So Disney has decided that they’re going to nuke most of the previously established Star Wars canon. I think this is as good a reason as any to finally bury the destructive concept of canon in fictional works. Note that this does not mean that I am against stories in continuity with each other, that’s not my position at all. I love continuity, and the story options that it enables. But even as I enjoy continuity, I don’t see why we should be judging stories as more or less significant than another on any basis but their merits. And that’s all canon does, it arbitrarily privileges some continuities over others. Why should we recognize that kind of a distinction? Why should we give a soulless corporate entity that kind of power over our culture? Because that’s what we’re really talking about here.
Canon is, at its root, only a way to designate this story as more important than that story, more significant, more “true.” The term canon, as applied to fictional works, initially came about as a manner to draw a distinction between the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and fan works that used the same characters. It was initially more or less a joke, a way of reifying and exaggerating the importance of Doyle’s work when compared to his imitators.
But since that initial, half-in-jest start to the concept, it has gained an almost unholy amount of power. People started believing in this, as if it somehow mattered. Arguments about canon have become one of the great plagues of fandom, a billowing swarm of cognitive locusts that threatens to swoop in and strip any conversation of fun at any time. Canon means that if someone writes a story in your favorite setting that you don’t like, and they have the mojo to get it declared canon by the mystic copyright fairies in the sky, that now they haven’t just told a story that you don’t like, they have defaced your childhood. And when that happens, especially to long running properties, the consequences can be dire once someone with a grudge gets in the writer’s seat.
Spider-Man used to be a good comic, but then the Clone Saga kneecapped it, and it’s never recovered. For the next twenty years, Spider-Man lurched from half-baked story to the next as different writers and editors fought a decades-long battle about what deserved to be canon in Spider-Man. At one point we found out his origin story wasn’t true, and he was actually possessed by a mystical spider ghost. Then there was the time he made a literal deal with the devil just so that the writer at the time could give a big middle finger to the parts of Spidey canon that he didn’t like. So now the Spider-Man comics are a wasteland, the narrative equivalent of a landscape the day after a nuclear war. The most interesting Spider-Man stories of the past 20 years have been the ones that happened after Peter Parker was dead.
And it doesn’t necessarily hurt just a single storyline, or set of characters. It can corrode and disrupt entire companies. Witness the slow, lingering demise of DC Comics: death by canon misfire. The New 52 has been a catastrophe, a wholly unneeded self-inflicted wound premised entirely on the notion of designating one continuity to be more important than another. They had to kill the old setting so that the new one could be canon, because like the Highlanders there can be only one, so why not have a petty, destructive fight to the death, no matter how much carnage that leaves strewn across our cultural landscape? (And of course, predictably, DC began chickening out almost immediately and started seeding escape hatches to let them bring things from the old canon back into play. All this work and stress to satisfy the canon fairies. It seems a waste.)
So now Episode II‘s “I don’t like sand” speech is canon, but Bastila’s fall to the Dark Side isn’t. Disney would have us believe that this means Anikin’s whining is more important than the actually touching and painful story in KOTOR. I’m sure Disney has all sorts of compelling financial interests in making such a stupid proclamation. I’m less clear about why any of us would care about their opinion on the matter.
No, really: why the hell do we care what Disney thinks about this? They don’t own Star Wars. We own Star Wars. They just hold the licences.
Go back, way back to the folklore and mythology that modern pop culture is descended from, and you’ll find stories of gods and monsters and heroes that simply don’t care about which one of them is “more true” than the others. Take Lilith, for example. In some tellings, she is the incarnation of sensual femininity. In others, she’s a bird-footed demon. In still others, she’s a hairy, intersex deity.
There are more modern examples of stories and settings which benefit from a disregard for canon. Neon Genesis Evangelion basically gave up on the concept of canon when they did End of Evangelion. The new movies they’re making to retell the whole series are a big, fancy gravestone to the idea that there is one way to view and understand that story. This gleeful disregard for which is the “real” telling of the tale hasn’t stopped it from being the most successful anime Gainax has ever produced.
Canon serves no narrative function. The cues and signals that creators can use to delineate one continuity from another are wholly unimportant to the actual quality of the stories contained within those continuities. What’s worse is that the modern concept of canon is almost entirely a tool of big business, used to privilege one of their product lines over the others, even as they make money on other, non-canon story-lines. Star Trek gave up on its 24th century setting years ago, but that hasn’t stopped the Star Trek tie-in books from continuing telling the story of, for example, Deep Space Nine long after the TV series stopped running. None of those works are canon, no, but the money from them still makes its way to Paramount.
So here we see how hollow canon has become: now it doesn’t even apply to all of the works created by whoever owns the copyright to the stories. When canon was created, it was a means to differentiate professional works from fanfic, but now, even work that isn’t fanfic, work that’s actually making money for the entities which hold the copyright, isn’t necessarily considered canon.
Please note: I have nothing against fanfic; I got my start writing in fanfic. But if canon at least had a function of distinguishing fanfic from professional work, then it might still be useful. But it doesn’t, and the fact that some (ignorant, blinkered, elitist) people deride tie-in fiction as “glorified fan fiction” kinda shows how arbitrary and meaningless the distinction of canon and non-canon can become when the ownership of copyright gets divorced from the actual people who created the stories in the first place.
So, so very much of our culture is now owned by corporate entities which consider them little more than assets to balance a ledger. To them, canon is only a tool that can be used to enhance one product line at the expense of another. It’s an absurd state of affairs to let someone else’s accountant tell us which stories we are supposed to pay more attention to.
This tragic farce has recently reached a crescendo with the story of L.J. Smith’s Vampire Diaries. L.J. Smith was a writer who hired by a company to do some work-for-hire writing to create a “Interview With a Vampire for Kids” series back in the early 90s. Then when the books blew up huge in the wake of Twilight’s success and they got a TV show, Smith and her publisher started having creative differences. Because it was a work for hire deal, the publisher owned the copyrights, and so they kicked her off of the series and brought in another to finish the series in her place. But then the publisher also cut a deal with Amazon to allow Amazon to sell licensed fanfic of the Vampire Diaries, so Smith started and selling novel-length fanfic of the series she created through Amazon’s Kindle store. Now many of the fans consider her fanfic to be the true continuation series, even though the copyright owners disagree. So which Vampire Diaries books are canon?
Answer: it doesn’t frakking matter. Fans continue to support both lines. Some say they’ll only read the stuff that Smith wrote, others don’t care either way. But the idea that one of the three Vampire Dairies continuities is the “true” one has been thoroughly discredited, and that’s a good thing. The fans will support whichever of the continuities they prefer, either because they have affection for the author, or because they like one more than the other, or maybe some of them will support all of them because they like all of them. That’s how it should be.
We should get rid of the concept of canon entirely, since all it does is give copyright holders (many of whom are immortal, inhuman entities which view us as nothing more than a resource to be exploited) a tool with which to exert control over our culture.
And it is our culture. We’re the ones who care about it, who find meaning in it. We’re the ones that give it life. We should be the ones who decide which parts of our culture we think are the most important. Not some boardroom where rich people decide what kinds of stories get privileged in our spaces. There’s a reason why fanon and headcanon are so popular these days; we’re getting sick of being told which fiction is “true” and which “false.” We’re getting sick of seeing the stories and characters we love being debased, spun off, re-branded, and mutilated.
This latest absurd declaration from Disney about what is and isn’t true in the Star Wars galaxy should be canon’s epitaph. Let it die. Let it all die. And when it’s gone, and we’ve danced around the pyre, let’s build something new in its place. Something better. Something we control.
This post was originally published at Sinister Elegance.
April Daniels is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. She writes optimistic superhero books for YA readers and unspeakably dark fantasy for adults. Her new blog will be World Domination Committee once she’s done fighting with the DNS servers. Follow her on Twitter at @1aprildaniels. Thus she commands, and thus it shall be!