Monday, September 30, 2013

The Death of Canon pt 2 - Author Intent and Audience reaction

(The "short" piece on Canon and Genre Fiction continues; planning to do some work as well on the history of Genre as well.. but for now on with the show)

I always hear fellow fans say that it's easy to settle Canon arguments, it's all about Author intent after all. But is it? That works fine with a situation with a single Author (although what you do when said author looses it tends to get mumbled responses. See: Star Wars) producing a work of a fixed scope. (Harry Potter is good example of this, or Song of Ice and Fire) But Genre fiction is unique in that it is often "authored" by different people overtime even after the original author has passed away. This is due to format (Television tends to never be produced by a sole creator, Comics often have very long run times so tend to change staff etc) and fandom.

But first lets take a step back, a brief dip into the pool of Art criticism and analysis. The Arts have been dealing with the so called "death of the author" for the best part of the past century; as modern technologies produced methods of "authorship" beyond the lone genius at his or her easel. (In short it's mostly Photography's fault, but the printing press also takes some of the blame as well) This drove evolution of Art theory and in the post modern era things like context and audience started to become considered. In Art theory the Author's intent is only part of the story, the work's context becomes important with the real meaning of a work existing in an intangible place between the work itself and the audience. Divorced of an audience a piece of art becomes just an object, and a normally useless object at that. So a work has no meaning without an audience, and because an Author and an Audience can look at the same work and develop utterly different impressions of the work the sole ability to brand a work with meaning does not rest with the Author. This is not a science, the reading of the work draws upon the emotive and cultural reactions of an audience to the signs and signifiers within the work. (as well as how it is presented, which is why graffiti solicits a different reaction painting hung in a gallery) To keep this brief, consider the most famous work of Art; The Mona Lisa. Much is made of her mysterious smile; now we can assume the model knew what she was smiling about, Leonardo may have as well and it is seen by its modern audience as being part of the work's mystery. The true meaning of that smile is now utterly lost baring some additional discovery, it could just be that the model had an odd smile, it could be related the Illuminati or could be a joke by Leonardo. We don't know, we can't know, so it is up to the audience to project into that space created by the mystery of her smile. In that way the Mona Lisa is collaborative with its audience.

As I mentioned before immunizing Genre fiction from these concepts isolates it from the Arts in a wider context and unfortunately proves the point of those who write it off as a lesser form. Ultimately any work of Genre fiction is collaborative with the audience to some extent, the audience reaction fuels the length of a television run for example or determines how many extra trilogies you get to write. So isn't it fair to expect that any addition to canon be accepted by the audience on some level? Or are we forced to accept AVP when we watch Alien or Aliens? (or Predator for that manner) I'll go back to one of the early examples of Canon, the Cthulhu mythos. Lovecraft seems to have been quite anti creating a defined mythos for his works, he repeated names and concepts (arguably undermining his want for a lack of canon) between works but did not intent them to be expanded into a knowable mythology. The concept of the mythos and the relationships between concepts that are now very much pop-culture were created by August Derleth. Derleth not only crafted much of what we think of now as the Mythos; but he kept Lovecraft's works in print and maintained/expanded the literary circle that Lovecraft himself forged. It could be argued that Lovecraft's influence is largely due to Derleth's efforts to bring his works to a wider audience. But that was all against Author intent, in the world of canon borne only out of Author Intent there would be possibly no Cthulhu Mythos, just a group of loosely connected stories written by a single author.

So as you can see it is a sticky mess, and the larger a work gets and the longer it runs the harder it is to standardize canon. But why do we need to? In some cases the Authors themselves draw lines that create a story between works, and these lines can be soft or hard depending on the work. But that is the difference between a series and a canon. A canon stretches between series and envelops them in a bubble. So Babylon 5 is a series, it has very distinct lines drawn between episodes to tell a single story. Crusade is a separate series and exists within the same canon "bubble" as B5, they are lucky to share the same author. So that's easy to envision right? But what about the B5 movies? or Novels? or RPGs? All one bubble? Well that could cause continuity issues, even if you prune out all non-JMS sanctioned stuff, the pilot exists in two versions and what the hell do you do with "the lost tales"...? (Or the Crusade 2nd season scripts that exist? They are Author Intent, but they weren't shot, do they count?)

As we have Genre shows that in some cases have been running for 50+ years it becomes increasingly difficult to parse Author Intent. In fact very few long running stories have ever managed to keep their canon straight, changing authors and times make sure of that. Doctor Who practically manages by resetting the show with each Doctor, while some canon concepts remain the style and pace of the show changes with the lead actor. (and in many cases only a sliver of canon remains, Dalek history for example) I've even seen notable Who fans online argue that the twelve regeneration limit on Time Lords was a non canon concept as it was not in the show originally. (Yes seriously) Again boiled back to original intent, but how can you establish intent on a work that has had dozens of Authors? Many of whom are now passed? You can't so you need other methods of reading and reacting to interactions between works within the same "bubble" of canon.
More on that next time folks...