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Why We Should Abolish The ‘Classic Canon’ In Sci-Fi and Fantasy Fiction

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BY August 15, 2020
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There has been a lot of discussion lately about what is considered ‘canon’ in the world of genre fiction. In light of the recent Hugo’s backlash, many authors have taken to social media to share their thoughts on what should be considered ‘essential’ genre reading. The ‘canon’ within sci-fi and fantasy relates back to the definition of the term. The “sacred texts.” The books that are considered to be paragon. Classic canon contains the books that all others are held up against and judged. But the canon itself is an inherently flawed idea. And one that is dramatically outdated in our new golden age of genre fiction. Is it time to do away with the sci-fi and fantasy canon altogether?

Old Books Image via Unsplash

The Canon Is An Inherently Flawed Idea

So what is the sci-fi and fantasy canon? For many years the canon has listed books written by predominantly straight white men. Authors like Heinlein; Asimov, Bradbury, and Tolkien are often revered as essentials of the classic canon of the genre. While these authors certainly helped to shape the foundation of the genre as we know it, they should not be the ideal that every other author must live up to.

The endless comparison of new genre work against the ‘classics’ of the canon is inherently flawed. Science Fiction is all about looking to the future, and the fact that fans are constantly looking to the past is paradoxical. Fantasy fiction is all about creating new worlds, but when authors are constrained by the set rules of High Fantasy set by Tolkien then those worlds all end up looking the same.

We should be allowing new authors to explore, break boundaries, and create worlds of their own making and informed by their own experiences. When every book is compared to Lord of the Rings or Dune then we are limiting what those books can be. This is how we end up with countless books that seem like carbon copies of earlier novels. Ideas become stagnant, and there is no room for growth.

Dune Image via MacMillan Books

We Don’t Have To Respect Authors With Abhorrent Views

The idea of the canon itself inherently has some issues. It is all well and good to respect the writers who paved the way for a new generation of genre. But many of those authors also have some fundamentally racist and xenophobic elements in their work. Take for example H.P. Lovecraft, who is held up as the canon in the sci-fi/horror genre. Lovecraft’s work may have influenced many writers, but that influence is not always a good thing. His overtly racist views permeated his work, and may have informed the views of many young readers in a negative way.

Readers should not be shamed for choosing not to consume literature or media by authors whose views have not aged well. We should not have to accept that they are the gods of the genre. And authors should not have to hold these men up as ideals. They definitely should not be getting awards.

The Canon Is Another Method of Gatekeeping In Fandom

Books and Door Image by Eugenio Mazzone via Unsplash

Another thing to note is that the ‘canon’ is often wielded as a weapon against genre fans (particularly female fans). It is often utilized as a form of gatekeeping, to block people from entering the conversation. If you have not read the canon then many people will not take you seriously. You are not considered to be a real fan of the genre. And so the canon becomes elevated to mythical status, if you want to be part of the fandom then you are told that you must read the canon. This leads to so much newer works of genre fiction being ignored or pushed aside in favor of reading the classics.

But why do we do this? There is so much amazing work in the genre being done right now by women and authors of color. So many of these books are better written and more interesting than much of the ‘classic’ canon. We should not feel pressured as readers or writers to consume literature just because we are told we must.

We Must Redefine What Books Are Considered “Classics”

Author N.K. Jemisin was once asked about her views on the canon at New York Comic-Con. She said “I don’t know how I feel about a canon anymore. The sheer volume of books that exist out there means that a canon is no longer possible.” She believes that the ‘classics’ should be “the books that change your thinking, that blow your mind, that reorder your world.”

Top 10 Fantasy Series of the past Decade The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin | Image via Hachette Books

There are so many genre books that should be considered modern-day classics, and Jemisin’s excellent Broken Earth trilogy is amongst them. But Jemisin still gets a lot of hate in the genre community for being a black woman who dares to write about black women. The norm in genre fiction has been too white, too male, and too heterosexual for too long. It made the genre stale, and the stories repetitive. The influx of new authors who defy these norms has revitalized the genre, and made it more popular than ever before. In order to keep the genre alive and fresh, it must continually reinvent itself. And focusing on the past is no way to create a bright future where all voices can be read and respected in equal measure.

So go ahead and push those ‘classics’ down on your TBR pile in favor of something new and different. Redefine what a classic means to you. In Sci-Fi & Fantasy, there should be no rules.

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Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.

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