Canons, old and new

Ted Gioia has started up a new website—two, actually. The first, Conceptual Fiction, concentrates its efforts on placing science fiction and fantasy in the established canon and, by doing so, remapping the terrain of “serious” literature. It features book reviews (all by Gioia so far) but it’s the opening salvo that’s a doozy.

Most of Gioia’s arguments won’t be new to readers who accept (rightly) that Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books comprise a fictional universe as well-conceived and philosophically rigorous as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Still, it’s great to see a prominent critic wonder why, exactly, science fiction and fantasy aren’t considered “literary” fiction; why Margaret Atwood’s dabbles in sci-fi are considered high art while Ursula K. Le Guin’s better-written inquiries are shunted off to the side; and if the literary “realism” of James Wood and his followers actually holds sway. Along the way, he re-assesses writers as diverse as Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, Cormac McCarthy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Michael Chabon as belonging to the conceptual fiction–rather than realist–framework:

Cormac McCarthy might win a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Road, a book whose apocalyptic theme was straight out of the science fiction playbook. But no bookstore would dare to put this novel in the sci-fi section. No respectable critic would dare compare it to, say, I Am Legend (a novel very similar to McCarthy’s in many respects). Arbitrary divisions between “serious fiction” and “genre fiction” were enforced, even when no legitimate dividing line existed.

Only commercial considerations dictated the separation. Literary critics, who should have been the first to sniff out the phoniness of this state of affairs, seemed blissfully ignorant that anything was amiss.

José Saramago’s Blindness might have a plot that follows in the footsteps of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain or Greg Bear’s Blood Music, but no academic would ever mention these books in the same breath. Toni Morrison’s Beloved might have as its title character a ghost and build its action around a haunting, but no one would dare compare it to a horror novel—even though it has all of the key ingredients.

It almost seemed as if the book industry (and critics and academics) had reached a tacit agreement. “If you don’t tell people that these works follow in the footsteps of genre fiction books, we won’t either.” Yet this was merely a commercial decision. After all, what serious reader would buy these books if they had the taint of sci-fi or fantasy? When would any Pulitzer or Nobel panel give an award to a book that was explicitly linked to genre fiction? They wouldn’t. So a charade needed to be played, in which some works of conceptual fiction were allowed to sit on the same shelf as the serious books… while others were ghetto-ized in a different location, whether it be in a library or a bookstore or something more intangible like your mind.

Gioia’s probably too combative by half—scholars are beginning to take science fiction seriously, based on the academic conferences I attend—but his larger point is well-taken.

Now, about that second website… The New Canon, in Gioia’s words, “focuses on great works of fiction published since 1985. These books represent the finest literature of the current era, and are gaining recognition as the new classics of our time.” I’ve got quibbles with some of his choices—but who wouldn’t? The main thing is that Gioia, a major force in letters and scholarship, is interested in the canon’s malleability and in future directions and standards for literature.

Even more impressive than Gioia’s interest in literary border-crossing is that his career jumps over chasms as well. His reputation rests on his music criticism and scholarship—I’ve reviewed his history of the blues—and not his writings on literature. He’s also a musician in his own right. Contemporary literature, however, is obviously a longstanding interest for him. He’s yet another boundary-crosser—I hope it’s becoming a trend in popular culture—and good on him for that.

Go read, and discuss.


RELATED: I’ve written about cultural border crossings here and here.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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