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.
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.
Doubling-down isn’t how you make sf/f for everyone… and being southern isn’t a license to condescend
Although I already covered some of this last Thursday (Stop digging, don’t you see how deep you already are?), another incident has come to light that makes it even more clear that there are sadly a lot of people committing one of the most classic blunders—no, not that one about going up against a Sicilian when death is on the line—no, this one is from the Nixon era: it isn’t the crime that brings you down, it’s the cover-up.
I’m speaking metaphorically, though. I am not trying to imply that anyone has committed a crime, nor that they are trying to hide it. In the case of the Silverberg incident, while there was plenty that is of the gatekeeper-y style of racism/sexism (not to mention the bigoted trope of calling any marginalized person who is being anything other than deferential “angry”) in the original offense, the real problem came when he wrote about how he isn’t racist or sexist—using racist and misogynist arguments to do so. So, the original comments could have been apologized for as thoughtless or ill-considered (and hypocritical), the denial just made the unexamined misogyny and racist presumptions undeniable.
Turns out two weekends ago at LosCon Greg Benford got himself in a similar problem. Mike Glyer at File770 has several posts with statements from several people and there’s a lot to unravel, but the upshot was that Benford made a number of dismissive comments about works written by one black woman in particular and younger-than-him women writing sf/f in general during a panel, and then during the question-and-answer portion of the panel a pro sitting in the audience tried to call him on it and there was much yelling and recrimination.
The convention staff’s inconsistent handling of the subsequent complaints from multiple people in the panel are generating a lot of pedantic argument and deflection. I don’t feel like re-litigating that, I want to focus on the dismissive words and the problems there. The topic of the panel was supposed to be to discuss who the future Grandmasters of SF/F might be. One of the statements Benford made as part of a general dismissal of a lot of stuff being written today was, “If you write sf honey, gotta get the science right.”
A lot of people are trying to defend Benford by saying that everyone else is being bigoted against southern people by taking offense. They are making the claim that “honey” is used as a polite term to address a stranger in many social circumstances in the south. And they are right to an extent, however, it is not always polite, nor is it an entirely ungendered term, as Benford’s defenders are trying to claim. Straight men in the south never use “honey” to address another man, it is always gendered. Queer men can use it either way, though straight men are quite likely to take offense if a man refers to them as honey. Women can use the term to people of any gender and often it is considered a polite form of address, but it depends on the context.
An older woman might indeed address a younger person as “honey” if they are either asking them to do something, or suggesting that the way the younger person is behaving might be inappropriate for the situation, and so forth. The younger southern person would not take offense, and neither would anyone listening. Southern culture does have a very strong strain of respecting one’s elders, for one thing; the term “honey” in this case signals a difference in social standing. But if the significantly younger person were to call the older woman “honey” in the answer, she would be affronted, and other people overhearing would all agree that the younger person was being rude. Because this is inverting the social standing: the younger person’s use of the term “honey” in such a case signals that the older person doesn’t deserve the respect ordinarily accorded to elders.
If a man uses the term to address a woman who is not a close family member or intimate partner, it also signals a difference in social standing. But depending on the context, the difference being asserted might be simply that the man believes that all women naturally must defer to him. While it might sound friendly, it’s definitely got a message of “respect your betters (and that would be me)” about it.
As another old white bearded guy from the south, I have also used the term “honey” when addressing someone who wasn’t my husband. And as a queer man, I have used it without regard to gender. But I also have had friends explain to me that it just amps up the condescension when I do that. I didn’t consciously intend it, but once it was pointed out, I realized I have to learn to stop saying it, because they are right. Not just that it sounds condescending (which it does). And also not just that it can hurt someone to be talked down to that way whether I intend it or not (which it does). But also because now I know both of those things.
So, since Benford identifies as straight man originally from the south, we can safely infer that his off-the-cuff remark was aimed solely at women writers, and that it was more of an admonishment than friendly advice. It also is a bit of classic gatekeeper BS that conveniently is never used to disqualify any science fiction written by straight white guys. Something that John Scalzi pointed out in a chuckle-worthy way:
Another of my favorite authors, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, started a thread (which others contributed to) that gives more examples of science fiction written by white guys where the science is very, very wrong, but no one of Benford’s camp would ever say wasn’t sf.
Another Benford comment that was directed at a specific author is even worse: asserting that a trilogy which recently won three Hugos in a row isn’t all that because “psychic powers to control the earth and earthquakes had already been done in the fifties.” Which is another favorite gatekeeper trick to exclude people. Never mind that every one of Benford’s own books could be boiled down to a single “idea” that someone had written many years before he started being published. But that’s the nature of gatekeeping: rules are stated in a way that sound like an objective criteria, but aren’t applied to works by white straight cisgendered men.
But others have also explained that a bit better. Annalee Flower Horne did a twitter thread explaining how “the notion that ideas and tropes can never be re-used in SF and that anyone trying must be new here would be funny if it weren’t such an insidious tool of exclusion.”
But at this point I’m still just describing Benford’s original offense, and not how he dug himself even deeper into the hole. I’m not going to link to it because it’s hosted on sites that I refuse to give any support of. But his response boiled down to accusing everyone else of being too sensitive and lamenting the so-called victim culture. Ah, yes, that tired old chestnut! Every classic blunder deserves a classic racist/misogynist/homophobic dog whistle, I guess. But just to be clear: if you claim that other people are being too sensitive, all that really means is that you’re offended because you think you should be able to disrespect whoever you want and never face any consequences for it.
I didn’t do as good a job last week about explaining one aspect of why this doubling-down is not just pointless, but also ethically wrong. Fortunately, Brianne Reeves did a much better job:
You are at a playground. A gaggle of four year olds is running about. One of them is not paying attention and accidentally sends another plummeting off the equipment and into the asphalt. Suddenly, there is screaming and crying. Mothers race to the scene.
What do you do next?
You fix the wound as best you can, and the child apologizes. Not necessarily for the shove, but for the inattention. They didn’t *mean* to cause pain, but their lack of awareness meant that another is in pain.”
I mentioned above the time when a friend called me out for using the term “honey” in a condescending way. I wasn’t intending to belittle the person I was talking to, but intention isn’t an exculpatory factor. My friend was hurt by my words, and that is on me. More importantly, once I have had this explained to me, the onus also is upon me to avoid such thoughtless words again. It is tough breaking old habits, I know. I have screwed up since that was pointed out to me, but the answer isn’t to blame my friend for being overly sensitive. The onus is on me to keep trying to do better, and apologize sincerely when I mess up.
It’s also galling when a professional writer, of all people, tries to claim that words don’t matter. They do. We should take pride in taking responsibility for what we say and write.
A while back I posted about why I dislike large expository dumps in fiction (Trust the reader to keep up). I still stand by what I wrote there, but thanks to a great essay by Cecilia Tan, Let Me Tell You, I realize that advice like that feeds into a misperception that all exposition is inherently bad. At best, it ignores the fact that there is a big difference between expository dumps and quality exposition. I’ve linked to Tan’s essay before, and it is well worth the read, but the crux of her argument is here:
Tan is hardly the first person to point out that the cliched advice to ‘show, don’t tell‘ is problematic: Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Is the Great Lie of Writing Workshops or 5 REASONS ‘SHOW DON’T TELL’ IS BAD ADVICE. But the easiest way to see that it is at best an oversimplification is simply to remember that writers are story tellers. You can’t tell a story without, well, telling some things.
These are the do’s and don’ts of MFA programs everywhere. They rely on a shared pool of knowledge and cultural assumptions so that the words left unsaid are powerfully communicated. I am not saying this is not a worthwhile experience as reader or writer, but I am saying anointing it the pinnacle of “craft” leaves out any voice, genre, or experience that falls outside the status quo. The inverse is also true, then: writing about any experience that is “foreign” to that body of shared knowledge is too often deemed less worthy because to make it understandable to the mainstream takes a lot of explanation. Which we’ve been taught is bad writing!
From the point of view of teaching people how to write, ‘show don’t tell’ is part of an entire tool kit which is used for gatekeeping. See, if you do not understand enough of the cultural touchstones being alluded to (but not actually told about) in the so-called literary novels, you can’t understand the novel. In other words, the less that your upbringing resembled a white, male, cis het, upper middle class childbood, the less likely that those novels will be understood by you, and therefore less likely they will appeal to you. And if you admit that you didn’t like them and didn’t understand them, that is used by some people to label you as unsophisticated, unintelligent, and tasteless. You can get past those gatekeepers if you don’t fall into all of those categories (there are a number of works by gay male authors, for instance, that are routinely accepted into the category because those authors understood the culture and learned all the tricks), but the entire toolkit of the literary elite created a situation where you must learn the secret codes in order to understand the stories.
Several science fiction and fantasy authors have pointed out that it is impossible to tell a good sf/f tale following the ‘show don’t tell’ stricture because in order to put the reader into a world that differs from ours, you have to at least occasionally tell the reader some things.
But you don’t have to do that by placing large chunks of your world-building as a lecture or debate about history that goes on for pages and pages. You certainly don’t have to make your viewpoint character an outsider who doesn’t know anything about this world, so has to constantly have things explained to them by others. You can explain things without slowing down the plot. You can tell the reader about the setting in small sips. You can do that in context along the way.
Trust the reader to understand, yes, but trust the story, too. You’re a story teller, so tell your story.