Had a great dinner with…

Had a great dinner with Zak, Sharon, Sherwood, Shweta, Nathaniel, Greg. Narrowly avoided losing Greg as a friend forever. Okay, not really, but we did have a couple of heated disagreements. Okay, maybe not even that heated, but we definitely disagreed, which I'm not sure we've done before. Ah well. I still adore him, and I think he's reasonably fond of me, so we're probably okay.

On the ride home, debated this question. If Asimov/Bradbury/Clarke/Heinlein are the classics of that generation, who in sf/f has joined that canon? Here's my list so far -- these are some authors that I think will still be showing up on shelves and in classrooms in fifty years:

  • Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Octavia Butler
  • Ursula K. LeGuin
  • J.K. Rowling
There are probably others, but those are the only ones I feel sure of tonight. All women, oddly enough. Various people agitating for Neil Gaiman, but I'm just not sure -- he has an intense cult following, and I can certainly see Sandman being considered a classic, but I think the jury is still out on the rest of his work. Oh, probably Gaiman too.

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16 thoughts on “Had a great dinner with…”

  1. Argh!

    I just spent over half an hour writing a list of names. I kept thinking “I really ought to post this comment as it is and then come back and add to it.” And then thinking “Just a couple more names.” And then my computer died, because I forgot to put an ice pack under it.

    So there’s no way I’m going to be able to reconstruct the whole list, nor all the commentary. But a few of the names from it:

    Ellison, Delany, Le Guin, Niven, Herbert, Tiptree, Tolkien, Gibson.

    I’m reluctant to add anyone to my personal canon who got started after the mid-’80s; feels to me like history hasn’t really had a chance to judge them yet. But maybe that’s just rationalizing the fact that I didn’t grow up reading them. I wouldn’t (at least not yet) put Bujold, Rowling, or Butler in my personal canon, but again that may just be that I didn’t grow up reading them.

  2. The question is interesting because it’s so complicated.

    I find myself wondering what the Asimov/Bradbury/Clarke/Heinlein of their generation looked like to the people within the generation. What makes them who they are now? Each of them has enormous stature for fairly different reasons (though to me it seems like Asimov and Clarke are not as different from each other as Asimov and Heinlein or Clarke and Bradbury).

    I’d argue that Cory Doctorow is going to leave an indelible mark. Completely irrespective of how much any given person likes what he’s done. His advocacy has already pushed things that I’m not sure would’ve happened without him

    There are any number of writers that have critical acclaim but not the huge public presence that I could see getting wide popularity under the right circumstances.

    Also, dinner was indeed great. You fib about Greg though! If he was even a little upset with you, he hid it like a master poker player.

  3. I also mentioned some older writers, like Sturgeon and Poul Anderson. (And others who may not be quite as high in the canon: Silverberg, Pohl, Farmer, Vance, Tenn, Clement, Dickson, et al.)

    And some influential but somewhat lesser-known-these-days writers (some of whom would probably be taught in any historical-survey-of-sf class), like Russ, Dunsany, Williamson, William Morris, Stapledon, Knight, Moorcock, Peake, Cordwainer Smith, Macdonald.

    Not sure where to put CS Lewis; in children’s fantasy, he’s in the top tier, but don’t know if he counts for adult fantasy. (Children’s sf/f is a whole nother canon. Andre Norton, Norton Juster, Eager, Nesbit?, Seuss :), Cooper, Duane, D.W.Jones, John Christopher, Le Guin, Tolkien, and so on, plus lots of newer writers.)

    I also allowed that some writers who started to become well-known in the ’80s might be candidates: Kay, Egan, Vernor Vinge, Brin, Greg Bear, Willis, et al.

    There are lots of really good, and popular, writers who got started in the ’90s and ’00s, but I don’t think I’m ready to canonize them yet.

  4. I think it’s also worth noting that the canon changes over time. I suspect it would’ve been unthinkable for a fan of my father’s generation to be unfamiliar with Burroughs, or Doc Smith, or van Vogt. (Well, both Burroughses, but I meant E.R. in particular.) And some of the writers I listed as “not quite as high” and “lesser-known-these-days” would probably have been considered unquestionably part of the canon thirty or forty years ago.

    A few more for the influential-but-lesser-read-now list: Robert E. Howard; E.R. Eddison; Mary Shelley.

  5. More (uncategorized) thoughts–gotta go do other things, so I’m not going to explain what I mean by listing these authors, who go in a bunch of different categories from my earlier notes:

    Borges, Garcia Marquez, Lewis Carroll, John Crowley, Cabell, Wilde, Wolfe, Pratchett, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Calvino, L. Frank Baum, Helprin, Milne, Barrie, Charnas, Cherryh, Sterling, John Myers Myers, Rushdie, Peter Dickinson.

    It occurs to me that you and I once put together a list of sf/f that we recommended and/or felt people ought to read; I’m not gonna go dig that up right now, but it probably has some other candidates on it.

    Which reminds me that there are some books that I’d put in the canon even if their authors aren’t well known for anything else.

    Okay. Must go edit, then sleep.

  6. Jed, most of yours are nowhere near big enough for what I was thinking of. A lot of them are significant within genre, but I’m wondering about what survives beyond genre divides — essentially, which ones have a chance of becoming household names, becoming synonymous with sf/f, being mandatory on bookstore shelves and college classrooms. When I was in the airport bookstore yesterday, there they were — Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein. I’m curious who else has joined them in the public perception.

    I’ll give you Delany, I think, and of course Tolkien. That’s it, out of the genre writers you mention.

    And now, in the cold light of morning, I think I’m cutting Rowling. Famous now, but not at all sure the books will stay on the shelves in fifty years. So my revised list:

    Bujold
    Butler
    Delaney
    LeGuin
    Tolkien

    If we include YA, I’d expand it to:

    Alexander
    Baum
    Bujold
    Butler
    Cooper
    Delany
    L’Engle
    LeGuin
    Lewis
    Tolkien

    (Eager and Nesbit were in there, but I think have fallen out of canon by now. Too dated, not read widely enough.)

    I don’t know if it’s useful expanding it to include authors generally presented as mainstream.

    And of course you may disagree with my list, and of course, it’s likely to change over time, but right now, this is my prediction for some authors that will be considered canonical sf/f authors. (And yes, I do think there are a few individual books that probably should be on the list, even if their authors don’t make it. Something else to think about.)

  7. I should have noted that my issue with Rowling is in part because she wrote a famous seven-book series, not a famous single book. I think it’s noticeably harder for multi-book projects to make it into the canon, sheerly because of the amount of shelf space / classroom time they require.

    I.e., for Lewis, you can usefully look at just The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe — I don’t think you can do the same with Rowling’s The Sorceror’s Stone; I’d be much more reluctant to assign it in a class. There’s also just a lot less meaty stuff there to grapple with.

  8. Oh, and Zak, I agree that Cory has a chance of making it, ditto Charlie Stross, for similar reasons — I could see either of them becoming emblematic of a certain strand of the genre, especially if they get movies made of their work.

    Oh, movies, right — I’d add Dick as someone who is only now being added to the canon, his writing rescued in large part by the movies.

    And for the future YA, I think Westerfeld has a chance, based primarily on the Peeps, etc. series, which I wouldn’t be surprised to see turning up in high school classroom reading lists.

    So my current list: Alexander, Baum, Bujold, Butler, Cooper, Delany, Dick, L’Engle, LeGuin, Lewis, Tolkien

    And I’m not sure about Cooper, sadly.

  9. I find myself wondering if I’m seeing editors enter a kind of parallel pantheon.

    Is googleability making editors more important?

    I’ve got no good perspective on it. Personally, the role of editors has become much more important to me as a reader. I get a sense of who has tastes that match mine and I look for stuff they’ve selected. In the process, I get better bang for my buck (or click, or paypal button or what have you).

    I really don’t have any sense of whether or not people who aren’t also trying to get those same editors to give them money for their own stories particularly care.

    It seems pretty logical to retain the connection to editors who first published, but maybe the various Best Of collections nullify that.

  10. What led me astray was that I don’t think of any of the names you mentioned as being at nearly the level of regard or public awareness as A/B/C/H. If you’re talking about authors becoming household names outside of the genre, I can’t really imagine Butler or Bujold making that. (Known outside of the genre, sure, but known at the level of Bradbury or Heinlein?)

    I guess what I’m saying in this comment is that I don’t really understand your criteria.

    But that won’t stop me from addding another possible candidate: Vonnegut. Definitely very widely known outside of the genre–but not synonymous with sf/f. There are several other big-name literary writers who I tend to claim as (at least sometimes) sf/f but who tend to live outside the genre (intentionally or un-): Atwood, Garcia Marquez, Rushdie, Chabon, et al.

    But I get the impression that’s not what you’re looking for either. So can you clarify your criteria? You listed several criteria, but to me they’re pretty different (household name is different from identified with sf/f is different from airport bookstore shelves is different from classrooms). Are you looking for people who will satisfy all of those criteria in 50 years?

  11. I think all of those criteria are potential indicators for the vague thing I’m talking about. Oh, and I remembered the book that I would add, “Flowers for Algernon.”

    I’m not certain if Bujold is going to make it out of the field, but I think she has a good shot at it — tons of Hugo Awards, writes hugely popular work in both sf and fantasy, with emotional depth and exploration of religious elements that might well bring in another group of readers.

    Butler, I’d argue, is already better known in many mainstream communities than any of the ABCH at this stage. Granted, most of those readers are black, but I kind of think we should count them anyway. Winning a MacArthur Genius Grant gives you some credibility in the wider literary world.

    I wasn’t going to go to the people who publish primarily as mainstream — there are plenty of them who would qualify, certainly including Vonnegut, Marquez, and Rushdie (I’m not sure of Atwood or Chabon’s staying power) — but it’s just too big a category. I’d be listing for days. 🙂

  12. I am putting in a vote for “Robert Jordan”. Until he came along and my daughter urged me to read Eye of the World, I had not read heroic fantasy meganovels in many years, since they all seemed to just copy one another and produce nothing new of note. Jordan’s characters, his different culture creations, and his feel for people and situations changed all that.

  13. Someone else mentioned him, and he’s certainly huge right now, but I doubt he’s going to last. He’s got a few big strikes against him in a) the length of the series, and b) the fact that he died before completing it. Dictating plot to be written by a friend is just not the same.

  14. I usually feel that books are too short. Long works are better, and certainly seem to sell better. Is there any 100K word book in sf or fantasy with sales in the range of Jordan or Rowling? I absolutely love Nnedi and Nalo also, but I so wish their novels were longer…

  15. I don’t know sales figures, and Rowling is certainly an outlier in various respects. But I’m guessing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has been printed and sold an awful lot. Ditto The Hobbit.

  16. De Lint. I’m not sure if he’d meet the synonymous-with-the-genre criterion, but Charles DeLint writes from inside fantasy into universal themes and with real characters.

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