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Personal Canons: The Books That Hate Us

A Guest Feature by Alex Acks

In addition to my own reflections and essays purchased from among the many dazzling submissions I’ve received over the past couple of weeks, the Personal Canons series will also feature guest posts from brilliant folks in the writing community. Last time, I wrote about Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always. Today, I’m thrilled to feature Alex Acks.

Alex Acks is an award-winning writer, geologist, and dapper AF. Angry Robot Books has published their novels Hunger Makes the Wolf (winner of the Kitschies Golden Tentacle award) and Blood Binds the Pack under the pen name Alex Wells. Their award-nominated steampunk collection Murder on the Titania and Other Steam-Powered Adventures and its sequel are published by Queen of Swords Press. They’ve written scripts for Six to Start and been published in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, Shimmer, and more. Alex lives in Denver.

The Books That Hate Us

The idea of personal canon is a strange one to me, because so much of my struggle as a writer and reader has been to systematically hunt down and destroy within myself the books that took up residence when I was young. Many of these books I read during grade school, middle school, and high school may well be ones now regarded as "canon" by the larger fandom—with the acknowledgment that "canon" is itself a woolly term, and the books within it are treated very differently by academics and fan communities. I'm not and have never been an academic; for me, "canon" is irretrievably crossed over with "classic," as in books that we are expected to read and revere as the foundations of our beloved genre.

I was socialized female. The books that populated the shelves in my local library thought the rules of physics presented a fun engineering problem, while the rules of gender assigned at birth were unalterable and not worth questioning. As a queer, nonbinary adult, I look back on this with particular bitterness, how presumptively cis and straight everything was in a genre supposedly of exploration, at a time in my life—surrounded by the virulent homophobia of the 90s—when I desperately needed new vocabulary to understand myself. I greedily read anything that had pages and something like a plot, but the books I read that should have been the foundation of my personal canon despised me.

Sometimes it was subtle, like when Clarke and Asimov and Niven and Heinlein took care to describe women as the sum total of their breasts and fuckability and relation to the much more important hero on his adventure (when they bothered to have women present at all). Sometimes it was aggressively hateful, like my journey through Pournelle and Niven's Lucifer's Hammer, which ultimately pits anti-feminist, pro-technology libertarians as the saviors of humanity against cannibalistic hordes of Black people and pinko environmentalists, who have fallen into savagery for the sin of thinking atomic power is perhaps not a good idea, thus proving they are against civilization. It's the only book that's ever hated me so thoroughly and deeply that I think it saw into my soul and realized I was a queer socialist before I ever did.

Yet these books were part of my personal canon, because they infected my mind and shaped how I thought books must be written. When I first began writing, it wasn't a conscious choice on my part to believe that female characters were boring and annoying; I just assumed they were and avoided writing them because men were so much more interesting. Even now, my imagination is still so infested that I sometimes have to go through my own work and tally up the characters by gender (and race, too) and see if I've managed something that reflects the world I actually live in. I re-read my own work and see the lack of fat characters and know this, too, is the ghost of books I read long ago still working with the general culture to tell me fat is another word for evil.

My mother read so many books to my brother and I when we were kids. The Complete Sherlock Holmes is one I might happily call personal canon; I have never had to go rounds with Sherlock inside my own head, maybe because he is safe in his historical context—and not in my genre. She also read us The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the latter of which I loved enough to write my senior thesis on in high school. Then a decade later I had to take out my mental four-claw weeding tool and try to rip the hero's journey out of my own brain by the roots, because I was desperate to break free of its dictatorial presence. And while The Lord of the Rings and Brian Jacques's Redwall and even the Dragonlance novels I read didn't hate women the way so much older science fiction did, they slipped in other, nasty conceptual frameworks. Like "there only needs to be one very special girl" and "entire races are evil."

Slowly fighting to unlearn all of the old canon has made me a better writer and expanded the breadth of the universe I can reach with my keyboard. Reading more books, by so many more different people, has helped that as well. I spend more time than I should angry that I missed them on the shelves when my brain was still hungry and plastic and trying to imprint on whatever I gave it.

That's why I recoil generally from the idea of "canon." On one hand, I can see the utility of having a shorthand for how we've gotten where we are. I can understand the emotional warmth of the meaningful touchstones that shaped us. But limiting books to certain lists, labeling them classic or saying, these must be read, gives them too much power and weight and importance. It implies that you are wrong if you do not like them, even if they do not like you in return.

Personal canon might be an end run around that, a way to democratize what gets to wear the mighty label of classic. It's still not a framing I find myself able to look at head-on; I don't feel comfortable naming titles with that kind of borrowed moral weight, because I know that books create us as we read them. If my personal canon is the books that shaped me, it might be five titles that I can wholly embrace and an order of magnitude more that I'll wrestle to expunge from my soul until the day I die.

I know too well what it's like to have been defined by books that would write me out of existence.

Personal Canons is a series exploring the works of genre fiction that have shaped us as readers, writers, and people. This series features contributions by established authors, new and aspiring authors, readers, and fans. Submissions are open through August 18th and will be responded to by September 1.

Guidelines: 1000 words maximum, $100 payment on acceptance. Send submissions to stonesoup.substack@gmail.com. With many thanks to those who have generously donated funds to expand the series, including Kristin Harrington and an anonymous donor, 8 pieces will be accepted and published from those submissions.