Canon to the right! Canon to the left!

“Canon in front of them! Volley’d and thunder’d!” — “The Charge of the Light Brigade”

I’m going to ramble a bit on one of anime fans’ biggest obsessions: canon. In fact, I’m willing to bet that I’m advancing a rather unpopular position. But first, what is canon? No, I don’t mean anime canon in the sense of a body of “important” anime. If the Western canon can be quite disputed, I hardly see where an anime canon would start and end. When I speak of canon, I’m referring to something else. Wikipedia seems to define this sort of canon innocently enough: “…the original work from which the fan fiction author borrows.” In common usage, however, canon means much more than this simple definition. No, canon’s not just the original story — it’s “what really happened.” Canon has somehow become dogmatic, as if it carries a higher authority. A recent comment from one of my other posts struck me as odd:

“Well, it’s important to me which version of a series is the “real” story and which is the “fake” story.” — SailorSonic

One of the best things about storytelling came from the informality of the oral tradition. Imagine young ones gathered around a grandparent who then regales them with epic tales of love and war. What makes grandpa or grandma’s story so great? After all, it’s the “same” story everyone else is telling. Still, we cherish these storytelling sessions as children. Why? It’s because of the storyteller.

Each and every storyteller imbues his or her own quirks and idiosyncrasies into every story being told. So sure, it’s the “same” “Hansel & Gretel” you’ve always heard, but at the same time, it’s not. The core of the story may have remained unchanged, but the best part about the oral tradition is the unique and personal charm you can only get from the storyteller.

Maybe a character or two are added or omitted. Maybe the temporal order of the events have changed. So what? It doesn’t make the story any worse, does it? In fact, these changes often improve the story. To employ an analogy, we don’t follow the original recipe for chicken noodle soup; we follow our family’s recipe.

Miguel Cervantes, the great author of Don Quijote (I know most people spell his last name as ‘Quixote,’ but I’ll stick to the spelling in the translation I’ve read countless times), took this idea and ran with it:

Don Quijote, with its dialogic structures and great range of innovation, revolutionized the art of narrative. The contemporary novelist Robert Coover claims that Cervantes’s stories ‘sallied forth against adolescent thought-modes and exhausted art forms, and returned home with new complexities.’

What were some of these complexities? In the Prologue to Part One of the novel, a fictionalized Cervantes announces his abdication of literary paternity: Don Quijote is not his child but his stepchild. By yielding the narration of his text to a cry of authors, he debunks both authorship and authority, allowing himself to be drowned out by numerous surrogates: a phantom author, editors, translators, censors, an apocryphal novelist attempting to capitalize on the success of Part One, and even ourselves. Challenging the prevailing norms for citing illustrious authorities, Cervantes returns authority to the subjective reader. Not unlike hypertext today, Cervantes urges us to participate in authoring his book: ‘Reader, you decide,’ is one of the narrator’s most engaging imperatives.”

What makes legends so captivating? It’s the allure of truth and fantasy intermingling, playing on the imagination. The legend of Don Quijote, the man, is allowed to breathe. His adventures and exploits don’t end when Cervantes’ pen stops. His life and his heroism is allowed to be interpreted and re-interpreted, spun and respun from one storyteller to another. It’s like when Grandpa “finishes a story,” but gleeful children can’t help but press him for more: “Then what happens?” Is this how a grandpa might respond, “End of story, sonny!” Or does he continue on?

Of course, Cervantes wrote Don Quijote some four hundred years before our time. Since then, canon has only dominated the discussion. Did you know Star Wars fans devised five levels of canon to distinguish their stories? Why is this necessary? Why do we shortchange our storytellers? Why do we shackle our stories to one and only one interpretation? I so often get the following sort of criticism: “You missed the point of the story.” As if stories can only convey one meaning! As if there is only ever one singular point to any tale!

If you ask, “Who gets to decide what the point to any story,” fans will almost always answer that the author is in charge. It really does strike me as odd how Cervantes could usher forth metafiction almost exactly four centuries ago, but here we are, adhering to a dogmatic view of storytelling and textual interpretation. Barthes would try to argue against the God in the text three hundred odd years after Cervantes, but the suffocating embrace of canon remains.

It’s doubly strange when you consider how the means to storytelling has changed. In this era of cell phone novels, cheap self-publishing and fandom (from fanfiction to doujinshi), it should be easier than ever to embrace Cervantes’s vision of a living text feeding on its readers’ subjectivity. Unfortunately, fans refuse to let go and let loose. There can be good or bad storytelling, but there are no such things  “real” and “fake” stories.

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19 Replies to “Canon to the right! Canon to the left!”

  1. It always struck me as odd that considering how wide the range of human experience is, that people could so rigidly claim that there’s only one way to look at a story. How could anyone know that for sure? There are a multitude of factors in one’s life that could allow a person to view a story in any number of different ways. Hell, if there were only one True way to view a story, then why would we need message boards, blogs, etc. to discuss these things? What would be the point if there were only one view to everything?

  2. The modern, widespread embrace of canon exists precisely due to fanfiction, imo. While some genuinely great fanfics have been wrote, there is a virtual ocean of crappy fanfics out there that fans of the original material naturally want to ensure aren’t viewed as equally valid to the original story. This is especially true for slashfics involving some of the most insanely preposterous sexual pairings or groupings imaginable.

    So the main reason behind the widespread embrace of canon exists is, in fact, crappy fanfics.

    If the overall quality of the fanfics out there was higher, and if these fanfics at least tried to remain somewhat consistent with the original work (branch off of it, yes, but not completely demolish established characterization to get some sexual fantasy to work, for example), you probably wouldn’t have canon held up like this as the only “real version” of the work.

    1. The idea isn’t that you should treat every fanfiction as equally valid. The idea is that you have the ability to elevate a good fanfiction to the same status as the original story if you so choose. If a story sucks, then ignore it. If a story doesn’t suck, why couldn’t it become part of a canonical pastiche? Right now, even good fanwork are designated as non-canon and thus “fake;” I just think this sort of thinking is far too rigid.

      1. Well, I’m totally with you there then. :)

        I’ve read a few fanfics that did a superb job of developing a secondary character, or picking up where an anime left off, and for me, I consider these fanfics equally valid additions to the original story.

        Nice for you and I to have a meeting of the minds for a change, E Minor. ;)

  3. I was under the impression that “canon” does, in fact, mean the original story. Quoth wikipedia:

    [“canon”] refers to the overall set of storylines, premises, settings, and characters offered by the source media text

    I’m sure that most fans realize this, but still equate canon with the “real” story. And who wouldn’t? As Ryan R says, some of the fanfiction out there is horrendous. Fans would rather not associate the Harry Potter series with a fanfic about Hogwarts and a Giant Squid getting it on, and they call it “fake” and not canon (of course, it’s also not canon by the other definition).

    1. I was under the impression that “canon” does, in fact, mean the original story.

      Didn’t I cover the Wikipedia definition? Regardless, a word’s everyday usage is just as equally important as a word’s “official” definition. ‘Irregardless’ isn’t a word, but we still understand what people are trying to say when they employ it in their sentences. As a result, I never did understood this anal retentive reaction to it. Likewise, ‘canon’ may have a certain definition in the books, but people obviously use it to convey a different meaning.

      some of the fanfiction out there is horrendous

      See my reply to Ryan R.

    2. Damn it, I hate everything. I always skim posts, causing me to miss things. Hazukashii~!

      I fail to see the difference between “original story” and “what really happened.” Whether fans are taking canon to mean “original” or “true” doesn’t really matter if it all ends up at the same place. It seems more like a wording issue than anything else.

      I mean, fans accept fanfiction as part of their ___verse, but they just don’t see it as canon because it’s neither the original material or the “true” story. Unless there’s non-original material out there being considered as part of a “true” story, I can’t see any distinction.

      Or maybe I’m missing the point. Are you arguing against the concept of “canon” itself?

      1. I fail to see the difference between “original story” and “what really happened.”

        Well, there’s ‘canon’ as in “the source from which a story originates” and there’s ‘canon’ in the sense of “only this story contains the ‘true’ events — you can come up with your own version, but it is and forever will be a mere ‘fake.'”

        Are you arguing against the concept of “canon” itself?

        I’m not arguing against “the source from which the story originates,” i.e. the official definition of ‘canon.’ I couldn’t care less about that. I’m arguing against the concept of the “one, true canon.” People should just pick and choose which and what stories to affirm. If you like Harry Potter, and you come across a well-written story of Harry Potter, but let’s say the events in it differ somewhat from the “true” story, who cares? You can distinguish between the original story and everything else, but why does a good fanfiction or adaptation have to be “fake” just because it doesn’t conform to the original? They’re all fiction anyway! The notion that there are “true” and “fake” versions of a fictional story is preposterous!

      2. People should just pick and choose which and what stories to affirm.

        Well, doesn’t that vary from person to person? If people want to see fanfiction (including their own) as “fake” and like it that way, I say let them be. There isn’t anything preventing people from seeing fanfiction as part of the “real” story.

        Though I guess there are the “canon = true” people. But for the people who insist that canon = true, there are people who insist that “true” and “fake” shouldn’t exist. The neverending battle!

        1. Well, I’m not arguing for “canon” to be illegal or something. Yes, we can chalk everything up to “Your prerogative!” but then there wouldn’t be any point to writing this post and having a discussion.

  4. Wow! You quoted me! Awesome. I feel special now. XD

    While this is a well-written article, I do not agree with it at all. Of course there are things such as “real” or “fake” stories. If someone adapts an anime from a light novel, and the studio gets rid of a specific charater or plot point, it is common sense to assume the original novel is the real story and the anime non-canon. Why? Because the novel is where the anime originated. The origin of any series is almost always assumed to be the true story, unless the creator of the series says otherwise.

      1. Because they “created” it?

        In short, to quote Taka:

        I was given to understand that the main purpose of establishing canon was to eliminate contradictions in the extended universe stories.

        That sums up my feelings on canon right there.

  5. Also, I have to comment on this…

    Maybe a character or two are added or omitted. Maybe the temporal order of the events have changed. So what? It doesn’t make the story any worse, does it? In fact, these changes often improve the story. To employ an analogy, we don’t follow the original recipe for chicken noodle soup; we follow our family’s recipe.

    Usually, it does. Like Haruhi. Just take a look at Endless Eight and the 2004 manga. Both strayed away from canon, and sucked.

    To be honest, canon doesn’t bother me THAT much-with Evangelion, I like the spinoff mangas Angelic Days and Petit Evangelion even though they’re not canon, because they’re interesting takes on the original NGE story. I just like the “real” stories more than the “fake” ones.

    Of course, you could always use the “it happened in an alternate universe!” excuse to make ANYTHING canon…

  6. Just a comment on the Star Wars canon. Now it’s been quite some time since I read a Star Wars novel but I was given to understand that the main purpose of establishing canon was to eliminate contradictions in the extended universe stories. For the upper levels of the canon I think are fairly within reach of each other. Lucas may be top dog but a lot of people are infatuated by the extended universe series that Lucas has nothing to do with. Some of the lower canon stuff has to do with people who made stories without purchasing the license or w/e it is that Lucas has to keep such a tight hold on the franchise.

    So the question is what do the contradictions take away since everything takes place in this one massive universe. Does a contradiction hurt the construction of the world it’s based in? I mean a whole lot of fantasy and science fiction concerns itself with world building where the details are what matters. Some people find the stories less compelling than the knowledge that the gas giant Yavin can produce excellent crystals for lightsaber making.

    Other random thoughts:
    Intellectual property laws
    Things for fans to argue over else their fragile mental constructions of the world fall apart
    People with too much time on their hands
    Inability to separate two fictions from each other
    Easy (perhaps lazy?) way to separate shit from not shit

    1. Some people find the stories less compelling than the knowledge that the gas giant Yavin can produce excellent crystals for lightsaber making.

      Missing the forest for the trees.

      Intellectual property laws

      I’m not asking people to make money off of other people’s work. I’m just saying… we shouldn’t disparage a work just because it isn’t “canon.”

  7. I really don’t see why canon is such a big deal. I mean it’s important to maintain a similarity to the original work, but just repeating or selling it one way is much too rigid and… well, boring. I mean if the anime adaptation of the Count of Monte Cristo remained true to the original story in more than plot and character, it wouldn’t have been nearly as distinctive as it was. I honestly didn’t care much for it, but I had it burned into my brain long after I finished, and I doubt that would’ve happened if it followed the book word for word, setting and all.

    The best example I could think of was when I used to play Guild Wars religiously, and found a fanfiction on one of the forum sites that updated regularly. The author completely borked the main story for one of the stand alone campaigns, and created his own that added several elements while not taking away from the point (Save the world from evil abominations) nor the setting. I still have it saved, and while it may not hold up as much as it did then, it did weave an interesting story that strayed a fair distance from the canon.

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