Lessons from AWP: There’s really no pot of gold on the other side of the wall

AWP was very revelatory. I went to a bunch of the popular fiction themed panels, just because that’s a place where I have a hand in. And at a few of them, I heard genre-affiliated people rail about how they don’t get any respect and how the literary establishment should let them in. That’s not a new song, obviously. One hears it all the time on the blogs of SF writers and critics.

But at the conference, I also started to get a sense of what the literary fiction world is like. It was very interesting. There was a palpable sense of desperation hanging over the place. This was not a fan convention. Everyone there was a writer. Everyone was on the make. Everyone was hustling. Everyone was networking. And there was a very real sense that almost no one was going to “make it.” I wouldn’t say that the rhetoric was downbeat, but you just felt in the peoples’ body language and in the tenor of their conversation and in the panel titles* just how desperate people were.

And that’s the literary establishment, people. Genre fiction people rail about the “genre ghetto” as if there’s some beautiful golden metropolis on the other side of those ghetto walls. But there’s not. Literary fiction is just another slum. Overall, I wouldn’t say it’s less healthy than SF. Both sectors sell roughly the same value of books every year (as I recall, they’re both about 6% of the total publishing market…and that’s 1/3rd of the share commanded by romance novels).

Yes, literary fiction controls many of the engines that give cultural prestige to authors and works. And it does feel good to get that prestige. But it’s not everything. I mean, what does literary fiction really have that genre fiction doesn’t have? I can only name a few prizes:

  • 50ish slots each year for short stories in the New Yorker and a few more slots in the Atlantic. These magazines reach literally one hundred times as many people as most of the top literary journals (the Paris Review, Tin House, McSweeney’s, etc) and science fiction magazines (Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, etc.) Being published in them is pretty much the only way that a short story writer can get their work in front of the eyes of someone who doesn’t normally read short stories.
  • Roughly 25 openings, per year, for entry-level fiction professorships (and a few more unadvertised or mid/senior-level openings).
  • The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • The National Book Award for Fiction
  • And then a few other bonus awards—NEA grants, post-graduate fellowships, etc.
  • The ability to foist a person’s novels onto high school and college kids.

All that stuff is great. And it’s real and concrete and wonderful, if you can get it. But who does get it? All those things go to maybe 50-100 authors a year. Everyone else has to scrabble around in the dirt, either relying on their book sales (just like genre authors) or working a day job.

I think it absolutely would be nice if some of genre fiction’s less-commercial writers were more competitive for professorships, because god knows they’re not earning a living by selling their books. And that’s a fight worth having. To a large extent, it’s a fight that’s been had. A fair number of genre writers (John Crowley, Kij Johnson, John Kessel, Nalo Hopkinson, Brian Evenson, Samuel Delany, Kit Reed) are sitting inside creative writing departments and that number will probably increase a bit in the coming decades.

But I don’t think this is a fight that’s worth getting so frothing angry about. I mean, so you’ll find it a bit harder get published in the New Yorker? So what? Most literary fiction writers will never get in there either. So you’ll find it very difficult to win major literary awards. So what? Most literary writers won’t win them either. People talk about the literary/genre divide as if there were numerous lives and livelihoods at stake. They call it a matter of segregation and ghettoization, but it’s not. Those things affected millions of people. This thing affects maybe 50 people a year. Yes, it’s sad that Cat Rambo is not competitive for professorships and that we’ll never see a Ted Chiang story in the New Yorker. But it’s also not really that big a deal**. And correcting this injustice is definitely not worth my time.

*Examples (all of these are just from Thursday morning)

  • Landing the Tenure-Track Job without a Book: What to Expect in the Job Market
  • Getting That First University Teaching Job.
  • Only Half as Crazy as We Seem: Exploring Unconventional Strategies for Indie Lit Startups
  • Literary Writers Writing Popular Fiction: What’s Up With That
  • What I Wish I Had Known in Grad School About the Two-Year College – (A panel about teaching in community colleges)

**Also, as I noted last year, genre fiction does have _some_ rewards that are denied to literary fiction

Sidenote: Literary authors are also guilty of this same sin. Many seem to think that all commercial fiction authors are rolling in the dough. Not true. I guarantee you that for every Tom Clancy, there are a thousand extremely frustrated military history buffs who are toiling away as insurance adjustors because their novels tanked (and for every one of those thousand, there are another thousand military history buffs who couldn’t even get their novels published)

Is there value to being locked out of the canon? (part two)

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.

Is there a value to being locked out of the literary canon?

The literary canon is a body of ‘great’ literature created by a dialogue between college professors. These professors then the canon to college students. The college students disseminate the canon to the general public (largely through the medium of middle and high school English classes). The authority of the college professors is partly a result of their institutional power (you need to listen to them to get your degree) but it’s mostly because their students accept that the professors’ years of dedication to the topic have given them a superior ability to define and discern literary quality.

Millions of people (including myself) have enjoyed reading canonized works and have profitably used the canon as a way to guide their reading. However, most people consider it to be something of a bore: a body of knowledge that is equivalent, in its uselessness, to calculus or chemistry.

This silly-looking fellow (Harold Bloom) is one of the people who creates the literary canon

But to adherents of genre literature, the canon is something more than a bore: it’s an active irritant. To some people, it is extremely vexing that the books they love have been deemed, by the nation’s authorities, to be lacking in literary quality.

As for myself, I sometimes wonder if there’s not something of an advantage in being shut out of the literary canon. I feel that there is something there, but I’m not quite sure what it is.

There’s a temptation to say that the canon is a tool used by the power elite to colonize our imaginations. But there’s something that feels wrong about that. First, the canon isn’t nearly popular enough to be a very effective tool of colonization. Second, the canon frequently includes works that are daring and anti-authoritarian. Third, many of the works in genre literature’s unofficial canon are extremely supportive of the status quo. For instance, The Lord Of The Rings and Dune contain racist / eugenic themes and are quasi-fascist in their embrace of a mythic savior figure–the hero as leader–who unifies a people and directs their energies towards the defeat of a national foe.

Then there’s also a temptation to say the opposite. The canon is the way that powerful and vital works of art are institutionalized and sapped of their emotional value. For instance, it’s very difficult to really feel the confusion and rage in The Catcher in the Rye after it’s been marked with the stamp of approval by the phonies who run your school.

But that also doesn’t feel right, somehow. Without the canon, I’d have never known to read The Catcher In The Rye. Flawed as the canon is, it is the only thing that can keep a book alive.

It feels like genre literature has come to a similar conclusion. Nowadays, the focus seems to be on getting genre work included in the canon. The usual approach is to think of authors whose work has certain canon-approved characteristics (a focus on detail; an information-dense writing style; experimentation with form; ambiguity as to intention and meaning) and then crying out for these authors to be placed within the canon.

To some extent, this approach has succeeded. Harold Bloom has included Tom Disch, Ursula Le Guin, and John Crowley in his canon. Philip K. Dick also looks like he may enter the canon.

And that’s totally fine. But that’s just an attempt by science fiction writers to get into the literary game.

What I find fascinating are the ways in which the parallel science fiction / fantasy canon is very different from the literary canon and includes works that could never be included in the latter. Dune and Lord of the Rings might be studied as cultural artifacts, but I don’t think they’ll ever make it into the formal canon.

And yet, they’re alive. Gloriously alive. Without the influence of teachers or classes or lists or any sort of appeal to cultural authority, people read them and enjoy them. They’re part of a shadow-canon, along with books like Gone With The Wind and Ender’s Game and How To Win Friends And Influence People and Atlas Shrugged and Battlefield Earth and the novels of Georgette Heyer and the poetry of Rudyard Kipling and the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and the whole Sherlock Holmes corpus.

Now…many of you probably winced at a few of the titles that I named. There are certainly some authoritarian and racist themes amongst them. And many of them are very poorly written. That’s why this stuff (with the exception, perhaps, of Lovecraft) is never going to get into the primary canon (or, in the case of Kipling, has fallen out of the primary canon).

But yet…this is the stuff that our cultural imagination has preserved. And I don’t think they’re without value. I’ve enjoyed many of these works. And I’ve enjoyed them in different ways from works within the literary canon. While these works (largely) lack literary virtue, they also have a vividness, an economy, and a structure that are almost unknown in canonized novels.


So, okay…even if you take it as a given that there’s this shadow-canon that rewards different virtues from the primary canon, the main question is “So what?”

Personally, I am glad that the shadow canon exists. First, it’s just nice that there’s something in our culture that’s not completely under the thumb of mysterious authority figures (although Hollywood does do its best to influence even the shadow canon). Second, I think that the purpose of books is to entertain people, and the books in the shadow canon are often quite entertaining. Third, the shadow canon is democratic in a way that the literary canon is not.

It’s not that the literary canon can’t be influenced by the average reader…but…there mostly the reader’s role in the literary canon is to either accept or reject the judgment of authority. There’s no room for the reader to form and disseminate opinions about the literary canon. All the air in the room is taken up by the tenured professors whose job it is to form those opinions (and who are really, really good at it).

But the shadow canon is almost entirely the creation of readers. Although the recommendations of authors and newspaper critics (and the creation of blockbuster Hollywood movies) do play a role in forming the shadow canon, even these authority figures have far more interplay with the reading public than a university professor does. An author’s recommendation is only respected because people like his or her work. A Hollywood movie is usually greenlit for a property because that property already has fans. The LotR films made the books more popular, but the movies were only successful because the books were already fairly popular.

And, furthermore, there’s a huge part of the creation of the shadow canon that takes place entirely outside of formal authority structures. Is there anyone in authority who’s pushing Lovecraft or Ender’s Game?

Whereas the essential relationship with regards to disseminating the shadow-canon is the teacher/student relationship, the shadow cannon is usually disseminated either friend to friend or (at advanced stages) from parent to child. To a large extent, the shadow canon is still a word of mouth phenomena.

And I think that there’s something valuable in that. It is a way of keeping our literary culture grounded in the most essential function of the book: providing pleasure. At some level, books have to answer to the people. The existence of the shadow canon means that the literary canon can’t completely take flight into rarefied heights. If the literary canon does not give people what us what we want, then at least there is another place where they can find.


Err, okay, so I didn’t really answer the title question. I am going to do that in the next post, though! I think it will be entitled Is it possible to destroy the shadow canon?

What does it mean to be against the canon?

I was reading Maria Bustillos’ review of some book*, and I came across this phrase: “For those who, like me, are generally opposed to canonical notions of literature, there will be much to quarrel with in [the book that she is reviewing].”

Now, this is the kind of thing that one runs across alot. People who are not just against our particular literary canon (with its admitted overemphasis on white males and its ignorance of genre fiction), but who are also against all canons. Most of the time, I guess I would say that I too am against the canon. But…as I was thinking about this sentence, I realized that’s not true. I am not really against the canon at all. In fact, when I’m looking for good books to read, I frequently retreat into the canon. I attempt to read outside the canon, but when I do so, my first thought is usually, “Is this good enough to be in the canon?”

What does it mean to be against the canonization of literature? Does it mean that you are against assembling lists of really good literature? Isn’t that what the canon is?

To me, it seems that there are three ways of choosing what books to read. You can either do so based on interest, similarity, or quality. Interest means choosing a book because its topics or themes are interesting to you. Similarity means choosing a book because it’s similar to other books that you’ve enjoyed. And quality means choosing a book because it’s very good.

Of course, most people choose books based on all three of these criteria (often all at the same time). But picking books out of a canon is the only method of selection that does not (theoretically) pre-select books on the basis of similarity or interest. You can’t go on Amazon and tell it to show you a list of great books. You can’t go to a librarian and say, “I’d only like to see the awesome books”. But you can look at a canon and know that thousands of extremely knowledgeable readers thought that these books were pretty great. Of course, that doesn’t mean that other books aren’t great too. The canon is definitely not complete. But it’s also not useless.

The canon is the only method of selection that says to you, “You’ve never shown any interest in 19th century Russia and you’ve never enjoyed any family epics about adultery, but you should definitely read Anna Karenina, because it’s that good.” Word of mouth isn’t going to do that. When friends ask me what they should read, I don’t tell them to read whatever was the last book that I read that was awesome (currently, that is Pursuit Of Love by Nancy Mitford). No, I tell them to read a book that I think they’ll enjoy, based on what I know about them. And that’s great. But on some level, I am shortchanging them. I–and almost every other recommendation engine in the world–don’t give my audience enough credit. I don’t trust people enough to love something just because it’s high quality. I don’t trust them to be willing to strike out and read something that’s not like what they normally read.

I loved Anna Karenina. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. But no one ever told me to read it. I used to read mostly science fiction. Before I start picking books out of the canon, I got most of my book recommendations from Amazon.com’s Listmania. Most of my friends and online acquaintances are more likely to enthuse about Neal Stephenson’s latest book than they are about classic literature. Without the canon, I probably would’ve read Anathem and Reamde and Embassytown and The City and the City , but I never would have read Anna Karenina.

 And it’s easy to say, “Oh, that’s just because you ghettoized yourself; if you’d gone out and solicited recommendations or looked through review pages, you would’ve found Anna Karenina or something else, something even more interesting, something that wasn’t by a dead white male, on your own.” But is that really true? No one ever recommends that I read classics (although, actually, I think a few folks have told me to read Pride and Prejudice). Perhaps if there was no canon, people would recommend classics more often. Perhaps these books would compete in the marketplace on their own. Perhaps they’d live and die on their own merits instead of being artificially propped up by English teachers. I don’t know, but that seems awfully speculative to me.

What I do know is that picking books out of the canon has given me much higher-quality reading experiences than browsing in bookstores or using Amazon’s recommendations or even listening to word of mouth. It’s exposed me to books that I otherwise never would have thought about. And while I can see the dangers of becoming trapped in the canon, I don’t think that’s an argument for it’s abolishment…it’s just an argument for a larger, more inclusive canon (which is what everyone and their English professor wants anyway).

Is anyone out there against the literary canon? What does that mean to you?

*FACT: I was really excited about this book until I finally realized that Tom Bissell is not, in fact, the author of Friday Night Lights. No, the name of that worthy is H.G. Bissinger. Man, I would totally read a book of essays by H.G. Bissinger.