Canonical

• July 28th, 2014 • Posted in All posts

Another panel I’ll be taking part in at Loncon is called ‘The Canon Is Dead.  What Now?’ (Saturday, 16th Aug,  19:00 – 20:00, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL))  The other panellists for this one are  Kate Nepveu, Connie Willis, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Joe Monti.  This is the blurb we’ve been given:

On the one hand, initiatives like the SF Gateway are helping to ensure the SF backlist remains accessible to today’s readers, and an increasing number of “classic” SF writers are receiving the establishment seal of approval in series like the Library of America (Philip K. Dick) and the Everyman Library (Isaac Asimov). On the other hand, the SF readership is increasingly diverse, with fewer readers who have come to the field via those “classics”, and many who find little of value in them in any case. In other words the traditional SF canon is no longer tenable — but the history is still out there. So what alternative models and narratives should we be using to understand the field’s past? Should we be working to expand the canon, or to describe multiple overlapping histories — or something else?

And here are a few initial thoughts of mine:

If I was asked to justify the existence of English Literature as a publicly funded academic activity, one of my first answers would be that it creates a canon.   That is, it generates for the rest of us a sort of longlist of books from the past which are worth our attention. To be sure, any such list (just like the longlists and shortlists of contemporary literary prizes) will be contentious and subjective – so-and-so has been overlooked; so-and-so is overrated; there are too many dead white men, etc etc – but that’s another useful function of Englit professionals.  They revisit the canon, they develop and revise it.  The fact that it can’t be set in stone forever is not a reason for dismissing it as of no use.

The same is true of history.   Our understanding of the past is constantly being revised, but that doesn’t mean that historians are of no use.  Few of us have the time, skills or inclination to go back to the original documents on which history is based, and no one could do so for anything other than a small part of the past.   Without historians going back to original sources, the only history we would have left would be mythology and propaganda.

And, in the same way few people will wade, without any guidance, through the entire body of SF to find the stuff that is worth reading (though in this case, fandom plays a key role which may be more influential than professional scholarship.)  We like to think we live in an information age in which everything is only a google search away, but useful information doesn’t spring spontaneously into being without human mediation, and without layers and layers of evaluation (evaluation of books, evaluation of evaluators, evaluation of the criteria by which evaluation of books takes place).  Leaving aside SF from the past, how does any of us figure out what to read now?   We rely on reviews of one kind or another, shortlists and prizes, word of mouth, controversies, recommendations, all of which are really just the beginnings of the centuries-long process that leads ultimately to some works becoming ‘canonical’ at certain points, while others lapse into obscurity.

So I’m not sure the phrase ‘the canon is dead’ makes much sense, in relation to SF, or in relation to any other field.  It seems to me ‘the canon’ would only be dead in a world where each individual read everything, and come to his or her own judgement without consulting anyone else.   What is true is that the canon is not a fixed thing, but something that grows, changes, and exists in multiple competing forms.  But all of these, surely, are characteristics of entities that are alive!

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