azdak: Face of Klimt's Music II (Default)
posted by [personal profile] azdak at 05:08pm on 11/07/2007 under ,
A few weeks ago most of my flist was in a minor tizzy about whether the S8 Buffy comics count as canon or not; and now there's a post on metafandom about appreciation versus appropriation of canon, and I suppose I should be interested in the Is It canon question but frankly, like Spike, I'm paralysed with not caring very much. The honest truth is, I don't think there's any such thing as canon. “Oh, but there's the text!” I hear you cry. Yes, indeed, but the text in itself, the text qua text, is really only of interest to specialists. You don't get many people writing posts that say "It's canon that the third word on the first line of the 13th page is 'and'," or "It's canon that the scene where Jack fights Will is dimly lit and uses lots of low camera angles." What interests Jill Average reader/listener/viewer is the content of the text; and really, all the interesting stuff in the contents is stuff we work out for ourselves. The least interesting part of any story is what we are told explicitly. What fascinates us is the things we find when we dig beneath the surface. And this part of the story is told not , or not just, by having the narrator say straight out "Dumbledore was a great wizard and a good man" but by things like the use of imagery (he looks like Father Christmas, his eyes "twinkle"), apparently irrelevant character quirks (he likes sweets), things he says (he's nice to Harry), the similarity to widely familiar tropes (the wise old mentor) etc etc. In a really well told story there are layers and layers of these things, all interconnected, all multifunctional, so once you start to dig you can uncover a wealth of information that supports or contradicts your interpretation, but it isn't canon in the way that fandom uses the term, it isn't some kind of Authorised Version with an explicit seal of approval from TPTB. And sometimes people don't like what they find in the text, so they scratch around collecting together all the tiny pieces of evidence that let them build an alternative reading. And they may end up feeling rather beleaguered because the bulk of the text doesn't support that interpretation.

And there's almost no part of a "text" that doesn't demand interpretation to get to the interesting stuff. It may be canon that once Spike gets together with Buffy he stops wearing black nail polish, and once he starts working with Angel he stops smoking, but what does that mean? As Darwin said, any fact is of interest only insofar as it speaks for or against some theory (all right, so he actually said "all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service," but you get my point). As for dialogue, we all know perfectly well that you don't have to mean what you say or say what you mean. If I say "It's cold in here," I could be intending to convey anything from "Shut the window" to "You're right, I should have worn a jumper" to "I say, what's with the frigid atmosphere in here, chaps?" So sure, the shooting script may say "I love you," the actor may say "I love you," but that doesn't mean we understand the proposition and only the proposition "There is a person X, whom I love, and X = you." In fact, any actor worth his salt will pack a line of dialogue like that with significantly more layers of meaning than just the proposition it expresses, because otherwise it's really kinda dull.

There's a bit of an irony here in that when it comes to writing fic I'm what is often referred to (for etymological reasons I can't begin to fathom) as a “canon whore”. I get a huge kick out of writing within the constraints imposed by every tiny detail of the text, and inventing minimal background information that isn't in the text. Except, of course, when I don't want to, and then I just ignore the bits of canon that get in the way of what interests me. But it's a formal decision, just as choosing to write a sonnet rather than free verse is a formal decision. It doesn't mean the sonnet is better.

What I really think is that what we call canon would sound much less imposing and High Church if we just thought of it as “source materials”. It's stuff you can choose to use in writing your story or to disregard. Maybe all you take from the source materials is the physical appearance of the actors. Maybe you change even that and make them prettier and cooler and more graceful than they are in the source materials. Maybe you really liked the way Spike was compared to a cat in that werepussy fic you read last week, so you use that. Source material. Buffy Season 8? Source material. Some people like it, some don't, doesn't matter. Other people's fanfic? Source material. Most people don't make much use of this, or the readers haven't come across the source and so don't recognise that it's intertextual, but it does get used, just like “canon”.

My point is that once we have an interpretation, we pick and choose bits of the source materials to support our interpretation, and we ascribe greater significance to the things that validate our view. Canon, in other words, is what we like.


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