Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Loncon: The Canon is Dead. What Now?

This was my last panel of the day, but I'm going to write it up before the other remaining one, because it had an upsetting thing at the end that I'd like to clear off my list of things to talk about.


On the one hand, initiatives like the SF Gateway are helping to ensure the SF backlist remains accessible to today's readers, and an increasing number of "classic" SF writers are receiving the establishment seal of approval in series like the Library of America (Philip K. Dick) and the Everyman Library (Isaac Asimov). On the other hand, the SF readership is increasingly diverse, with fewer readers who have come to the field via those "classics", and many who find little of value in them in any case. In other words the traditional SF canon is no longer tenable -- but the history is still out there. So what alternative models and narratives should we be using to understand the field's past? Should we be working to expand the canon, or to describe multiple overlapping histories -- or something else?

Kate Nepveu (m), Connie Willis, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Chris Beckett, Joe Monti

I saw criticisms of my moderation from a person on Twitter, who thought I talked too much. I will not apologize for one of those instances (or for believing that I have things to contribute to the panel beyond just setting discussion in motion), but there were some points where I could have been more concise, especially since this was another 50-minute panel.

I asked by asking why we want to convey genre history: is it different for readers and writers, or between fantasy & SF? I said that I thought it was genuinely useful for fantasy readers to read _LotR_--though less so than twenty years ago--but I wasn't sure the same was true for SF, since the commercial genre can't be traced back to a single book that way.

I think the general consensus was that it was more important for writers. Connie said that when she teaches Clarion she hands out a 50-book list, because her least favorite critique is "this is a really good story that Bradbury did in 1952." Generally people agreed that writers should know the most famous plot twists/types; something of the genre conventions (insert here the thing about genre being distinguished, if not defined, by way information is conveyed to reader); and something about the major works in your topic area, otherwise you get mainstream writers thinking that they're saying something profound about robots etc. when genre readers are like, "done that back in 19-whatever."

(But tropes are different; just because someone's done "Adam & Eve in space" before, as one of the panelists, I think Chris?, had done, doesn't mean you can't. It's the gimmicks that only work once because of surprise, and even then if they're not well-known now . . . )

Somewhere pretty early people said that readers shouldn't read the canon because it's (medicine/work/homework--I forget the exact phrasing). They should read the canon because it's good (or the good bits of the canon).

I mentioned the rare works specifically in explicit dialogue with an identifiable thing: Peter Watts' "Things" (the movie _The Thing_); Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald"—which I embarrassingly called "A Study in Scarlet" until the audience corrected me, thank you, audience—the latter of which doesn't work at all if you don't know Sherlock Holmes canon. But besides those, which are pretty easy to spot, what benefit can there be for readers to know genre history?

Connie said that every work is in some way in dialogue with others, because that's what storytelling is, all the way back to its origins. When she started writing her time travel stories, she made a list of all the things she disliked about existing time travel stories. Possibly here, Joe said that Ann Leckie hadn't read _The Left Hand of Darkness_ before writing _Ancillary Justice_, which both do things with pronouns and gender, but she was aware that _Left Hand_ existed and what it did, which he found surprising, but maybe it was hard to say what reading it would have added.

In response to a question, the panelists were generally not in favor of authors making that kind of inspiration/works-being-referenced explicit to the reader, in afterwords or suchlike, because it's so much fun for readers to make those connections themselves, and if they don't, the works ought to stand on their own anyway. It's to enrich the understanding not to create it. (Somewhere prior to this I'd said that I was of the view that The Author Is Dead, and though I heard some objection to that from the authors on the panel =>, at this point I believe at least one person said okay, maybe The Author Is Dead after all, at least somewhat.)

I'm fairly sure about this point we were running very low on time, so I said, here are the other things I was hoping we'd talk about, let me rattle them off in case they spark questions from the audience. (This is the bit I won't apologize for talking.) They were: what multiple overlapping histories (mentioned in the description) might consist of: subgenres, groups of authors working together, publishers . . . ?; other ways these genre histories might get conveyed: reviews, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia of SF?

I learned a lesson about myself as a mod here: because the panel was on the same level as the room, I stood up to see people and point at five people to ask questions in order. But when it was time for the next person I should have stood back up, because it turns out I rely on physical locations of people and I couldn't remember who was next, which was awkward.

Unfortunately the only question I actually remember at this point was the thing that was upsetting, a.k.a., [discussion of sexism & racism] in which Connie Willis and I disagree whether the historical formation of the canon excluded women and minorities.

I don't exactly remember the question now, but it was something about the formation of the canon, which we hadn't been talking about before then because, the canon is dead. But I said something in response about how we can't ignore that the canon was formed by white straight cis men who did not recognize women and racial minorities to the same degree that they recognized other white straight cis men—

—or I got some of that out, anyway, I'm not sure how much, because Connie immediately jumped in saying, strongly, that's not true, that's never been true. I don't remember exactly what I said to that, but she went on list maybe five or six women writers, all names I recognized at the time, though I can't reproduce it a day after the fact, and all of whom I believed to be white. I said, okay, we have to move on because we're really low on time, but I'll just point out that Joanna Russ was part of the genre and wrote _How to Suppress Women's Writing_. Connie said something very close to, well, maybe _she_ was suppressed.

That someone can name a literal handful of white women who were successful in the genre does not mean that there was no suppression of other women's work, that those women did not struggle to be published and taken seriously, and that people from racial minorities did not have their writing suppressed. The lists of Hugo and Nebula nominees over history are testament to that. Or, basically, anecdote is not data, and fandom is not magically uncontaminated by the ills of society that it exists within and as a part of. end of discussion of sexism and racism

Until that point I had been enjoying the panel quite a bit, and I do think there was fodder there for more discussion. So further thoughts would be welcome, from anyone. However, I am going to screen anon comments out of an abundance of caution: if you're new here, please review my commenting policy. I will unscreen comments as soon as possible.

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Tags: cons: worldcon: 2014 (loncon 3), gender, race

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