What do we do when the canon fails to include us?

Let’s talk about the literary canon.

Literary canons are groupings of related works, often centered on a theme such as location, form, or time period. The books that you may think of as “classics” have been canonized, or made permanent members of the canon, due to their popularity, longevity, and teaching ability. This is why so many of us read the same books in school — because our professors choose literature from the same canon.

Anthologies are the most tangible example of the canon because those works are literally grouped into a single unit. Let’s say you want a general familiarity with the history of English literature, from the Middle Ages to the late twentieth century, so you read The Norton Anthology of English Literature from cover to cover.

Do you understand the history of English literature? No. You understand the canon, but what about the countless works that are denied a place in the canon?

Science fiction is historically marginalized because the canon was created as a teaching tool, while genre fiction is seen as pure entertainment (which clearly is not true — arbitrary binary distinctions tend to fall apart if you think about them for long enough). That problem is solved, at least in part, by the creation of genre-based canons: genres are works that share the same form, style, or subject matter; canons exist across and within genres. However, like most canons, the classic canon of science fiction includes a disproportionate amount of straight white male authors. The canon does not represent the readers.

We use canons for the same reason that we use labels for our various identities — because they help us find the stories and communities that we’re looking for. But what do we do when those labels don’t fit? What do we do when the canon fails to include us?

The short answer: we create new ones.

New words are folded into the English language every day. New genre distinctions are popping up everywhere you look, defined by authors who are telling brave stories that reveal the truth about who they — and we — are. Literary canons, both genre-based and general, are created in anthologies, in classroom syllabi, and in the shelving patterns of bookstores, alongside awards and critical recognition. These are systems that we can access and therefore change. We can alter how literature is taught, how books are sold, which books become bestsellers, and how anthologies are compiled.

At the end of the day, an understanding of queer literature is essential to an understanding of literature. An understanding of science fiction is essential to an understanding of fiction. Let’s canonize narratives that reflect who we are.

This post was initially published on Queership.com on 9/27/17. 

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