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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