Recently I made a passing remark about how there wasn’t so much a literary canon as canons. A modernist canon; the capital C canon of US academia; the canons of Russian or French literature.
Guy Savage commented that what was important was one’s personal canon. That got me thinking. What is my personal canon?
I can say what my canon used to be. In my teens and twenties I read mostly sf and while some authors may have been demoted in memory I remember pretty well which ones I really rated back then.
My personal canon today would have little overlap with that earlier canon. My tastes have changed. Still, I thought rather than just post about what my canon is now I’d post about two canons: then and now (ignoring the many intermediate canons I must have had along the way). I’m going to do it in two posts and the second post will also talk a little about how and why my tastes changed.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s if I’d had to list the authors I thought best and most important it would probably have looked a bit like this:
Philip K. Dick
Clifford D. Simak
Most of those are SF writers. Most of them were also independent of the particular book. My canon consisted of authors, not works.
The genre writers
Gibson and Sterling are of course the main creators of the cyberpunk genre (I’ve reviewed some Gibson’s here actually and still rate him, though he no longer gets onto my canon list unless I was doing an sf-specific one).
Benford, Bear and Niven were all hard-sf authors (though Niven isn’t hard sf by modern standards). Benford and Bear wrote rather physics-heavy works while Niven was fonder of slightly more space operatic stories. Benford is the only one of them I’d still read today (which is a comment on my tastes more than it is on them).
What those five authors had in common was a rigorous approach to logical worldbuilding. That was important to me then. I liked my sf to be serious and coherent. I looked down with the haughty condescension of the fan on what I regarded as lesser genres – soft sf in particular.
Silverberg was never really about coherent worldbuilding. His novels tended to be more offbeat and character driven. Dying Inside for example is about a man with telepathy who is coming to terms with his gift fading as he enters middle age. The Stochastic Man was about a man who develops the ability to see the future – a future which is as fixed and unchangeable as the past.
Simak was different again. He’s a writer I fear rereading in case I no longer love him. He wrote what was referred to as pastoral sf, a genre consisting mainly of him alone. His novels had a warmth and humanity in which the real subject was never science but us. For that reason his novels haven’t aged in the way Niven’s have. Niven’s science was the science of his day and much of it was wrong. Simak’s humanity is the same humanity we’ve always had.
Dick doesn’t need much introduction. His novels played with fractured realities and the nature of sanity and still hold up pretty well. He also wrote a lot of straightforward pulp sf which I actually rather enjoy but which is mostly brushed over by those seeking to promote his literary credentials. Still, if Banville can write crime why couldn’t Dick write Our Friends from Frolix 8?
Vance wrote fantasy novels so wittily crafted that they’d be my main refutation (alongside M John Harrison but I hadn’t read him back then) of those who regard that genre as fundamentally unliterary. It’s not – it’s just that the number of literary authors within fantasy is exceptionally low. Lovecraft’s weird horror tales remain one of the great loves of my life. One that in part I’d struggle to defend, but love is not love that’s wholly rational.
All of those sort of fit together. Hard sf; character driven sf; fantasy and horror. There’s four authors left on that list though. Burroughs, Chandler, Heller and Runyon.
The world beyond genre
My grandfather on my father’s side, Jim, introduced me to Runyon (and to many other authors). I haven’t read the stories in an age, but unlike Simak it’s not because I’m afraid they may not hold up to an adult eye. It’s because I read them so much that I still remember them with remarkable clarity.
Runyon wrote short stories about 1930s and ’40s Broadway. The stories are exceptionally funny, occasionally maudlin, and far better written than most people realise. He’s easy to imitate badly, but hard to copy. For me Runyon is a hugely underappreciated talent.
I’ve no idea how I encountered Chandler but I do remember his impact on me. The plots didn’t interest me nearly as much as those of the sf I read (probably because plot isn’t Chandler’s gift) but the language and attitude were a world away from the more distant worlds of writers like Niven or Silverberg. I read every novel Chandler had written and was astonished by the lucidity of their prose.
As for Heller, perhaps we did Catch-22 in school? I can’t think why else I’d have picked it up but it blew me away and still does. Structurally it’s fascinating. The chapters oscillate through time – always around the same fulcrum. Whatever happened to the Snowden’s of yesteryear? Yossarian can’t bear to think about the answer and nor can the novel, each time it comes close the next chapter veers away in time just as Yossarian’s mind does within the fiction. Extraordinary.
I went on to read Good as Gold and Something Happened, both of which I loved though not as much. What strikes me as odd now is that the Heller sat alongside the Simak and the Sterling. I think I saw the Heller as sui generis and my love of sf was so great that I just wasn’t that tempted to see what else there might be that had the kind of rewards the Heller offered.
That leaves me with Burroughs. I do remember how I encountered him. An English teacher gave me a copy of Naked Lunch and suggested that I try it. I found it difficult but rewarding and went on to read pretty much everything Burroughs wrote. I even read a fairly lengthy biography of him.
Burroughs led me to the other Beats. Ginsberg still speaks to me to this day. Kerouac perhaps less so. I read On the Road but I never loved it as much as I told everyone I did. I reread it a decade or so later and it was still more duty than passion.
I read other Beat writers, but I don’t now remember them. I wore turn-ups on my jeans and thought myself rather clever for having discovered them not realising that they’d never been lost. Secretly I enjoyed Martin Amis more, but his accessibility made him less cool (though in fact I only started reading Martin Amis because one of the cool kids casually mentioned that he was reading him).
So, that was my canon that was. If I took longer I’d think of more, but there’s limited value to that. Next post I’ll talk about my canon that is. Only three writers from the above list are still on it…