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Thursday, September 09, 2010

Canonization and the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction

(I'm a little late to the "party," but since I may be teaching a science fiction course in a year or two, and thus might consider the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction as a possible required text, I figure it might be a good idea to throw in my thoughts on the non-controversy--in the sense that the folks I'll be citing aren't treating it as a controversy, and so neither will I.)

Last month, the fine folks of Wesleyan University Press released the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction in hardcover and paperback.  I won't post the table of contents here due to its length, but I will provide a link.  The book also has an online teaching guide, which should make it clear that it is meant for the purposes of education, if such weren't already obvious by the fact that an academic/university publisher is behind its creation.  Overall, I think the anthology is a good one.  The stories within its pages are fairly varied,
although understandably limited by space.  Correction:  the page I link in the text that is stricken through does include some organization.  I made the mistake of not scrolling down past the initial list.  So, it doesn't seem to have any significant flaws after all. and its only major flaw, at least as I see it, is that there doesn't seem to be a clear structure beyond date for the placement of the stories.  Other anthologies of this kind (educational, that is) offer greater historical context in much the same way as the Norton anthologies.  Still, I suspect that despite its flaws, it will serve a useful purpose for academics and other kinds of educators.

But what interests me about this book are some of the questions being raised about its table of contents.  Specifically, the questions raised last month by Jeff VanderMeer about the presence of recent science fiction stories in the anthology (recent meaning the last twenty years, of which there are only seven stories--five from the 1990s and two from the 2000s):
But I guess my point is…are these seven stories really the epitome of the last two decades of science fiction (as opposed to fantasy)? I don’t mean to call into question the quality of these selections–what I mean is, what’s missing? What else should be there? Why is there nothing between 2003 and 2008, for example? Was nothing worthy published?
From a sheer statistical standpoint, I think there is a lot to be said about the issues underlying these questions.  There are twelve decades represented in the table of contents, with a mean average of 4.3 stories per decade; if you take out all of the decades with only one story, the number jumps to 6, and it drops to 5.2 if you treat the 1800s as a full decade.  This means that the 1990s are given fair representation statistically (either slightly over, slightly under, or just right, depending on which numbers you look at), while the 2000s are in the same ballpark as the 1840s, 1860s, 1890s, and the 1900s.  Whether the stories selected from the 1990s are the right stories is not strictly relevant to the underlying assumptions (i.e. that the 1990s are underrepresented), and those relaying these assumptions should probably also question why an anthology that purports to be an introduction to the science fiction spectrum has so clearly ignored the pulp era.  The 2000s, however, are where I think all of the meat for this non-controversy rests.

VanderMeer is not the only one to suggest that the 2000s are underrepresented in the Wesleyan anthology.  Matthew Cheney of The Mumpsimus has said a little about the topic, and I don't actually disagree that there are very few stories from the last ten years in the anthology (again, there are two)--it's hard to argue with numbers, after all.  But I do think there is a good reason why, which is tied into VanderMeer's questions related to the quality of what wasn't published.  We should be surprised, I think, that any stories from the last ten years were considered for this anthology, particularly since, I would argue, every book built specifically for the purposes of teaching is always engaging in the politics of canonization (in this case, the science fiction canon as compared and related to the traditional college canon or "Western Canon").  Whether the editors of this particular anthology were openly concerned with the canonical is, at this point, up to speculation, though it would be fair to say that if educational text production is tied to the political aspects of the canon, then underlying their selection process was an attempt to represent the canonical, even if that canon is not properly defined (though they have already acknowledged to Cheney that space played a factor in the poor showing of post-millennial SF).

What is important to acknowledge here is that canon is not an instantaneous production.  What might be considered an indispensable literary product today might very well become the future's ignored projects (though, to be fair, a lot of "ignored projects" are sometimes dragged from the grave in academia for reasons that are sometimes clear--"it's something 'new'"--and sometimes not--such as when there's already something fulfilling the same role).  The fact that two stories from the 2000s have made it into this anthology suggests that the editors were taking a risk, though not a particularly dangerous one; if they had included ten stories from the 2000s, then one might say that the risk of failing to appeal to the modern reader would be greater, since students are often "trained" to recognize cultural, social, historical, and literary differences in older texts and set many of those recognitions aside for the purposes of "analysis," which is not necessarily possible for texts which implicitly or explicitly reference the world we actually live in.  (Larry Nolen, by the way, has apparently called the anthology "safe,"

From this perspective, then, I think it makes sense that the anthology would contain fewer stories from the 2000s.  The last decade hasn't reached its "canonical state" yet, and you might argue that the 1990s haven't either.  So many of the stories we consider to be great today might be nothing more than footnotes in 2030.  This is the fundamental problem with canonization:  it is incapable of prediction, but is instead implicitly nostalgic.  Perhaps we have cultural capital to force texts into the canonical state, but I think if we try to do that, we run the risk of unintentionally (or intentionally) shoving aside works that will, in twenty years, be far more relevant, important, and useful for the use in educational settings; canon, after all, is forever exclusionary, dividing up the literary landscape to form reading lists and other education/cultural productions.

Am I off-base here, or is there some merit to considering the implications of canonization in educational texts?

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  1. I think your point about canonization being inherently nostalgic is correct. And there certainly is a major difficulty in perceiving at a given cultural moment what that moment will look retrospectively. I blogged something similar, though thinking about a broader category "21st century literature" in general, at:

    I wasn't thinking so much of texts in that case, as time frames - how will we decide the *when* that marks literary periods. Where does the literature change radically enough (or conversely, where the social conditions that produce that literature change radically enough) that we can legitimate a break?

    I don't mind that we don't have the answers - I'm just excited by the questions!

  2. there doesn't seem to be a clear structure beyond date for the placement of the stories.

    The page you link to gives the "thematic table of contents" as well as the chronological one...

  3. Niall: My goodness, you're right. Thank you for correcting me. I didn't see the headers for the sections. They're sort of buried in there. I'll correct that.

  4. michele: I've been meaning to respond to your comment, but hadn't the time to do so until now.

    I was reading your post about 9/11 as a signpost, and it's not just non-Americans talking about it in that context. One of my professors (who just became my MA director) has written extensively on the subject (Life Between Two Deaths by Philip Wegner; check it out if it's of interest) and he uses both the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 as markers of a kind of "long 90s." Thinking about the rapid change of pace following 2001 (think of all the things that have completely changed the way we do everything, both hardware and software based, in the last 9 years), it seems logical that one would have to look at historical moments as markers of potential literary upheavals or changes. Whether 9/11 represents an appropriate shift, I don't know. I want to say that it only represents a historical interest, rather than some sort of literal change in how literature operates (Prof. Wegner might suggest differently).

    On the subject of canonization: Your discussion of 9/11 links right into this, as you said. How exactly do we determine what does and does not mark a change, or represent a "movement" or "type"? In 20 years, maybe everyone will look back at the 2000s and think we were bonkers to put so much stock into all this New Weird or 9/11 nonsense. That's my problem with trying to create canon, and even literary movements. We can't be sure of our current definitions and concepts until the next generation, or at least the next generation of scholars, looks back and thinks there was something actually there. Otherwise, we're just making it all up.