Kathryn Sutherland's Jane Austen's Textual Lives (2005) links editing to canon formation, noting that the practices of textual transmission and emendation underlying R. W. Chapman's 1923 edition of Austen's novels are rooted in classical scholarship as well as the New Bibliography. As Sutherland argues, editing (and textual criticism more generally) involves, among other things, judgments about aesthetics, literary technique, and--perhaps above all--what literary works merit being preserved for future generations of readers. Frequently, merit itself involves questions of national tradition. Austen, says Sutherland, merited an Oxford University Press edition (the imprimatur of worth, she notes) not just because of her perceived artistic achievements, but also because she had come to be perceived as a uniquely English novelist. At the same time, Sutherland points out, novels don't appear to "need" editing and re-editing: observing that no editor has superseded Chapman, Sutherland says that "[i]n neither Austen's nor Dickens's case have literary critics registered a disadvantage, nor has the cultural currency of their works among general readers appeared to suffer, either from the unsanctioned state of the Dickens text or the specific and out-dated determination of Austen's" (336). By the time we reach this stage in Sutherland's argument, the apparent contradiction between her claims for editing's simultaneous importance and invisibility looks less like a contradiction and more like a bedrock assumption.
Sutherland's book reminded me of an interesting recent phenomenon: the "de-classicification," if you'll excuse the phrase, of Oxford World's Classics, Penguin Classics, and Everyman. While Everyman from its inception included "minor" works in its list--albeit what Dent & Dutton then considered minor classics, like the novels of Anne Manning or the lectures of William Hazlitt, not simply minor texts--both Oxford and Penguin usually practiced a certain exclusivity in their choice of reprints. According to Oxford, "the World's Classics series makes available both time-honored masterpieces and little-known literary gems." Penguin, while acknowledging that "[t]here will continue to be a large growth in the representation of vernacular English texts within the Classics, both of fiction and poetry, in response to a much broader sense of literary tradition," nevertheless still insists on a higher purpose, one linked to the series' post-WWII inception:
The world has not changed so much that the best literature of several thousand years and countless cultures has lost its relevance. If these texts help us in any way to appreciate and understand the essential differences that divide us, as much as the universal truths that bind us together, then their value is incalculable, and their loss or destruction would diminish us all. Today just as much as in 1946, in a world still of fantastically distorted values, there are many states and nations embarking on an uneasy and difficult peace, or yet at war.
There's something slightly Arnoldian about this, in the "best known and thought" sense of the adjective. Even so, we have a widening "tradition" on the one hand, a commitment to an undefined "best" on the other. Or, if not "undefined," then associated with some sort of moral use value. While it's not as though Oxford and Penguin ever resisted the flux of either the market or the canon (one notes, for example, the current invisibility of Samuel Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison, an undeniably significant but also undeniably out-of-favor novel), their publications have always been associated, for better or for worse, with a certain...worthiness, if not stodginess.
In more recent years, though, the meaning of "classic" appears to have undergone a revaluation--one that has stripped "classic" of its associations with "canonical," let alone "best." Is Elizabeth Stoddard's The Morgesons a "classic"? John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure? (I hastily note here that I like The Morgesons, which has an intense, quasi-Brontean effect; the Memoirs..., however, is really rather a bore.) As someone who frequently (usually...) writes about obscure fiction, I certainly have no objection to anyone who wants to reprint it. But does "classic" now simply mean "old"? Or do the publishers see themselves as transforming hitherto marginal texts into classics, by dint of affiliating them--uniform bindings and all--with a canon shaped under the old regime, as it were? Or is a classic just something that might be assigned in a classroom?