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On the “canon.”

There’ve been some discussions involving an SFF “canon” recently that have sent my busybrain on a whole bunch of related tangents. Bear with me.

Whenever I plan a literature class, I’m heartbroken that there won’t be a time to assign all the works I’d like the students to be exposed to. It’s excruciating making the cuts, and I always regret them, no matter what they are. Nor do I have a set of robust, internally consistent priorities that I can rely on to make the choices for me; what I have are a set of inconsistent-but-valid goals.

In the science fiction class, for example, I’ve decided that it’s important to give the students some stories that were written very recently (within the last year or so) to show them the state of the art. These’ll be always be from online mags where the students can get to them easily, and (to assuage my conscience) I typically make it mags that I already support financially. But of course this means that I have to delete older stories by authors I’d like the students to know. There’s no real way out. This Fall, the students will get Butler and Russ but not Le Guin, Asimov but not Heinlein or Clarke, Bester and Sturgeon but not Bradbury or Merril, Cadigan and Kress but not Delany, Chiang and Egan but not Stross, etc. Every deletion is like pulling teeth. Am I happy to be adding brand-spanking-new work by Newitz, Yoachim, Greenblatt, and Kornher-Stace? Overjoyed! Am I sobbing about no Le Guin story? I am. But do I have a canonical principle that informs all of this? Did I decide that the works I’ve assigned are better or more important than the ones I haven’t? Don’t be ridiculous.

So that’s one dimension of the impossible canon debate. But another has to do with SFF’s oddly enhanced prickliness about this issue. Oh, sure, English departments endlessly debate the “canon” of literature; it’s an NCAA sport for academics. But we in this genre seem to take it personally. New writers are told that they shouldn’t be writing about X topic until they’ve read Z “classic” author who’s already covered it (I’ve been told that myself, by people who should know better. When was the last time you saw someone criticize an innovative literary writer because they used a trope John Milton used without apparently having read Milton?) And we get positively apoplectic when a non-genre writer employs an SFF trope she didn’t already know about and gets roundly praised for her originality by mainstream critics. How dare they not give credit to our Golden Age authors?! …But seriously, who cares? And how huge an irony is it that a genre that prides itself on thinking outside the box & about the future should stubbornly protect the past?

Personally I think this is holdover from decades of disrespect and neglect. Older writers and fans just haven’t got used to the idea that SFF tropes and strategies have become mainstream, nor that its new directions might be more important than its traditions. They’re protecting their beloved “classics” because they didn’t get mainstream respect when they were alive and are now being disregarded or outright rejected in favor of new, innovative, exciting contemporary work (which *is* getting mainstream respect).

I get it. I actually sympathize with it. (I mean, I’m an older fan (if a newer writer) too.) But doesn’t it seem silly?

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