Saturday, July 18, 2015

Quick Thoughts - History, Canon, and Privilege

Oh, first you may want to go read Renay's article on canon and the weight of history over at Strange Horizons. I recently read it and it has prompted this. Not exactly a direct response but...well, you'll see (I apologize in advance!). 

Okay, confession time. Growing up, I was always told what a great reader I was. Well, not at first. At first I couldn’t read (and I don't mean I was too young to read). Like, I had troubles with it. I couldn’t read Dr. Seuss until I was in third grade. I’m not sure exactly when it clicked for me, but when it did I was rather hooked. The thing is, I wasn’t all that strong of a reader. But…well, I sort of faked it. It’s weird, pinpointing the moment when child-me began to use people’s perceptions and expectations to get things. Like, I started walking around with books. Big books that made me look smart. And lo and behold, my grades improved. I was treated somewhat better. Still as a loser by most people, but at least as a smart loser, which had its advantages.

But wait, let me back up a second. I want to somehow let all this settle in my mind as I write this. Because I’m not even sure I know what I’m writing about and I’m afraid of writing any of this and I should just go, without thinking so much. I am a fake. A fraud. Looking back, I feel a little sick at the levels to which child-me and adolescent-me all the way up to young adult-me used the inequity of the system, used white cis male privilege, for benefit and gain. It’s interesting and also makes me feel hollow to map it.

Seriously they were my life for a while...
So I learned to read with GoosebumpsThere is a certain amount of shame I feel at writing that, though I am also fiercely proud of it. It was Goosebumps that got me to read, that stoked whatever flames of passion that I know feel for speculative fiction, that got me to understand words. There were a few other books, mostly boy-and-his-dog stories, that I also liked when I was little, but if not for Goosebumps I would probably hate reading like my siblings do. The thing is, no one is really impressed if you read Goosebumps. I mean, all well and good, but it’s sort of like comic books, and as such is sort of like, well okay that’s nice. And child-me wanted something. Wanted something to be good at. Like I said, my siblings do not care for reading, and reading is seen as smart so…

I can tell when I started lying about reading. It was fourth grade and aside from my fun little reads I didn’t really care about reading. I mean, I devoured those short, ridiculous stories, but otherwise I couldn’t be bothered. I was weird and awkward and didn’t really fit in. And then there was this year assignment in class where the winners would get some sort of reward (I don’t even remember what). It was the reading assignment. Partners would read and progress would be marked on a big board at the front of the class. I was paired with another kid who was nice to me and was cool and loved reading. And he read fast. He read all sorts of books, classics and Gary Paulson and when he started going through them I…well, I said I did as well. And something strange happened (or I guess, something completely predictable). People believed me.

I don’t think I’ve ever really gone back and unpacked this time in my life, this awakening to the fact that I would be believed pretty much regardless. Me and this other boy would read (he actually read and I read, what, maybe a handful of what I claimed to?) and we would be cheered and seen as smart, seen as what everyone wanted us to be. "Good" kids. Now, that felt good. That was probably the turning point in my education, because after that things were just…easier. Because of that one moment people treated me better which made me feel better which made me do better. Now, I had to put in some work somewhere, and after middle school I never had to lie about reading a book, or doing an assignment, because by then I was trying harder. But I can say that without that one moment of extreme privilege I would probably not be where I am today, and that…it’s difficult to know what to do with that.

           Don't let anyone tell you size doesn't matter...
But why bring this up (aside from the fact that this blog is basically therapy)? Because it shaped my reading and because, I think, it illustrates what makes canon in spec so very, very troubling. Why the idea of canon in general is so troubling. Because I can say that when I started reading larger things, it was in part to capture some praise and respect I wanted. So yes, I would walk around with a Robert Jordan book before I could actually really get into them. Adults would comment at how impressive it was. It led me to be very conscious of what I “should” be reading. Tolkein was fine. So were big ol’ male-written fantasies and science fiction books. Tor fantasies were a large part of my growing up, with Jordan, Goodkind, Turtledove, Modesitt, Williams…basically, if it was in the Legends anthologies, I read it. I read other things, like Donaldson and Kay who I found I liked a lot more but who didn’t quite get me the same points so I mostly talked about what was popular. When people suggested things I went out and read them, and they were all pretty much white and male, and I didn’t even consider that things could written by people who weren’t straight.

I was living the dream, right? I kept going, kept reading. And then college. And being exposed to different things. And figuring myself out some. Did I really like Perrin and Mat from WoT because I identified with them or because I kinda mighta had a crush on them? Did the fact that I avoided female-written books (outside of a few "acceptable" series) because people gave me negative attention for reading them really protect me from scorn or prevent me from figuring myself out way sooner (hint: probably the later)? I started reading more, and found that I loved books that I never would have thought to try. Books that were never recommended to me. Books that did not get me much in the way of positive attention from my friends (spoilers: I have fallen out with most of those friends). I went looking for books that I might like, books that sounded truly interesting to me, not based on who suggested them but based on if I thought they sounded good (and wow, huge step). And I started doing more in the genre, and writing more, and…and I found that I was a reader without a history I cared for. My history was the white straight male history that everyone wanted me to have. I lacked a history that included queer writers or writers of color. 

Now that sounds dramatic. But as it’s been pointed out, you can never catch up on reading. You can never go back. Now, I found tons of books at sales and places that I would pick up intending to read them. Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke and so forth. Names I recognized. But, by and large, I never really read them. I’ve read some Asimov, mostly the Foundation books, and maybe two by Clarke and I don’t think any Heinlein. And I was at the point where I felt the pressure to read those works. But as I had read more I found myself drawn to other stories. Either newer works or older works by female authors, by non-straight authors. I can only devote so much of my time to reading. So what can I do? What should I do? I know the answer child-me would have taken.

I like to think that I’ve grown up some since fourth grade. I like to think that I don’t let privilege do all my work for me. I know I let it work some, which is probably part of why I’m not out to my family, why I’m not out anywhere but with those I’m closest to and on the internet. I think it’s probably why I try to do so many reviews, because I feel that I should have to work harder, that I should have to do more for others, because I’ve been given so much, because I’m safer, because I’m less likely to be attacked or bullied or harassed, and even if I am I’m more likely to be helped because of it, more likely to be believed and taken seriously by police, but the world at large. Because I’m scared, so very scared, that I cannot get out from under the weight of my own past. I like to think that I’ve grown up some…

And part of growing up has been realizing that history is not one thing. The more I learn about the past the more I realize that it’s not that the past was less diverse. There have been queer writers, and writers of color, and women writers, since forever. At times when they were killed because of their writing. It’s only our gaze backwards, the dominant, straight white cis male gaze, that makes everything seem so homogenous. Canon. The word sticks in my craw. It places an artificial map over things, narrowing inroads. Currently, there are hundreds and thousands of ways to come to spec. Video games, television, movies, comic books, novels, short stories, poetry…there is no one road, no one canon. Yes, there might be influences, there might be works that are considered “important,” but the truth is what is important to one is less so to someone else. There is no work that is required reading to write an amazing story, or novel.

The weight of history. It’s an apt phrase, because history as a construct is a weight, both a hindrance and a responsibility. It’s a tool and a weapon. For those in power, it is a way to make it seem like they have always been in power, that they deserve to be in power; it is a way to comfort them. For some it's the physical weight of a book, and the thicker the better because it gives the illusion of being thorough, of being robust, of being complete. In reality, those books that I carried with me, seeking praise, were anchors, were chains—chains on me and chains over others, maintaining a system I was too young and stupid to see was hurting everyone. That weight was keeping me from hearing the great diversity of voices that existed, keeping me from escaping the same refrain over and over, which kept me alone and afraid and unfulfilled. It gave me the illusion of comfort and protection. But the past should not be comfortable for those who have benefited from the oppression of others. History should mean facing the injustices that have been committed and striving to do better. Because, more than anything, I want to believe in the possibility of doing better. For canon, this means constantly reevaluating older stories, newer stories, and evolving what should be passed on into the future. Creating a landscape that is just and respects the diversity of the past, present, and strived-for future. 

And I should probably stop rambling and step aside. Really, I just really liked the articles that came out recently about the subject, so many thanks to Renay and everyone else. I’m sorry if this all came out as a mess. And, while I’m at it, I’m sorry to all the other students back in my fourth grade class and everyone since then that’s had to deal with my shit. I’m trying to do better. I’m trying… Thanks for reading!

All the best,

Charles Payseur

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