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Let the Canons Bloom
July 25, 2005
At Readercon maybe ten years ago, I was on a panel called "Reloading the Canon." The subject was the white-maleness of the science fiction canon and the importance of incorporating more women writers and writers of color into it. Befitting the importance of the subject, panelists were seated in big boardroom chairs around a long coffee table, all this on a carpeted dais whose ascent required steps (considerately provided) for anyone not accustomed to hurdling. Track & field stars are rare at science fiction cons; neither I nor any of my fellow panelists were exceptions to the rule.
Two of us were exceptional, however: on the "Reloading the Canon" panel, I was the only woman, and Chip Delany the only person of color. It being the mid-1990s, I waited politely for one of the white guys to call attention to this. (In such situations, only white guys are eligible for brownie points; the woman or person of color who points out the imbalance is generally considered tedious, strident, and/or ungracious to the hardworking con committee.) Each panelist made his opening remarks, none of them said anything, so I took the fall.
That's all I remember about the panel: nothing about what works were deemed canonical and what works were worthy of joining them. Over the years I've become a strong believer in the importance of canons. How you load, or reload, the canon is secondary (though, need I say, not insignificant). I move through worlds where the canon changes every time I cross a border. Sometimes there's overlap; sometimes there's none. The other day I was crowing to a well-read friend about getting to review Octavia Butler's new novel, Fledgling. Blank look: "Who's Octavia Butler?" Author of Kindred, the Xenogenesis trilogy, and Parable of the Sower, among other books; winner of a MacArthur fellowship (aka "genius grant") a few years ago -- Butler stands at the intersection of several canons: science fiction, women's lit, and African American lit. But if you aren't immersed in at least one of those fields, you may never have heard of her; and it may require at least a passing acquaintance with all three to understand her importance.
To discuss a work, as opposed to delivering or taking in a lecture on the subject, all participants have to be familiar with it. Story, poem, painting, sculpture, film, song, symphony . . . My friend who didn't know Octavia Butler is well versed in film and the visual arts, neither of which I know much about. What we have in common is horses, so that's what we talk most about, even though Horse is a third or fourth language for both of us.
It's easy to understand the appeal of book groups, including Oprah Winfrey's televised meta–book club. Several years ago, a local bookstore initiated a "One Book, One Island" program. Each year it features one book for adults and one book for kids. People read the book and discuss it, the author comes to visit, book-centered events are held. The idea is to give people something to talk about, a book they've all read. On this fragmenting island, we could use a common denominator more conducive to conversation than the Steamship Authority and the price of gas (a down-island station broke the $3 barrier a few days ago; at my last filler-up, I paid $2.90/gallon), but I'm afraid "One Book, One Island" isn't a contender.
More later -- I hear my deadline calling!