So, a few days ago, I wrote about the shadow canon and how I thought it served a valuable function by keeping literature honest and ensuring that there continues to be a place for populist aesthetics in literature. But I did not answer the question: “Is there a value to being locked out of the canon?”
There is a widespread perception that genre literatures are locked out of the literary canon, and I, personally, think this is kind of true. Although many genre writers have made it into the literary canon, it is quite difficult and the path is very circuitous. Genre books does not automatically come before the eyes of the canonizers in the same way that literary books do. Genre books don’t get the literary awards and the reviews in journals, and their authors don’t get professorships from which they can come into close contact with the academy.
The traditional response is that while this disparity is undesirable, genre writers at least get to have a kind of audience that literary writers do not get. However, this often isn’t true. The potential readership for military science fiction and epic fantasies and never-ending series about detectives who have sex with werewolves might be very large, but the potential audience for the kind of genre literature that “deserves” canonization is often fairly small.
There are thousands of people who are currently engaged in the task of writing uncommercial commercial literature: really weird stories that are of high quality but are probably not going to sell very well. If these people were writing uncommercial literary novels, then they’d have a shot at getting professorships. As it is, they have to keep their day jobs.
There are three ways in which this problem (insofar as it is a problem) gets addressed: i) literary fiction has expanded to mine many of the tropes previously encompassed by genre fiction (this is how Michael Chabon and Philip Roth and Nabokov can write alternate history novels); ii) genre novels are allowed into spaces previously reserved for literary novels (this is how Philip Dick can get a Library of America edition of his novels); and iii) genre fiction can become more like literary fiction in its institutions (e.g. the rise of juried awards like the Tiptree and the World Fantasy Award).
While all of these developments are, personally, pretty good for me, I do wonder whether they might affect the shadow-canonization process. Obviously, there will be winners from these changes, but I wonder whether there might also be losers. Right now, genre fiction distributes rewards to very different books than a more high-brow process might. For instance, Lois McMaster Bujold, Cory Doctorow, Connie Willis, and Orson Scott Card have received all kinds of awards and are, rightly, undergoing the process of shadow-canonization. But it’s my gut feeling that there’s a crowd-pleasing element in their work that would debar them from the literary canon. Which is fine, so long as the literary canon exists in parallel with the shadow canon.
Ugh, I feel like I’m getting bogged down in an argument that I haven’t fully fleshed out and don’t have the time to flesh out. What I’m trying to say is, I think that as genre literature becomes more accepted by literary gatekeepers, there is a chance that its own gatekeepers will weaken and lose power. Right now, every genre book is actively considered for the process of shadow canonization in a way that literary books are not. Every genre book has a chance of being the book that parents hand down to their children or that friends whisper to each other about or that people read on the beach.
And I think that’s a fragile thing. That only happens because people feel like, in some way, they own genre literature. It happens because they feel some pride in discovering a book. It happens because they feel like books rise or fall based on their recommendation. And I think that when a literature starts become dominated by experts, then that sense of ownership is lost. And while that popular ownership is a perplexing and often annoying thing (because it rewards books that are very different from the ones that the experts would reward), I also think there is something about it that is very charming and I would not like to see it destroyed.