Fire the Canon!
by James Patrick Kelly
I recently read a Guardian article: Bland on Blonde: why the old rock music canon is finished www.theguardian.com/music/2018/aug/29/why-the-old-pop-music-canon-is-finished-greatest-albums-digital-age. In it, former Guardian Music Editor Michael Hann www.theguardian.com/profile/michaelhann reassessed a 1974 poll of the Top 100 Albums www.rocklistmusic.co.uk/nme_writers.htm#100_74 and offered a hindsight-powered critique of its artistic values and (lack of) diversity. For those readers who were not with us in 1974, the poll’s top three albums were The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde (1966), and Pet Sounds (1966), by the Beach Boys. I suppose that some in my generation might still defend the importance of most of the 100 albums on that forty-five-year-old list. But as obvious as the selections may have been in their time, the music landscape has changed radically, not the only with the triumphant arrival of new artists but also in the demographics of the listening audience. Back in 1974, the list was compiled based on recommendations by popular music journalists writing for mass-market print magazines. Who would have the authority to issue such a list today? Hann notes, “Maybe in five or ten years’ time a new canon will emerge, once the generation that has dominated music media for the past thirty years or so finally all but disappears, because it’s the composition of the voters that determines the outcome.”
In case you’re wondering, there are also lists ranking the very best work in our genre(s). For instance, Your Picks: Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books www.npr.org/2011/08/11/139085843/your-picks-top-100-science-fiction-fantasy-books resulted from a survey of National Public Radio’s listeners. (Top three: The Lord of the Rings, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Ender’s Game.) Or there’s Top 100 Sci-Fi Books http://scifilists.sffjazz.com/lists_books_rank1.html, from Sci-Fi Lists. “A statistical survey of the all-time Top 100 sci-fi books,” this ongoing poll is based on awards, nominations from published critics, and popular voting. So you too can have a say! (Top three: Dune, Ender’s Game, The Foundation Trilogy.) Amazon’s editors came up with 100 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books to Read in a Lifetime www.amazon.com/100-Science-Fiction-Fantasy-Books-to-Read-in-a-Lifetime/b?ie=UTF8&node=12661600011 “considering criteria such as vision, character creation, world building, and storytelling style.” (Top three: the editors chose not to rank.) Outrageously idiosyncratic and too obviously biased toward recent publication—despite its title—was The 100 Best Sci-Fi Books of All Time www.penguinrandomhouse.com/the-read-down/best-sci-fi-books/?ref=PRH70DB012DDE&aid=23393&linkid=PRH70DB012DDE. (Top Three: 1984, All the Birds in the Sky, Altered Carbon.) There are others, but before we get too deep into the weeds, let’s step back for a moment to consider what these lists are and who they’re for.
The impulse to create such lists began with the Greeks, who ranked works in a canon (in ancient Greek κανών), which meant measuring rod, standard or model. Wikipedia tells us that the term classic goes back to the second century, when the Roman grammarian Aulus Gellius https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aulus_Gellius refers to a writer as classicus scriptor, non proletarius (trans: A distinguished, not a commonplace writer). While the definitions of classic and canon generally overlap, there are differences. A canon, as in the canon of Western literature, is a collection of works that are not only classic but also influential. These are the books you are expected to have read, or at least skimmed in their Cliffs Notes www.cliffsnotes.com versions, if you aspire to be an intellectual. When I was in college, the Great Books Movement www.angelicum.net/classical-homeschooling-magazine/first-issue/the-great-books-movement-a-return-to-the-classics hoped to civilize the wayward children of the sixties by force-feeding them a steady diet of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy, and maybe Virginia Woolf, if the professor was feeling diverse that semester. The enterprise of canon maintenance has come under critical scrutiny since I was an aspiring writer, as well it might. Indeed, some have denounced canons as pernicious codifications of bias and privilege.
By the way, a writer might create a classic novel of style and substance, but if it hasn’t influenced her contemporaries or others down the years, it is not necessarily a candidate for the canon. Admittedly this is a difficult call, but if there is a difference between a classic and a canonical work, it must have something to do with the pervasiveness of its impact. However, for the sake of simplicity, we will consider the two terms to be more or less synonymous.
Dear reader, you may wonder, who are Top 100 lists for? For you, with reservations. Think of them not as Holy Scripture, but as you would consider a word-of-mouth recommendation from a pal, or a positive notice from one of our reviewers. This is their most common use. There is a different audience for a Canonical 100: academics, critics, and historians. Every year I attend the International Conference on the Fantastic http://www.fantastic-arts.org/annual-conference/ in Orlando, where writers and scholars gather to discuss and analyze fantastic fiction and media, trace the history of the genre, and trade best practices in research and writing. Alert readers may recall that this conference is the very one that Sheila has written about so often in these pages, most recently here www.asimovs.com/assets/1/6/Editorial_DellMagazineAwards_JulAug2018.pdf. It’s where the Dell Award for Undergraduate Writing www.dellaward.com is given.
Speaking of young and talented writers, one of the best uses of the classics is as tools for teaching the next generation of ’Mov’s contributors. If scholars use the canon as a “measuring rod” or “standard” in that sense of the ancient Greek word, writers can and do use canonical works as “models” for solving story problems of plot, character, and setting. When I teach at Clarion clarion.ucsd.edu or the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program https://usm.maine.edu/stonecoastmfa, students come to me all the time claiming that they’re trying to write Connie Willis www.sftv.org/cw comedies or Kelly Link www.kellylink.net slipstream or George R.R. Martin www.georgerrmartin.com multi-book sagas. There is nothing wrong with emulating one’s betters; many, if not most, aspiring writers do it. I am mindful of the one time I met Ursula K. Le Guin www.ursulakleguin.com, who was a huge influence on the young Jim Kelly. I blurted out that I was a huge fan and that my first novel was just like her first novel, Rocannon’s World https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocannon%27s_World “only with the serial numbers filed off.” Which was true, but probably best left unsaid. Ms. Le Guin took my lame pronouncement with what I understand was her characteristic grace. Recalling my fanboy embarrassment as I type this, I comfort myself with the hope that she promptly forgot who I was.
While it is all well and good to rank the top one hundred SFF novels, we’re story fans here. What about a canon of fantastic short stories? The website Scifi Lists, which brought you Top 100 Sci-Fi Books above, also presents Top 100 SF Short Fiction http://scifilists.sffjazz.com/lists_short_stories.html. (Top Three: “Flowers for Algernon” (1959) by Daniel Keyes, “Nightfall” (1941) by Isaac Asimov, and “The Story of Your Life”(1998) by Ted Chiang.) In 2012 Locus http://www.locusmag.com conducted a wide-ranging poll of its readers www.locusmag.com/2012/CompleteResultsShf.html ranking the top hundred in each of the three short fiction awards categories: Novella: (Top Three: “The Story of Your Life” (1998) by Ted Chiang, “The Word for World Is Forest” (1972) by Ursula K. Le Guin, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (1976) by James Tiptree, Jr.) Novelette: (Top Three: “Flowers for Algernon” (1959) by Daniel Keyes, “Nightfall” (1941) by Isaac Asimov, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” (1963) by Roger Zelazny.) Short Story: (Top Three: “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973) by Ursula K. Le Guin, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman” (1965) by Harlan Ellison.)
Recently, stalwart Asimov’s fan and data-meister Piet Nel pointed me toward a new list that he had contributed to, Classics of Science Fiction www.classicsofsciencefiction.com/best-science-fiction-short-stories. If we imagine that there is something called a “Top 100” genre, this is my very favorite of its kind, not only for the wonderful and eye-opening list of short fiction, but for the equally fine novel list. While nobody claims that any of these Top 100 sites are authoritative, here the authors’ sorting process raises their selections to a robust new level, in part because they’ve changed the paradigm. Instead of claiming that these are the “best” or “top” or “canon-worthy,” Classics of Science Fiction seeks to list the “most remembered.” To quantify this, they use what they call “citations.” These are drawn from a variety of sources: other “Top” lists (like the Top 100 SF Short Fiction and Locus polls mentioned above), award nominations, and appearances in reprint anthologies. Using this system, the top five “most cited” are “Bloodchild” (1984) by Octavia E. Butler, “Day Million” (1966) by Frederik Pohl, “The Game of Rat and Dragon” (1955) by Cordwainer Smith, “The Star” (1955) by Arthur C. Clarke, and “When It Changed” (1972) by Joanna Russ. I was surprised, but pleased, at their list; I think it reflects the genre that I’ve studied over my career. What intrigues me is how stories on this list intersect with stories that might once have been thought canonical. For example, there are thirty-one stories on the list from 1940-50, a decade that roughly corresponds to the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/golden_age_of_sf, a time during which science fiction was almost entirely a short story, magazine-based genre. However, forty-five make the list from 1980-1990, a decade best known for the rise of cyberpunk https://www.nyrsf.com/2013/07/who-owns-cyberpunk-by-james-patrick-kelly.html. Perhaps coincidently, it was also the decade in which Asimov’s www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/asimovs came into its own, winning way more than its share of Hugo Awards.
So are the Eighties more canonical than the Forties? Just posing the question would probably cause heads to explode in certain precincts of SF. How’s it going, Sad Puppies www.jimkelly.net/blog/2018/2/3/dont-read-the-comments? But that’s like asking if the Talking Heads http://www.talking-heads.nl are more canonical than Frank Sinatra www.sinatra.com.
Perhaps these are not the right questions.
The Classics of Science Fiction site is a labor of love by James Wallace Harris and Mike Jorgensen. I applaud their philosophy, because it’s a way to address the problems of determining what could be canon or classic. “This site is about identifying the most remembered science fiction novels and stories. We don’t claim which titles or authors are best. We don’t even claim the tales we identify are worthy reads or fun reading. We don’t pick the titles on our lists. What we find fascinating is how novels and stories are discovered, remembered, and forgotten. We believe the only real definition of a classic is what’s remembered.”
Thanks, James and Mike and Piet! Clicking through your fascinating site gave me the inspiration for this column.
Copyright © 2019 James Patrick Kelly