Saturday 9 June 2018

Is that The Canon in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

If it’s true that journalism is the first draft of history, then one might also suggest that literary awards 
Bloom's tome offers
the modest subtitle
"The Books and School
of the Ages."
(Image via Wikipedia)
are a first draft of The Canon.

As literary theorists use the term, ‘The Canon’ is a body of art, literature, and cultural works that are of paramount influence.

Slightly more than 30 years ago, the great American educator E.D. Hirsch’s tome Cultural Literacy, prompted a flurry of hand wringing and arguments about the Canon by arguing that there is a set of essential texts that one needs to be at least passingly familiar with in order to appreciate Western culture. A few years later, in the surprise bestseller The Western Canon, literary critic Harold Bloom offered a prescriptive vision of what he considered the great texts that all people should know and have read.

The argument that they were advancing was that since all art is built upon previous works, there’s a base level of knowledge required to fully participate in society — and that abandoning the classics would lead to a coarsening of culture. For example, even when not directly addressing religion, John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath subtly references the plagues of Egypt while describing the dust bowl of the Great Depression. In the Empire Strikes Back,
Alas, poor C3P0, I knew him well.
(Image via
Chewbacca holds up the disembodied head of the android C-3P0 in a manner similar to the way Hamlet held up Yorick’s skull – an allusion that the director has said was deliberate. Both of these works, Hirsch and Bloom would argue, are strengthened by the allusions.

It would be hard to argue against the proposition that our appreciation of these works is completely independent of a base level of cultural literacy, or against the idea that a base level of knowledge helps us enjoy these works more fully.

But I would argue that what Hirsch and Bloom both missed is the degree to which this concept of cultural literacy is a moving target – especially in a culture that is as mercurial, balkanized and full of foment as our own has become over the past 40 years. As Marshall McLuhan predicted, the change in the means of literary production and dissemination can be understood as a driver of this culture. In defense of Bloom and Hirsch, they were writing before the Western world had widespread access to the Internet.

Both of these academics seem to have believed that culture was more monolithic and stagnant than it is. For example, there’s a different set of cultural references that’s required for understanding the genre of SF than there is for mystery fiction, and the canon of 2018 is clearly different than the canon was when Bloom attempted to codify it.

The adoption and repetition of literary metaphors, perhaps to the point of cultural practice, is what
Science fiction provides powerful
metaphors that can be used to advance
a political agenda, or to sell stuff
like Apple computers.
(Image via
gives them power. This elevation secures a position in the Canon. We see this demonstrated when someone refers to people having “taken the Red Pill,” when protesters dress up as Handmaids, and when overt displays of political power are described as “Orwellian” and the year “1984” is used as shorthand for authoritarianism. Being part of the prescriptive Canon infers and reproduces the power of the metaphor and its underlying meaning.

It is worth noting that Harold Bloom’s 1993 list of The Western Canon included only two works that are traditionally categorized as science fiction: Ursula Le Guin’s Hugo Award winner The Left Hand of Darkness and George Orwell’s 1984.

But of Bloom’s list, I would argue the majority of the works cited are less relevant to the broad public – and to a concept of cultural literacy – than the recent Hugo Award winners and popular works of science fiction.

For example, references and allusions to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th century poem Parzival are lost on the broader
Much like his namesake, Parzival in
Ready Player One was searching for
a Holy Grail. Isn't that taking 13th
Century nostalgia too far?
(Image via
public, while Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One protagonist Parzival is familiar to many.

Ready Player One — as has been discussed on this blog previously — explores the limits of cultural literacy by overloading the reader with intertextual references. It is sometimes said that nothing dates faster than the future, but one might suggest that pop cultural references of the moment date at least as quickly.

But the fact that a book so intertextual became a success shows that science fiction has become the lingua franca of modern culture. The power of the Hugo Awards is therefore not insignificant in helping move works from niche audiences towards the mainstream, and from the ephemerality of the moment, to enduring accessibility.

This — at least in part — explains many of the battles surrounding the Hugo Awards over the years. The deeply divisive Hugo Award battle at the Worldcon in Miami in 1977 can in some ways be seen
You don't have to be familiar
with Rachel Carson's
Silent Spring to appreciate
Where Late The Sweet Birds
, but it helps.
(Image via Wikipedia)
as an argument about which was the better book, Man Plus or Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang. But it could also be described as an argument about whether The Science Fiction Canon was closed to new wave environmentalist works. Both works are excellent — but it is worth noting that the more metaphor-laden and timely work won. Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang is a work that still resonates with many ecologists and wildlife biologists — Kate Wilhelm’s work, along with Silent Spring, the non-fiction work that inspired it, could be argued to be essential parts of the canon.

These questions of enduring value, of cultural literacy, and of metaphorical weight are ones that should be important to how we as fans think about our Hugo Award ballots. We are writing the first draft of the Canon. It may not be the final word on the matter, but it is an important start of the dialogue.

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