Saturday, April 10, 2010

Why I Hate Canon

So, to start with, I'll begin with a note that I do have affinities as an entertainment snob...and one of them is immersive fantasy. There is nothing quite so great as a sweeping vision of the fantastic and unreal, with beautiful imagery and creative design. Among my favorites are the Harry Potter series, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, and Avatar: The Last Airbender...series that make you sit there and say "Wow...I wish I could be somewhere that cool doing something that cool, I wonder what cool thing they're going to do next in this awesome world that is better than my life."

Part of it is just that I'm a shameless escapist, but I think that escapism has a certain addictive quality. The late David Foster Wallace identified a certain magic in television that it has set up an inescapable ironic glow in which watching TV is the only gateway to a world where people have better things to do than watch TV. (I am not bothering with any kind of citation, but I will say that this is from an essay from his book "A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again") I think that the same principle is behind escapism in general, with complex fantasy being the exquisite-but-difficult-to-comprehend vintage wine to generic television's inoffensively-drinkable domestic beer. Escapism is a warm, immersive glow that wraps you like a blanket and shields you from the cold harsh reality of life.

Ultimately, however, this addictive glow kills off many of the great escapist fantasy realms when it comes down with a terminal illness called "canon". To clarify, canon is what officially counts for the purposes of continuity, and comes up when there are discrepancies or practical questions not addressed in the plot. Ideally, canon allows you to have a big, internally consistent world so that the audience can get more involved in the plot.
The problem with this is that fantasy is about something that isn't real, and the reason it can be immersive and fun is that it can do things reality can't and produce good stories. Reality has a whole bunch of really dumb rules...that's why it doesn't produce very good stories reliably. When things happen they have to follow all of those rules, and it stops them from being unique or interesting.
In fiction, once a canon of how things *must* work and characters *must* act is in place, the same rules start to apply to fantasy realms.

It should not matter whether or not a good story uses the same made-up facts as previous iterations, and acting like it does just stifles creativity. Note that "Dark Knight" wasn't very consistent with prior depictions of the Batman setting and simultaneously one of the best, largely because it threw away all previous origin stories and accepted 'saga' history and opted to tell a complete narrative with interesting characters. Contrast with comic movie duds like "Fantastic Four"...sure they make a point of properly establishing the long-standing personality traits of every character, and in doing so they waste so much time on mandatory exposition that the movie goes nowhere interesting.

Not to mention that the more canon builds the more junk there is weighing down the setting, and once the focus is on establishing characters, places, and storylines as established in the setting everything goes on auto-pilot and turns into a series of references punctuated with approved character traits. Look at big name mainstream comic writing...they're less stories than annotated lists of prior books.

I don't think this is just bad writing, I think it's an inherent problem with the idea that people care about establishing the rules and storyline elements that matter to future stories: what's done is done. As long as we're spending time on what we've already finished, we're not moving forward. A series that is exploring canon is producing nothing new while it slowly diminishes the good things it has done, and submitting itself to the kind of obsessive fans who collect trivia like magpies and care more about whether or not their fan-fic is properly definitive than they do about whether the current story is actually good.


On a separate note, there is a more direct problem when dealing with fantasy canon: none of it is real, so how can there be canon? It's like arguing about whether a balloon animal is really a wolf or a dog: It's neither! It's balloons tied together!

There is an anime series called "Noir" that ends with a still frame and two gunshots. (I don't consider this a spoiler because 1. The storyline of Noir shoots itself in the head with bullets made of stupid toward the end and 2. It is an effect which has no connection to anything in the plot or story)
There is a longstanding argument among fans, however, as to whether the gunshots were just a sound effect, two characters being shot, two characters shooting something, or whatever.
My reaction to all this? There is no answer that can possibly be real because this is all just a fictional story and it has no objective reality outside of what we see on the screen.
I get a lot of flak for this as people frequently tell me "It's trying to mimic reality; the creators knew what was real in the story, we're trying to get into it; stories have internal reality, etc., etc.", but I'm not trying to be a joyless meta-critical troll.

Fiction is art, and art is craft. A sculpture of a person may look so realistic that it could have been done by medusa, but it still isn't a real person, and it doesn't matter how real you think it is or how real a majority of the fans of it think it is, it still isn't a real person. You can admire it, but admire it as a statue: admire the skill of the sculpture and the effectiveness of the realism, don't let yourself get bogged down by the wasted endeavor of trying to make fiction more official.

In short, fantasy is not helped by canon, canon just degrades it, turning the immersive wonder of a fantasy realm into a joyless chore of collecting trivia and desperately trying to pretend it matters whether not it's explained who teaches math at Hogwarts.

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3 Comments:

At April 15, 2010 at 5:54 PM , OpenID knighteddawn said...

I'm afraid I disagree with you whole-heartedly.

First, I believe you are mistaken in thinking that non-fiction is much more restricted than fiction:

"Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth is not." (—Mark Twain, Following the Equator)

In order for fiction to provide the immersive escapism we yearn for, it must be internally consistent. I have watched films and read books with so many gaping plot holes that I found it utterly impossible to become immersed in the fiction. This is no less true of settings.

Take Tolkien's Middle Earth. Part of what makes it such a fantastically good setting is its internal consistency in many particulars.

However, this is not to say that history can't be revised! Our perspective on "real" history is constantly being revised and updated, and we frequently find that we were incorrect about our previous suppositions. Moreover, what is portrayed as (factual) "history" to children or the masses may not reflect what actually happened even as historians understand it. (For example, Vikings never wore horns on their helmets, and women often had many more rights during the Medieval period than they did during Victorian times.) Given all this, isn't it possible for a creator to take artistic license and revise their understanding of the history, as historians do?

Tolkien did this constantly, and no one should be surprised by it (I am not aware of him revising history after he had published it, but then, he didn't publish very much.)

However, Tolkien strove to ensure that his revisions remained internally consistent with the world in his mind at that moment. Consistency is critical, even if it's okay for the "canon" to be revised.

So while I do agree with some of your sentiment, I think you're wrong to think that Fantasy isn't helped by internal consistency or canon, even if it's okay for the canon to receive revisions.

 
At April 16, 2010 at 6:44 PM , Blogger Rarer Monsters said...

I'm glad you brought up Tolkien. I do agree that consistency can be good, otherwise it is impossible to engage in the work...it's impossible to engage a plot where the author is changing the rules when convenient, it'd be like trying to play checkers with a petulant five year old who doesn't like losing.

Still, Middle Earth is by no means perfectly fleshed out: Tolkien always admitted that he was never satisfied with Orcs, that a race automatically pre-disposed to evil and incapable of redemption always bothered with him. The point of this, as I see it then, is that that didn't stop him from telling the story he wanted to tell.

I guess my beef is more focusing on the idea that a fictional work can have some kind of objective reality beyond the four corners of the text...like if fans felt it necessary to find a reason justifying why the Orcs were evil.

I see fiction as ultimately storytelling, and I tend to look at fiction with a focus on the craft putting into it...what an author is saying to me and how he's using the medium. It seems like it would hurt the immersion process, and yet I can get lost in it the way you can get lost in good theater, even when you can really obviously see the strings.

All in all, though, you are right to say that internal consistency is critical, I just tend to see focus on canon as a step too far.

 
At May 3, 2010 at 12:28 PM , Blogger Jade Knight said...

"The point of this, as I see it then, is that that didn't stop him from telling the story he wanted to tell."

You seem to misunderstand Tolkien's purpose for telling the story he told. Tolkien's world (and most especially its languages) was the reason for his stories, not the other way around.

So, your entire view of fiction ("storytelling") contradicts Tolkien's purpose for his fiction. And Tolkien is, like it or not, the archetypal example of Fantasy.

 

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