During college, there were two required courses for English majors: Evolving Canon I and II. Those classrooms were the first settings where I really came into dialogue with the so-called literary canon, ie The Chosen Ones, though its existence had been shaping my school-required reading all my life. While I am sure we must have discussed the problems of defining a canon (how do you chose? who gets to choose?) and its potential for change and evolution, I am fairly certain that we never got into the power plays inherent in such choices and the way they can perpetuate things like sexism, racism, and mono-culturalism.
While I love many books file-able under “literature,” SF has steadily remained my reading passion, and SF has its own canon of writing considered must-read classics. It is a very troublesome canon, as many have pointed out, most recently Renay of Lady Business in an essay on Strange Horizons called “Community: The Weight of History.” In this essay, Renay talks about how she feels pressure to read SFF canon in order to be taken seriously and how attempting to do so has resulted in lower reading enjoyment as she finds almost only male writers on The Official Big Boys List, often telling stories with very problematic female characters and depictions of women.
“It’s hard to really feel dedicated to a communal storytelling space when the history of it is so steeped in one perspective that people outside the genre only see what floats to the top—those classics by men that everyone knows and that a quick google will help you find. And so that very limited vision is regurgitated over and over, pressing at you, reminding you there’s a history you don’t know and that not knowing it might be considered a failing.”
While I like to read books considered SF canon because I like big pictures, I have also rolled many an eye at the mire of the SF canon. If the classics are schlock am I really a better informed person for having read them? Or am I just someone who has wasted four hours of her life reading a heap of bullpaper? I have come to the conclusion that reading criticism of the Old White Male Guard classics is more than enough, in most cases, to say thanks but no thanks. To say, everything I have read about Heinlein screams “Nikki you will hate this” and by the way have you heard of this amazing female author? No? Huh.
Shortly after Renay’s article was published, Nina Allan published a response on her own blog, The Spider’s House. She discusses the problem at length in the context of her own reading history and development and says some wonderfully observant things. I am tempted to quote such large portions of it at you that I am just going to repeat: go read it now, it is wonderful. I will share just one quote, a quote of a quote from Tansy Rayner Roberts that Allan mentions:
“I can highly recommend finding your own classics. For every ‘but have you read Heinlein’ or ‘Asimov had a great female character,’ you can holler back with ‘But have you read all of Joanna Russ? I would tackle Heinlein but I’m starting with Delaney. I TRUMP YOU OCTAVIA BUTLER.'”
And that is just what I am going to do. I am firing the canon. BOOM. Time to build my own.