World Fantasy Convention 2015, Part III: Challenging the Canon

Last week I wrote about my interview with Charles de Lint at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs. Today, I wrap up my discussion of the conference with some comments on the fantasy canon and the awards ceremony, which have of late been the subject of some controversy.

My MA thesis is on fantasy as a globalized form, with a focus on the works of Charles de Lint. However, I will be gesturing towards a larger project of studying contemporary fantasy as a product of the age of globalization. One panel at World Fantasy whose subject spoke to my project was “Epic Fantasy is All About the European Middle Ages–Except When It Isn’t.” Joshua Palmatier moderated and the panelists included Bradley Beaulieu, Anatoly Belilovsky, Kevin Maroney, and Gregory A. Wilson. Think of your typical or canonical fantasy novels: chances are they are set in a version of the European Middle Ages. We might draw exception at Guy Gavriel Kay’s Chinese historical fantasies Under Heaven and River of Stars, which stand as fine examples of non-Western fantasies, but there was also some good discussion about Russian fantasies and Russian steampunk.

Wilson said there is a lot of speculative fiction not being done in English, such as in China and Laos. This represents, from the American point of view, an large untapped market. The only way for the English world to read such works is through translation. At this insight, I was reminded of Goethe’s claim that translation is a fundamental requirement for the development of world literature. This rule of world literature applies to the field of contemporary fantasy just as much as it applies to global modernisms.

There are many non-Western fantasy authors writing in different languages and even some Western authors writing in languages other than English. On this latter list, we might include the authors published by Acheron Press, a small press that publishes English translations of Italian fantasy authors. My review of Demon Hunter Severian by Giovanni Anastasi can be found through the above link. We need translators like Acheron, but also translators specializing in different languages, such as French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Urdu, Arabic, Sinhalese… any language where there is significant work being done today. Perhaps my living in bilingual Quebec is why I might be more conscious of the need for translation. I might add that the French publisher Alire translates some fantasy from English, such as the works of Guy Gavriel Kay. This is another non-anglophone example of an institution that roles up its sleeves while working on this grand project of world literature.

Belilovsky discussed Russian literature, mentioning that Russian, like English, is an imperial language. Many other languages exist in Russia, but translation gives authors who might be writing in such languages an audience outside their country. Literature must recognize that Russia is not a monolithic culture; for example, Belilovsky mentioned the Koreans who settled in Siberia but were deported to Kazakhstan because it was claimed to be too difficult to tell them apart from Japanese spies during the Second World War. Literature has a capacity to un-erase such identities.

Another interesting thought that I had during this panel was that there are material, economic conditions requiring authors of epic fantasy to employ the myths of diverse cultures in their work: it is a way to make a novel stand out in the market. There is a great danger in getting the sense of a culture wrong even if one gets the facts right, Beaulieu explained. This made me speculate that what might problematize the ‘exploitation’ of such cultures, even if done by well-meaning authors, is that epic fantasy can become a kind of cultural tourism, much in the same way ‘ethnic memoirs’ present themselves in the literary marketplace. Despite all this controversy, there was a consensus at the panel that writing about various cultures that have been marginalized does broaden the conversation, encouraging the building of bridges across cultures.

The final panel I attended during the convention was “Creating the Fantasy Canon” with Jonathan Strahan as moderator and John Clute, Michael Dirda, Yanni Kuznia, Gary Wolfe, and Ron Yaniv as panelists. Since I was contemplating fantasy as a globalized form, the discussion during this panel at the ‘World’ Fantasy Convention promised to be significant. However, I confess to being disappointed in the ‘worldness’ of the convention. All of the works the panelists could agree on for canonization were anglophone works. This was predictable, but it goes to show that fantasy novels from other language traditions are still subversive to the ‘secular scripture’ of the fantasy canon.

What is a canon? This was the opening question of the panel and each panelist gave a separate answer. Kuznia said a canon was whatever books continue to influence today’s writers. Dirda said the canon was whatever books are taught in English classes or books that we continue to find useful when thinking about the genre. Clute claimed that we create the canon constantly, but the books that constitute it must meet the condition of still being read. Wolfe said that a canon is formed of those books that continue to be read, even if no one tells you that you should read them. I thought this was a clever answer.

From my perspective, being a student of canon theorist Robert Lecker, I would have to agree mostly with Michael Dirda on this account: a canon is a ‘secular scripture,’ a body of assembled, and often anthologized, texts that we consider fundamental to fantasy and the values it holds dear. They are the works representing the values we wish to pass on to the next generation of students–it has nothing essentially to do with what is popular at the moment. Harry Potter may or may not ever enter the canon, but the works of William Morris and Tolkien will always be in the canon. In the larger canon of English literature, the works of Aphra Behn may not be frequently read outside of universities and colleges, but her work has entered canonical status nonetheless. A canon is, to my understanding, an essentially conservative institution, in the sense that it protects a certain set of values, rather than trying to subvert them. We cannot really talk about multiple canons without dissolving the significance of what ‘canon’ means. But that is not to say that the values upheld by canons cannot be challenged or that new works from previously marginalized authors may not be added to the canon: this expansion of the canon is still an important task.

John Clute adopted a more historically-lensed approach to what a canon is. “Any canon is a form of argument. It is not an establishment,” he said. A canon that begins with the pulps, for example, argues for a different source of origin for modern fantasy than another that begins its narrative with the works George MacDonald. This view has its merits, but it is a definition of canon removed from the original sense of ‘canon’ as an assembly of sacred texts, such as the books that constitute the Bible. The Bible’s exclusion of the Gospel of Thomas, for instance, may be seen as an argument in favour of a particular interpretation of Christianity, but the accepted canon as it comes to exist is more significantly a set of texts which held a highly exalted position in society–an establishment. That said, an argument in Clute’s favour is that the fantasy canon may still be in the midst of being decided, it being a lot less stable than the Biblical canon or the canon of English literature as anthologized by Norton.

The moderator asked each panelist to provide one work of twentieth-century fantasy that they would nominate for canonization. Gary Wolfe nominated Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, Ron Yaniv, Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Michael Dirda, Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, Yanni Kuznia, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.

On a second pass, the following titles came up in the same order of panelists: Mary Stuart’s The Crystal Cave, C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord Dunsany’s Gods of Pegana, and Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. The moderator Jonathan Strahan felt obliged to throw in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for good measure. Further discussion turned up the names Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, Arthur Machen‘s horror stories, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and Joan Aitken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

When asked which recent books were likely to become canonical in the future, the panelists provided another list of titles. Yanni Kuznia: Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton. Michael Dirda: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. John Clute: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville. Greg Wolfe: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (although there was some discord about whether to list Tigana instead; read both). Ron Yaniv: Charles de Lint’s Someplace to be Flying.

Consider this a reading list.

Any serious academic of fantasy should think about reading this canon; the works have great value. Yet we must not think uncritically about this value. It was disappointing to me, for instance, that the panel did not discuss any challenges to the canon. Perhaps the fantasy canon is still at the stage of becoming solidified into something stable and therefore teachable. Yet, whether the canon(s) described by the panelists were ‘writer’s’ canons or more professorial in nature, one thing remained consistent: each work was originally written in English.

In face of this anglophone fact, what happens to all this rhetoric about fantasy being a universal drive shared in common by all cultures, all languages? Fantasy should be bigger than any one language. The canon listed above represents not a ‘fantasy’ canon but a ‘fantasy literature in English’ canon, which is a very different thing. It is worth noting that even the concept of ‘fantasy’ as a term that can be applied to a modern genre is an English term with a specific English meaning (although derived from a word in Greek meaning ‘to make visible’). Therefore, I would propose that ‘fantasy’ connotes an originally anglophone literary form. It is unclear what terms other language traditions apply to describe their ‘fantastic’ literature, although the cultural hegemony of the English-speaking world has probably spread the influence of Tolkien and other fantasy authors into those non-English speaking traditions as well, altering them by the influence of translations.

English fantasy writers seem glad enough to declare the universality of fantasy in all cultures around the globe. It grants a validity to the idea of borrowing from the myths and folklore of increasingly diverse cultural traditions. If a myth is fantasy, it is in a sense dead and therefore exploitable; it has no more central authority in the society that formed it and in turn was formed by it. The loss of these central organizing myths is a feature of modernity; read The Sacred and Profane by Mircea Eliade. However, in the case of budding Maori, Aborigine, or Native American authors who derive inspiration from the narrative traditions of their respective cultures, it is unclear whether such authors would even consider their works ‘fantasy,’ especially as such cultures undergo renaissance and revitalization. As such cultures attempt to re-establish the real authority of their cultural narratives, the term ‘fantasy’ would seem to undercut the privileged position these narratives ought to have in their society, relativizing the importance of cultural narratives.

Although such rhetoric of the ‘universality’ of fantasy exists–that all cultures have myths equally valid for raw literary material–the actual literary landscape is heavily Eurocentric and with the hegemony of American culture, weighted in definite favour of the English language. Fantasy is more heterogenous and unequal than works such as Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, which proclaims the universality of the heroic journey in all mythic traditions, would have us believe.

The World Fantasy Convention awarded the H.P. Lovecraft trophy this year for the last time. A new trophy is currently being designed.

The World Fantasy Convention awarded the H.P. Lovecraft trophy this year for the last time. A new trophy is currently being designed.

This World Fantasy Convention was the last year the trophies for the World Fantasy Awards will bear the shape of a bust of H.P. Lovecraft’s face. From what I understand of the controversy surrounding this decision, it was at least partly related to the reputation that Lovecraft has today of being a racist. Like Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling, whose works each retain their canonicity and literary value despite their authors’ imperialist politics, Lovecraft’s works will continue to be valued despite his racist ideas, however problematic they may be. However, the change of trophy design is a message that the ‘face’ of fantasy is changing, that the established canon is being challenged by new, upcoming writers. This is a sign of a healthy, living literary tradition that refuses to become ossified. One can only applaud the renewal of the genre and the renewal of world literature in general.

(To take a less explicitly political perspective on the trophy controversy: Lovecraft was a brutally excessive stylist, like Edgar Allan Poe on steroids, so if this change of trophy dissociates the fantasy/science fiction field from H.P.’s standard of foggy, dense, unclear writing, then I my opinion there’s a lot less of a down side to the change than you might think.)

 

The World Fantasy Awards were handed out to the following winners. There was considerable Canadian representation in the list of winners (ChiZine, Tachyon). As a matter of fact, I was seated at the ChiZine table and so I got to sample the excitement of my companions winning not once but twice.

The Life Achievement awards went to Ramsey Campbell and Sheri S. Tepper.

Best Novel: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Random House/Sceptre UK)

Novella: We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory (Tachyon Publications)

Short Story: Do You Like to Look at Monsters? by Scott Nicolay (Ferdogan & Bremer, chapbook)

Anthology: Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant (Candlewick Press)

Collection: Gifts for the One Who Comes After by Helen Marshall (ChiZine Publications) tied with The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings by Angela Slatter (Tartarus Press)

Artist: Samuel Araya

Special Award–Professional: Sandra Kasturi and Brett Alexander Savory, for ChiZine Publications

Special Award–Non-Professional: Ray B. Russell and Rosalie Parker, for Tartarus Press

Congratulations WFC 2015 award winners!

Congratulations WFC 2015 award winners!

 

The new books I hauled home somehow after the convention

The new books I hauled home somehow after the convention

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6 comments on “World Fantasy Convention 2015, Part III: Challenging the Canon

  1. Rina Weisman says:

    Please correct “David” Gregory to “Daryl” Gregory. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for this. I will print out this new canon. I have a few of these lists that I am working through over the next decade.

    • I realized that out of all the Charles de Lint I’ve read, I’ve missed out on Someplace to Bee Flying, so I guess I’m going to look into it. Brian Attebery also insists on Lud-in-the-Mist–there’s an obscure novel for you!

  3. […] do this blog by two things: my bulletin board, and my friend Matthew Rettino’s blog, “World Fantasy Convention 2015, Part III: Challenging the Canon.” Matthew tells us a bit about the 2015 World Fantasy Convention (which I would have sold all […]

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