Contesting the canon

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In the Guardian last Wednesday, Damien G. Walter posed a question: Is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon? The article’s subtitle wondered whether 2011 would be the year the Booker Prize judges ‘acknowledge the flowering of British SF and fantasy’. Given the fact they’ve shown scant interest in it up until now, let me speculate a little in turn and suggest that, in 2011, the Booker judges will pay as much attention to sf and fantasy (and here I am eschewing Walter’s apparently preferred term ‘speculative fiction’ – all fiction is speculative, mainly because it is fiction, and I like to be clear what I’m talking about) as they ever have done before. They might put an identifiably sf or fantasy novel on the long list or the shortlist, or they might not. Most likely, they won’t. Will sf and fantasy publishing collapse in a heap as a result? I doubt it. Does it honestly and truly matter if the Booker doesn’t acknowledge the existence of sf and fantasy? I don’t think so.

Walter comments on the “narrowness of the award’s perspective” but this is hardly surprising. As Adam Roberts concluded recently, in Crunching the Booker Numbers, an elegant piece of analysis, “The Booker is not hospitable to genre – or to put it another way: the Booker is a genre prize – the genre in question being ‘twentieth-century/contemporary literary fiction’.” The Booker Prize has been inhospitable to genre for forty years, so there is very little likelihood that the 2011 judges will experience a collective rush of blood to the head and see the error of their predecessors’ ways. As Adam shows, it’s just not that kind of award. And it is not as though the sf/fantasy world is short of awards, from the popular votes of the Hugos and BSFA Awards to the juried Clarke Award, the Philip K Dick Award and so on, awards which derive from the community itself, and which are surely more informed as a result.

Given there are so few articles in which ‘literary’ commentators worry about whether borderline genre works might make the breakthrough this year and get a stab at the Hugos or the Clarke, one wonders why it is so imperative that genre novels need to be recognised by the Booker. Or, indeed, by the ‘literary’ world, as personified by the Booker. I think ‘recognised’ is a significant word here. I’ve been involved in the SF community one way or another for something over thirty years and it feels as though there has always been some sort of tussle going on between those who think that sf and fantasy should remain outside the mainstream literary community (or as Brian Aldiss so memorably put it, “Let’s get sf back in the gutter where it belongs”) and those who demand recognition from the mainstream, like needy children desperately seeking attention from unheeding parents. This article feels like yet one more expression of the latter.

What sort of recognition is Walter seeking? A Booker Prize-winner, obviously, but what will that do for science fiction and fantasy? There will be acclamation from within the community, naturally, and doubtless bafflement expressed by the ‘literary’ community, probably accompanied by yet more foolish and ignorant comments along the lines of “it can’t be sf/fantasy, it’s good”. More perceptive commentators, probably someone like Michael Dirda, will doubtless observe that it is perfectly possible to produce well-written narratives within a genre framework, and there will be a lot of foot-shuffling and throat-clearing as other commentators set out to show how the winning novel is not really that much of a genre piece and how, in the right light, it looks almost literary.

Let us be clear about one thing: it will be the novel that has won the Booker, not the genre. The author will become a Booker-winning author and may experience more interest from publishers as a result, and possibly a certain amount of pressure to produce more books of a kind likely to appeal to people who buy Booker Prize-winning novels. I do not believe there will be a rush to the genre shelves as the scales fall from people’s eyes and they embrace science fiction and fantasy as long-lost prodigal children. The winning novel will probably remain as one of the more wilful jury choices, to be joked over in future years or discussed by people who actually take an interest in the history of the Booker but I do not think science fiction and fantasy will be taken into the bosom of the literary mainstream as a result.

Something else that struck me about this article was its confusion over what this much-craved recognition ought to look like. Alongside the desire for a Booker Prize there is a lot of talk about the literary canon and “SF’s canonical works”. Indeed, Walter himself admits that “the number of SF authors being retrospectively rolled in to the literary canon seems to grow exponentially year on year”. If that were so, I can’t see the problem, but putting aside the misuse of “exponentially”, let us instead address this idea of sf being brought into the canon “retrospectively”. Because, after all, isn’t the inclusion of any author in a canon retrospective, the point being that they have to earn the right to their place by demonstrating the enduring qualities that distinguish them as being in some way “good” literature.

For my own part, I have little patience with the concept of “the literary canon”. At its dubious best, it’s little more than a convenience for teachers, a gathering together of titles which someone somewhere thought that everyone ought to have read (and the canon arose, as much as anything, as a way of providing a blueprint for literary self-improvement), a list from which to compile a syllabus. At worst, it has represented, and to some extent I think it still does, a spurious privileging and legitimising of certain texts, almost invariably those written by dead white males. We can attempt to update the canon or even construct counter-canons, but the canon itself continues to sit there obstinately, accusingly, defying us to mess around with the literary status quo, a reminder that someone somewhere once compiled a list by which people’s reading choices are still being judged.

How exactly are sf and fantasy to break into the canon if, on the one hand, they are already there anyway (not forgetting that many of the ur-texts of fantasy and sf already appear on university syllabuses, beginning with various Gothic romances and Frankenstein, there is at least one MA in Science Fiction Studies in the UK, and goodness knows how many academics writing about science fiction and fantasy in academic journals) and, on the other, canon-building is perforce a retrospective pastime? Or is Walter perhaps proposing something slightly different, namely a shortening of the period required to become canon-fodder in order to get more recent sf and fantasy onto the golden list and lend them some of this spurious authority. Because, brutally, the authority of the canon is spurious, and constraining too. A few authors and titles will be singled out for greater attention, as with the Booker, but again, it will do nothing for the genre as a whole, and possibly not even for an individual author’s complete oeuvre.

As I said earlier, I’ve seen various iterations of this tussle being fought over thirty years. It’s not new. Indeed, at various times I’ve fought on each side of the argument. However, the more I have thought about it, the more I have come to realise that the whole idea of science fiction and fantasy needing the imprimatur of the “literary” mainstream is a load of rubbish. Are we honestly so insecure about sf and fantasy that we need the blessing of another genre’s prize in order to feel that we have somehow arrived? Do we really need to participate in a flawed academic exercise in order to convince ourselves of our own worth?

What this demand for ‘recognition’ suggests, in fact, is that we don’t trust the genre to stand or fall according to its innate qualities. We know there is well-written material and poorly crafted hackwork within the genre, but it’s not a situation unique to fantasy or sf. All areas of literary production suffer from it but I don’t recall any of the others demanding greater recognition from the Booker for the “good” stuff.

This is not to say that I am in any way advocating a rejection of the mainstream and a retreat to the teenage bedroom of the genre heartland, accompanied by a fading wail of “you just don’t understand”. Genre has its uses as a down-and-dirty taxonomic shorthand on occasion but I don’t believe these terms and definitions should be used to construct barriers, especially not in order to provide a platform from which to complain that people aren’t willing to make the journey through the barricade. It’s ridiculous and, dare I say, just a little childish.

For my own part, I read “genre” fiction, I read “contemporary” fiction, I read “canonical” fiction, interchangeably and with equal pleasure. I do not need the approval of the academy, the Booker Prize judges or the sf and fantasy community when I make my choices about the books I am going to read. With everything I read, I read critically, and am happy to defend my opinions as required. Awards shortlists can be a talking-point, the canon is a useful jumping-off point and I value the cut and thrust of discussion with my fellow reading fans, but in the end I honestly don’t care a jot whether anyone else approves of what I read, and I certainly don’t feel I need to have my choices sanctioned by the awarding of a Booker Prize.

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6 thoughts on “Contesting the canon

  1. Paul

    "Are we honestly so insecure about sf and fantasy that we need the blessing of another genre’s prize in order to feel that we have somehow arrived? Do we really need to participate in a flawed academic exercise in order to convince ourselves of our own worth?"Yeah, I jammed out a similar riff last year; cue lots of people telling me how I was determined to see the genre languish in the ghetto. Far from it; I just know from bitter personal experience that acceptance by the wider world isn't achieved by petulant demands for such, no matter how well-worded and rhetorically polished. To be clear, I like Damien, admire his passion for lit of all kinds, and I'm glad he's talking about genre stuff in the Guardian. But the "the Booker hates genre!" thing is just… it's just whiney nerdery, really. (And yes, I've done it myself in the past, mea culpa; I am part of the problem, but I'm trying to get my Ghandi on and be the change I want to see.)It's like football fans who still haven't gotten over the fact that England beat Germany in a World Cup once; sure, be proud of the past, but don't make your home there.

  2. Paul Kincaid

    Science fiction and the sort of fiction that wins the Booker Prize are doing two different things. They may do them well or ill, they may overlap, there may be (indeed there have been) times when books with science fictional elements get shortlisted for the Booker (Time's Arrow, Cloud Atlas), there may be (indeed there have been) times when books with Booker Prize elements get shortlisted for the Clarke (Never Let Me Go, Cloud Atlas). But that doesn't mean the awards are interchangeable. It just means that awards recognise multifarious things, and sometimes those things fall into two or more of our little compartments.I don't honestly care if genre books get recognised in the Booker (as you say, it's not the genre being recognised). I don't honestly care if Booker Prize-ish books get recognised by the Clarke. All that matters is that the various prizes genuinely recognise quality within their own terms.

  3. Paper Knife

    @Jonathan, so long as the individual compartments are not watertight (and genre readers are as guilty of attempting to maintain the hermetic seal as any other group of readers) I am entirely happy to compartmentalise, moving between different areas of reading as the fancy takes me. Anyway, no piece of literature is entire unto itself unless it was produced by someone who has had no contact whatsoever with any other literary product, which is pretty much impossible.

  4. Paper Knife

    @Paul, ah, missed your piece last year. Thanks for the pointer. I suspect most of us have been part of the problem at some point or another – it is perhaps a natural part of one's developing engagement with literature. On the other hand, I think it is a phase that needs to be passed through as swiftly and quietly as possible. I'd rather be promoting the idea that reading is good, literature is good, and reading what you enjoy, irrespective of its label, is also good. And passion, that's good too. All of us who come together to talk about books are driven by that passion, be it for sf, Native American lit or Booker Prize-winners, and that's surely the most important thing.

  5. Paper Knife

    @PaulK (there are getting to be too many Pauls), it really is time we got to grips with the fact that genre is a convenience rather than a defence. As you say, all that matters is that the prizes recognse quality.

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