I was a teen-ager when I attended my very first sf/f convention. It was the late 1970s, and a couple of my slightly older friends let me tag along with them when they drove to a city about an hour form the town we lived in on a Saturday, where we bought day passes and I tried to figure out what there was to actually do once there.
Until just a couple years before, I had never lived anywhere that was within driving distance of a sci fi con. I’d read about them in the pages of a fanzine (memeographed pages stapled together that came in the mail irregulalarly) that I had received for awhile, and in the intra-story comments of a couple of different anthologies I’d read.
I don’t know what I expected, but after sitting through a couple of panels, I wound up spending the rest of my day in the dealer’s room. Most of that time in a couple of the bookseller booths.
I was browsing in one such booth with several paperbacks in my hand which I intended to buy. A guy (who seemed to be about 40 years old) commented on my selection thus far, saying I had good taste. He asked me about my favorite authors and books, and we talked for a couple of minutes.
Then he asked me if I had ever read Slan. I admitted that I wasn’t familiar with it. He then asked if I had read any of the other works of A. E. van Vogt. I said that the name was familiar, and added that I owned a lot of anthologies of short stories, and may have read something of his there, but wasn’t sure.
He proceeded to lecture me, in very a condescending tone, about what a great author van Vogt was and how Slan wasn’t just great, but was a pivotal work in defining fandom itself. He then sort of tch-ed at me, turned his back on me and walked away, clearly indicating that I was not worth talking to (and probably that the time he had spent on me was a waste of time).
It wasn’t traumatizing, but I definitely felt unwelcome. I continued with my browsing and bought my books.
This was not the last time I would encounter that sort of attitude from another fan. Or from pros. And full disclosure, I’m quite certain that when I have reacted with shock upon learning that someone hasn’t read or seen something I think is fantastic (or they dislike a book or series or author that I love) I have come across like this guy.
I was reminded of this incident while I was reading a post about the topic of canon in science fiction/fantasy and someone expressed skepticism that there were any people out there trying to enforce a canon on other fans. So I put a shorter version of this anecdote (and some other examples) in a comment there. But I have more thoughts, and the comment section of another person’s blog isn’t the place to pontificate.
Now, I should pause to define what we mean by canon. The dictionary definitions that come closest to how we’re using it are: “a list of literary works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality” or “an authoritative list of books accepted as holy or sacred.”
So, for instance, if an sf/f professional on a panel or other official event at a convention insists that particular books, authors, or other works are absolute must reads, that’s pushing the notion of canon. If an author dismissively admits he hasn’t read any recent books (even award-winning ones) because based on his understanding of the summary, it’s already been done by so-and-so, that’s another form of pushing the notion of canon. Every time someone publishes a list of “The 100 Most Significant SF/F Books of All Time” or “The 25 Most Influential Books That Every SF/F Fan Must Read” that’s also pushing the canon. Particularly since most of those lists focus on a very narrow time in the history of the genre (40-70 years ago) and a particular set of authors—and usually has no more than 1 or 2 token authors who aren’t white men.
And when the host of the premiere sf/f awards ceremony spends an hour and a half telling anecdotes from that same narrow part of history and only involving a subset of that particular set of dead white male authors, that’s pushing the notion of canon. Especially when he says afterwards the reason he inflated the ceremony with all of that is because he thought modern fans didn’t know but needed to know about that group of dead white guys. Similarly, when someone asks the supposedly rhetorical question regarding the Retro Hugos, “Who else other than Campbell could anyone vote for?” that’s also pushing that canon.
Camestros Felapton recently wrote a couple of excellent posts about different concepts and meaning of canon within the genre:
One of the many excellent points he makes in there is that while it’s appropriate to acknowledge that a particular work or creator had influence on the genre, conflating that influence with timeless quality and relevance isn’t wise. Influence can be good or it can be bad. And stories that were groundbreaking and thought-provoking 90 years ago will probably not have that some effect today—in part because thousands of stories have been written since, many of which were influenced by that work.
Some of the newer works have expanded on the old ideas. Some have interrogated and revised the old ideas. Some have been written in opposition to the old ideas. While it can be interesting to know some of the older works that have influenced the newer ones, we can comprehend, understand, and love the new works without having read the older works. Sometimes reading some of the older stuff might make us appreciate or understand parts of the newer work better, but not always.
I don’t have to learn how to press cuneiform marks into wet clay tablets in order to write stories in my native language today. Just as a person doesn’t have to learn how to steer and manage a team of horses on a horse-drawn carriage in order to drive a modern car or use a modern bus.
No one has to have read the golden oldies to be a fan of (or create your own) great stories today.
Edited to add: A bunch of people wrote on this topic, including:
Cora Buhlert writes much more informatively and nicely than I do on a fannish subject: Some Thoughts on the 1945 Retro Hugo Winners.
Camestros Felaptan also commented: Canon and Campbell.
Aidan Moher has a good perspective Personal Canons: There Is No Universal Canon.
Weird Wednesdays #11: the question of lineage – Somewhere along the line, people lose their courage over science fiction. They stop reading it, they stop thinking of it as literary.
Oh, Christ, Not the Science Fiction Canon Again.
Cora later wrote more eloquantly on the same topic and included a lot links to other people writing on the same topic: Why the Retro Hugos Have Value.