Saturday, August 6, 2016

Quick Thoughts - The WFC and the Road of Canon

So maybe you heard about the kerfluffle surrounding the programming at the World Fantasy Convention. I must say, it looks a bit grim. And by that, of course, I mean that there's probably a panel about how the Brothers Grimm are a recent example of innovators in the field of fairy tales. And hey, this does give me the chance to get on my soapbox and talk a bit about one of my favorite terrible subjects—canon. Because what's at the heart of this discussion, to me—what's at the heart of a lot of what's going on in SFF, surrounds the SFF canon. Who gets to define it and who gets immortalized by it and who gets erased by it.

To me, the canon is a web. Or a tree. Or, for the purposes of this discussion, a system of roads. These roads have beginnings outside of SFF and lead in. To pull an example from this latest episode, they start with Aesop and Chaucer and lead in to Richard Adams and to…whoever is still doing that whole animal-fantasy thing these days. It starts with Tolkein and leads into Jordan and Martin and other straight white men. The WFC lays outs its map of SFF quite plainly, and uses as its justification for its choices that these works are the SFF canon. Done and done. Wipe your hands, walk away, because the argument has been victoried. I mean, no one would argue that Tolkein is canon, right? That people need to read Lovecraft in order to understand fantasy, right? I mean, only an idiot would argue with that.

I dislike shitting on other people's inroads into SFF. I myself trace my interest to Goosebumps. From there to The Dark is Rising. From there to Oz and Narnia and, yes, Tolkein and Jordan and pretty much all the authors who appear in Tor's Legends anthology. I was pretty strongly white and straight and male in my inroads to SFF. Which, I have to say, did me no real favors as a reader or writer (and especially as a queer reader and writer). It wasn't until I branched out, until I essentially left SFF and then worked my way back in through different roads that I came to better understand the genres and better appreciate the landscape of SFF. My problem with canon is that it paves only certain roads. It makes those roads easy. You move fast and there are gas stations and restaurants and other incentives for staying on. Maybe occasionally you can exit to check out little towns or scenic byways, but you are pressured to always get back on the main roads. To keep things running in this one direction.

Which completely overlooks the vastness of the genres. Which completely invalidates other people who might enter into SFF without every knowing or caring who Lovecraft was. Who Tolkien was. Or who knew who they were but had no interest in reading their works. More and more often people are entering SFF not through "classic" and canonical texts but through those overlooked by the canon. By texts that are not eligible. Films and video games, paranormal romance and YA. These are not the paved highways into SFF. These are the backroads where when you arrive to a discussion you're treated like you smell of dirt and dead skunk. These are the roads where when you maybe try to get onto the highway you find there's a toll you can't pay, or there's no exit for where you want to get off.

What the WFC is doing with its programming (or what the people in charge of that programming are doing) isn't surprising. It's been happening more and more of late, because with the rise of technology it's like having your own GPS so that you can navigate the backroads and still get to where you going. You can suddenly meet other people who know the same sights as you, who maybe have been to similar places. You can maybe start having discussions about books you care about, stories you'd rather be reading than anything in the SFF canon. And that isn't good for the people who have stayed on the highway their entire lives, who saw diverging as stupid and maybe a bit immoral. Suddenly they're the ones being left out of discussions. Suddenly they're the ones feeling like they're having a hard time. Which is bullshit because their roads are still paved, their books still in every goddamn bookstore. Just because there's a choice now to read other things doesn't mean it's the easier choice. There's a thousand people tripping over themselves to sell people things on the highway. Off the highway…not so much. The distance between places is greater in the backroads. And more places close down. It costs more to travel there. But for many that's much preferable to the shit they have to deal with on the highway.

What the WFC is doing with its programming (or what the people in charge of that programming are doing) is throwing a fit because slowly their sterilized past is changing. Shown to be not only inaccurate but unjust. People want to change the canon, want it to represent the great strength of SFF, and some people's reaction to that idea is to feel threatened. To feel like things will flip and that people will treat them as they have treated others. That they will be turned out into the backroads and told to walk. Which I don't think will ever happen. Most marginalized people I know don't want to marginalize others quite so much as they want to stop being marginalized. They don't want to oppress so much as they want to stop oppression. What the WFC could have done was embrace a vision of SFF that includes everyone. Instead they chose to double down on the harm being done, on the erasure and the marginalization of people who have always been a part of SFF. Maybe that wasn't their intent. But I sure as shit didn't feel like I was welcome when I read their panel descriptions, and I can't believe that wasn't in part the point of how it was written.

So how does this change? People know how this changes. At this point it's about more than just listening. It's about getting the fuck out of the way. Standing still in a genre that's changing, that should change, that needs to change, is standing in the way. If this is the best the WFC can do, then new people need to be in charge of the WFC. This is not the first con that's had issues. Other cons have been made to account for their shit and have improved their policies and worked to be more inviting and inclusive. We need to build better roads. We need to build a better canon. Bros are always on about killing their darlings and how great it is. Maybe they can start with their literary darlings by making room for a more representative SFF discussion.

Sorry, got kind of ranty there. Thanks for reading.

All the best,

Charles Payseur

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