Here's a throwaway sentence from Jonathan Chait's review of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine:
By the 1990s, Klein had come to realize, like some other campus activists, that off-campus there could be found worse depredations than the canonization of Shakespeare and other dead white males.I like Jon Chait, and I haven't read Naomi Klein's book, so I have no opinion about it. But this reflects a pretty common trope in talk about 90s-era literary studies, so in my office as resident academic ethnographer, I think it needs to be explained.
Why do literary scholars care about canonization? Well, canonization as it's been (and continues to be) practiced determines what we write about and what we teach, what kinds of jobs are offered, what kind of books get published, who gets conferences devoted to them, and so on. And all of these considerations already suggest that canonization isn't just a process of aesthetic harmonization, where the very best writing rises to the top while the rest melts away, through a purely artistic process. It's a material one, governed by publication and anthologies and institutions. Part of the empirical/historical turn in literary studies of the past 30-odd years has meant that scholars are trying to be reflective about (and do real scholarly work detailing) how this process happens.
It has also meant that scholars are not interested just in analyzing works of eternal beauty and edification, especially when there are other important scholarly questions to be asked. Studying how Shakespeare's reception and publication history varied with interpretations, editorial practices, historical contingencies, etc., can tell us a lot about the Bard, but so can studying one of his "lesser" Elizabethan contemporaries. Amy Lowell's poetry is universally agreed to be worse than Ezra Pound's, but her historical importance and contemporary popularity in the public shaping of modernism might rival his and certainly trumps most of her other contemporaries.
Nobody is seriously arguing for offing Shakespeare from literary studies. (If they are, you need to name and quote them.) It is all about enlarging the field. Biologists wouldn't and shouldn't confine themselves to studying or even teaching just Darwin and Mendel and the problems they cared about. Likewise, literary scholars and historians won't and shouldn't confine themselves to what are really a handful of questions about a handful of texts -- drops in the bucket considering the vast range of literary matter that's been dumped year after year on the reading public. And when you look at the ideological criteria for preservation, "dead white males" is obviously reductive, but it clearly is one of the effects (and perhaps motivations) of this process of canonization. All of the writers weren't white men. The bestsellers weren't white men. And it's pretty evident that the best writing wasn't done by white men either. Finally, once you add historical interest to the mix, we're no longer exclusively interested in individual, usually wealthy white men. So when you're trying to re-think the value of reading X alongside (or, quel horreur, instead of) Y, then race and gender and class are all worthwhile considerations to take into account.
This doesn't mean that the academy absents itself from questions of value: anthologies are still made, courses are still taught, reevaluations of "major" figures are plentiful, and new configurations are put forth, constantly. It just means that aesthetic value is not now -- nor has it ever been -- the sole province of literary history and criticism.
If you want someone to tell you how beautiful Shakespeare's sonnets are, you don't really need a tenured professor of English to do it. It's like hiring an engineer to plug in your computer. It's as close to self-evident as it gets.
Finally, to come back to Chait for a moment: we are not limited to the Hobson's choice between purely aesthetic appreciation of literary texts and the full immersion into "real world" politics. Life and art are never so purely divided. Literature scholars can and must continue to study literature, however you choose to construe that term. And we'll study it with the tools we have: reading books and archives and letters and watching movies and looking out for facts and for meaning and especially meaningful facts. But we have never done it in only one way or two, nor should we now.