Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Should SFF Classics Be Required Reading?

There have been some recent Twitter discussions about whether classic SFF novels are important and if they should be required reading for someone who wants to get into speculative fiction. Does reading the classics make you a better fan? I have some thoughts on the importance of speculative fiction classics and a Twitter thread just wasn’t enough space…

Think of SFF as a house. You stumble upon this beautiful futuristic looking building, it looks interesting and at your approach the door slides open with a welcoming chime. You enter the building and discover limitless corridors lined with colourful doors. Each door leads to a different room and every room is furnished in their own unique way. Some offer dark delights, some have futuristic starscapes and others open onto magical landscapes. They are all there for you to explore to your heart’s content.

Where two corridors meet you find a plain wooden door with a tarnished plaque etched with one word - basement. Wooden stairs lead down into a dim interior illuminated with a single flickering light bulb. If you are interested you can go investigate down there and poke around the storage boxes, check the wiring and pipes and inspect the foundations. They are important, they hold things up, and they are the foundational base the structure rests on. But you are not required to go into the basement. You don’t need to delve through the dust and dirt. You can just run around the beautiful, airy rooms and discover the untold wonders they each hold. Without ever having set foot in the basement you can be perfectly content.

Inspired by what you see you can go on to add a second storey to the building. A story filled with wonders of your own making. Something a little shinier, more modern and perhaps even a little better than what came before. The basement will always be there. Once you are ready, when it calls to you and the time is right you can go explore that old basement too.

Among the dust and grime you’ll discover wonders tucked away in dark corners. You’ll find boxes filled with interesting things to examine and poke. Things that can fuel your sense of wonder, things to show just how far the world has come, things to give newfound context, to inspire and to be refurbished into something brand new. There will be things that still hold up well while others have crumbled away into moldy piles. But be warned to get to the treasures you are bound to have to wade through dusty cobwebs, face scary spiders and you might even uncover a skeleton or two…

With that overly long metaphor (which I’m kinda proud of) out of the way I think it boils down to the following. Do the classics matter? Yes and no. Having to read the classics should never have to be a requirement for entering SFF fandom. There shouldn’t be any gatekeepers with checklists quizzing newcomers about some obscure knowledge that signifies your bona fides as a ‘true fan’ . There are so many fantastic science fiction, fantasy and horror books being released each year that readers can be perfectly content without ever having to resort to reading the classics.

Does this mean the classics are obsolete? Definitely not. The classics are the foundations of the genre. While many classics are problematic when measured against modern norms they can offer useful historic context. Some classics have stood the test of time and still offer that same sense of wonder and cultural relevance as the day they were published. But there’s often a disconnect between modern readers and older material. Trying to force someone new to the genre to read something just because it is a classic and you HAVE to read it, is a surefire way to quickly douse any spark of curiosity they might have had.

A reader will know when they are ready to go explore the classics if they want to. There should never be a sense of obligation to read anything. Familiarity with the classics doesn’t make you a superior SFF fan. There aren’t any entry exams and you won’t be ranked on any leaderboards. Discover what you love. Read widely, read what makes you happy and most importantly have fun.

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What do you think? Should the classics be required reading?

3 comments:

  1. No one can read everything, and that's been the case since shortly after the Golden Age ended. I say read what you like, and there is no necessity to look back unless you plan on being a genre historian, or if someone whose opinion you trust suggests something.

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  2. This is a good metaphor/philosophy for 'classic' anything. Non-genre literature? Film? Comics? It works for all of them!

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