Musings, Part 2: Spike the Canon!

In this second musing, I’ll ramble somewhat coherently about reading old books and cannon. (This is somewhat related to Part One, which was a discussion of influences.)

Award season made me realise two things. First, I’m never up-to-date enough with my reading to have much opinion on the long- or short-lists. I’ve got books from the previous hundred years to get to before I can think of this year or even last! I don’t want to give those books up just to stay on the pulse, and anyway there are too many new books out every year to even dream of keeping up with. Moreover, I like books that stand the test of time, books that not only give you a window on a different fantasy world, but on the different real world in which they were written. (See, already letting my personal taste cloud things!)

The other thing awards bring up is the concept of “best” and the implicit development of a recommended “canon”, as if either can be objective. Sure, there’s a minimum standard of quality most of us would agree on – grammar, structure, spelling, consistency – but even then some readers won’t care, and any attempt to agree criteria above that minimum will not even approach consensus. Just look at the puppies nonsense, or read recommendation threads on internet forums. No matter how many opinions are on one side or the other, your own is the only one that really matters in the end.

BooksOn the other hand, I feel quite strongly about the books I’ve really liked (as most of us do), and will fight for their reputation. I also often read “major” works of the genre more out of obligation and curiosity than personal taste. And yes, some of this has been out of a desire to complete a sort of “canon” of central, important works so that I could feel like a true fantasy fan (whatever that means), or, at least, a knowledgeable one (again, a personal motivation). The more I’ve read, however, the more I’ve accepted that there is no single canon of fantasy literature, and nor should there be.

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Very popular, but essential?

I think it’s good for fans to read some popular or influential works that may not immediately appeal to them. This allows them to feel included in discussion, share touchstones across differing perspectives, and be exposed to things they might not otherwise read. And of course I still especially recommend those older books that laid the groundwork for modern fantasy, and which are often neglected. I also think it’s important for writers to read widely, as I’ve discussed time and again. But I’m not going to call any particular book “essential” anymore, not even Lord of the Rings.

I also try to refrain from un-recommending books these days. In the past, I may have got a bee in my bonnet about a particular “terrible” book and wanted the world to know it should never have been published. Now I’ve seen examples of how every book can make an impact on the right reader, and also appreciate just how difficult it is to write a whole book. I may still give a negative review, but I’ll try to frame it in less objective terms at least. After all, good and bad are relative, reading is personal, and taste is subjective.

At the end of the day, read as much as you can, don’t limit yourself, but don’t feel obligated to read any particular thing. As much as I’ve believe in the benefit of perspective, and love reading the classics myself, all I really want is for people to be aware of relevant books so they can make their mind up. No required reading, just a huge list of recommendations.

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3 thoughts on “Musings, Part 2: Spike the Canon!

  1. Pingback: Musings, Part 3: Diminishing Returns | James Latimer

  2. While “. . . there is no single cannon of fantasy literature . . . ” some of the works in this category should probably be shot out of cannons (and not just indie efforts, either).

    Sorry, funny typos are hard for me to resist. Seriously, I hear what you are saying on the series thing and diminishing returns.

    Before actually publishing myself, I always assumed that when an author turned their hand from a series I loved, quite often to something I would never especially care for, it was because they were behaving like those actors on television shows that, having achieved a certain amount of success, began to believe they were destined for greater things–completely abandoning the hand that fed them.

    The problem in my case is that, while my first book seemed to find some real fans, as soon as I finished my second book, which was also the second book in the series, I realized it was a better book. To really drive the point home, the reviewers that have read both books make a point of saying the second book is better. Obviously, this is a problem as only people who liked the first book would ever be likely to read the second.

    In line with this, I’ve sold fewer copies of the second book than the first, despite it being the better book.

    What could I do?

    It being an ebook (and print-on-demand), I have had the luxury of making any number of improvements to it. Like a huge skyscraper, however, there are limits on the changes I can make without tearing the whole thing down and building a new one that sits on the same site.

    For example, if I were starting it now I would do the industry standard of showing the hero in the present for a time, then drop back several years for a chapter or two that show how the protagonist became the person he is, or developed some of the relationships that figure in the later story. Instead, I initially tried to show him go from zero to hero (more in the Belgariad style than in the animated Hercules style). That was a problem because anything resembling a movie style montage scene in a book tends to look like “telling-not-showing” to the reader. I eventually hacked all that out but it’s really kind of late to go back and change the entire structure of the book.

    It’s a conundrum. It certainly encouraged me to shrink the planned series from five books to four. Since I don’t require the revenue to live on (like nearly all writers, I do have a “real” job) I may eventually try another somewhat shorter series. The difference being I would write all three books in advance of publication of the first.

    John D. MacDonald did this when he rolled out the first three books of his Travis McGee series. He believed, apparently correctly, that it would give the new series a big boost and get readers more invested in the series right at the outset.

    If I did this it would ensure they were all of relatively similar quality and, timed properly, sales of the subsequent books could be boosted by people still being fresh from the first. I know I’m much more likely to finish a series if I can read them at my rate, rather than wait years in between. Certainly there are only a few authors I am willing to do that for.

    Liked by 1 person

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