Do science-fiction and fantasy have a home in the Western Canon?
Defenders of the Western Canon often won’t acknowledge the existence of genre fiction, particularly speculative fiction, in the Canon. The Literary Canon is another common title for this list of must-read lit, a name that itself suggests the exclusion of any work that can’t be classed as ‘literary’.
A poem, novel, or play acquires all of humanity’s disorders, including the fear of mortality. — Harold Bloom, The Western Canon
I attend a liberal arts college where the first year of my degree consisted of a specialized program centered around the Western Canon, so I’m no stranger to the authors and titles it contains, and I’ve had more than my fair share of frustrating conversations trying to convince my peers that sci-fi and fantasy are just as much at home in the Canon as Shakespeare. But what’s even more infuriating to me are the conversations I have about the Canon with fans of speculative fiction. Most sci-fi and fantasy fans see the Canon as a pretentious book club. They take the apparent lack of speculative fiction as a reason to disregard the Canon entirely.
Why is this a problem? Well, first of all it’s just plain false. There are a ton of speculative titles in the Canon, many of which are the forefathers of their own genres. And second, the Canon has a lot to offer readers and writers regardless of genre. The Canon exists because there are certain texts humanity has decided are too important to forget. These texts contain characters, themes, and plots that aren’t limited by genre and by reading them we can learn what made them immortal and how to identify notes of textual immortality in other writers or to incorporate it into our own.
Here’s a list of some canonical texts that classify as speculative fiction. There are many others, but this is just a sample of the ones I think are good examples of their genre or the genres they helped mold:
1. Marie de France (one of my all time favorites!)
2. Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Macbeth
3. Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queen
4. John Keats’ Lamia
5. Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (another favorite)
6. Thomas More’s Utopia (one of the first utopia/dystopia books)
7. Edgar Allen Poe (horror fans should just read all of him)
8. Matthew Lewis’ The Monk
9. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein
10. Lewis Carroll
11. Bram Stoker’s Dracula
12. H.G. Wells
13. C.S. Lewis (Narnia is a no-brainer, but he also has a lesser known sci-fi series)
14. George Orwell’s 1984
15. Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (this is 100% speculative fiction, fight me)