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Canons are becoming less possible - Input Junkie
September 16th, 2016
12:29 pm


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Canons are becoming less possible
An English professor explains why she isn't reading or assigning David Foster Wallace

I think what I'm writing isn't even an essay, it's a ramble.

Once upon a time-- I'd say until sometime in the 70s-- it was possible for a dedicated reader to pretty much keep up with science fiction, or at least I think I was managing it, with some time left over for reading earlier sf and rereading my favorites. Perhaps it was even possible at some point to keep up with the fanzines.

Admittedly, I didn't like everything and didn't read what I didn't like. Still, I wasn't the only one who had a shared vocabulary of a large body of first and second-rate sf.

Then, it seemed like I was getting swamped. What's more, the field started expanding into more media. Star Trek fans had been scraping by on three seasons worth of shows. Comic book fans were stuck with only two major companies.

I'm going to be sloppy with the decades, but for some time we're got huge numbers of tie-ins, games, movies, fan creations.... I think you could spend the rest of your life on just Harry Potter fan fiction and not keep up with it.

I'm not viewing with alarm, though with some degree of nostalgia. It's pleasant to have such a large shared vocabulary. I think it's relatively possible to still have the shared vocabulary from art that's more expensive to produce (movies and television), though there gets to be more of that because the past isn't getting lost and also because the amount getting produced in visual media is increasing and the market is becoming more international. There's still some shared vocubulary for print sf, it's just getting harder.

These days, there's more good art and more great art, which seems like a fair trade.

I recently read about people trying to keep up with short sf stories for the Hugos.... there are resouces, but you really can't.

Anyway, I'm looking at the foggy future and I'm assuming there will be some art which is broadly popular, but there's also going to be a lot of (even more?) fragmentation of audiences. We might get competent advice to computers-- programs which can accurately say "this isn't much like you've liked in the past, but you'll probably love it". I have no idea what academe will look like. Will there still be as much done with consensus masterpieces? More idiosyncratic choices by professors?

Anyone else remember the bit at the beginning of Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand? The protagonst is absorbing what seems like a fascinating bunch of book cubes, but as I recall they weren't a collection, just random packing material.

Speaking of that second rank stuff, what was the Chandler story where some handwaving science expanding the size of the ship and crew, so that stars really were like glowing grains of sand?

Maybe I'm overgeneralizing from myself. What have other people seen about shared knowledge of sf or other sorts of art?

Oh, right, I do have a title for this ramble. Actually, there's academic work done about canons, and I've only nibbled around the edges of it. My impression is that canons exist partly because of theories about what is good for people and partly out of habit. I think canons are also a result of having too much material to hold in a mind, but little enough that it's possible to think about what's worth treating as essential.

The idea that there are universal human classics that people need to be forced to read is pretty funny, though I think part of what happens is at least some of the material is fair to middling universal but students are forced to read it when they're too young for it.

My bet is that consensus is going to weaken, making canons harder to maintain, but I'm open to alternate predictions.

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[User Picture]
Date:September 16th, 2016 06:36 pm (UTC)
It seems to me that canon is related in a way to statistical sampling. It's a basic principle of statistics that the best predictor of the characteristics of a population is the mean of a sample. How good "best" is depends on how large the sample is and how free from bias the selection of its members is. Normally we just give the numbers. But for something qualitative, it may work better to give the actual sample, and let the examiner infer what the mean or the typical example is from that, both because the characteristics may not be metric, and also because we may want the examiner to have some personal encounters with the members of the population.

"Canon" departs from this in one notable way: Instead of giving a sample that points to the typical members of the population, you give a sample that points to the "best" members, in some sense of best. And that makes sense if you consider that the question you're trying to answer is "Why do you like this stuff?" or "What's worth my while to look at?" If your examiner doesn't like the words you pick, the implication is, they probably won't like the genre, because you pick works that are both in some way representative and in some way excellent.

This fits in with canon being, in a way, addressed to outsiders. People in the Elizabethan era might have debated over whether a play by Jonson, or Marlowe, or Shakespeare, or Webster, was worth seeing or not, or was excellent or not, but if they could go to the theater regularly they didn't need a sample; they had already sampled with higher density than would go into canon. Canon is for people later in history who want to get a look at an earlier era without exposing themselves to every single work, or for outsiders who are curious about "that sci-fi stuff" but have never read every single book on the library shelves with a little rocket ship on the spine. Those are the people who need samples.
[User Picture]
Date:September 17th, 2016 04:52 am (UTC)
In other words, you anticipate that the scholarly community will fire the canons.

Edited at 2016-09-17 04:52 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:September 17th, 2016 01:01 pm (UTC)
What I basically get is that you'd love to spend all your free time absorbing new material, but the load that is to be imported does not always math he quality of what got you interested in the first place. So you absorb more. Soon this becomes all you want to absorb and now you're up to your neck in it, and there's more to come. But you don't want to do without it, so you look for editing sources, which are always competing with each other. In the end, there's just too much stuff!

[User Picture]
Date:September 18th, 2016 12:45 pm (UTC)
That's not quite it, though the large quantities of similar work which is good enough but not really distinguished could be another post.

I really meant that having a community of people with large base of shared references is valuable, and maybe even that it's extraordinary (not that I realized it) to have this for a whole genre rather than a canon.
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