or “Great Books” — texts that are repeatedly reprinted, anthologized, and taught in classes — constitute the canon in its broader literary sense.
By contrast, the term apocryphal generally refers to written works of doubtful or uncertain authenticity or authorship. Books or other works outside of the canon (noncanonical works) that religious bodies consider apocryphal are not viewed as divinely inspired but may still be accorded respect. For instance, although the Book of Judith does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, it is included in the apocrypha of the King James Bible. Literary works are considered apocryphal when their authorship is disputed or otherwise uncertain. For instance, several plays including Locrine (1595) and The Puritan (1607), both attributed to “W.S.,” are included in the “Shakespeare Apocrypha,” given insufficient evidence of Shakespeare’s authorship as well as evidence suggesting the authorship of another playwright (Wentworth Smith or Thomas Middleton).
Contemporary Marxist, feminist, and postcolonial critics have argued that, for political reasons, many excellent works never enter the canon. Canonized works, they claim, are those that reflect — and respect — the culture’s dominant ideology or perform some socially acceptable or even necessary form of “cultural work.” Accordingly, such critics have sought to broaden or redefine the canon by rediscovering valuable texts, or versions of texts, that were repressed or ignored. The most outspoken critics of the canon, especially certain critics practicing cultural criticism, have called into question the whole concept of canon or “canonicity.” These critics, who do not privilege any form of expression, treat cartoons, comic strips, and soap operas with the same respect they accord novels, poems, and plays.