by Stephanie Pickrell
As a writer and an English major, the word “canon” is my biggest pet peeve. Not the kind of canon that determines which books are considered among the “great works” of a genre (although who decided that, anyway?), but the kind found most often in fanfiction forums. It’s a relatively new word, born out of a need for some kind of distinction between author-created content and fan-generated fiction. A generally useful term, one might think, but my annoyance with it stems from how vague it is. Nobody seems to have the same definition for “canon,” and everyone uses it in different ways. Even among the fanfiction writers I know, I can hardly find an agreed-upon definition of the word.
But the main problem with this definition, of course, is that none of the events or characters of canonical or non-canonical works are real, strictly speaking, because all of it is fiction.
So, what is canon? As it is generally used, canon is used to distinguish the line between an original work of fiction and anything that draws direct inspiration from its world, characters, or storyline. The word designates that everything in the original work is genuine, and that anything written in imitation is not. The events and characters of the canonical work are real, while the events and characters of the non-canonical work are not. This isn’t a perfect definition. Among other things, it doesn’t account for canon fanfiction, which are fan-made works that try to remain as faithful to the original work as possible. But the main problem with this definition, of course, is that none of the events or characters of canonical or non-canonical works are real, strictly speaking, because all of it is fiction.
The question of whether an author’s word should be canon complicates things further. On one side of the spectrum, there’s Philip Pullman, who refuses to say anything about his books on the grounds that the meaning of a story arises between the words on a page and a reader’s mind—not from what the author may have intended. And on the other side, there’s J. K. Rowling, whose attempts to add new information to Harry Potter post-publication have become the source for several internet memes. These memes, despite their tendency to take things to the extreme, actually pinpoint one of the underlying issues in the search for the definition of canon: how much power does the author actually have over their story?
The concept of intellectual property actually has a lot in common with the ever-elusive idea of canon. For one, they both try to determine how much ownership an author has of a work.
In trying to pin down the true meaning—and importance—of canon, let’s turn first to copyright law. Maybe it doesn’t seem like an obvious place to start, but the concept of intellectual property actually has a lot in common with the ever-elusive idea of canon. For one, they both try to determine how much ownership an author has of a work. In copyright law, that usually takes the form of monetary compensation, while canon deals with the much more ambiguous form of truth. For another, despite its very real consequences if it’s violated, copyright law, like canon, tries to impose a hard line on something that is naturally impossible to logically categorize: creativity. And, in both cases, that line sometimes seems arbitrary.
Take The Great Gatsby, for example. With much fanfare, Jay Gatsby entered the public domain this January, a full 95 years after he was published into existence. In 1925, at the time of his publication, works in the U.S. could be registered under copyright for a maximum of 56 years, after which time the work would be released into the public domain. The increase of copyright length from 56 to 95 years was fueled by none other than Disney, who did all the congressional lobbying they could to repeatedly delay the copyright expiration of a certain mouse originally created in 1928. Thus, while The Great Gatsby would have originally entered public domain in 1982, the novel enters it instead in 2021, promptly greeted by a new tv series, an animated film, and scores of theatre nerds claiming to be writing the perfect stage adaptation where Nick and Jay Gatsby finally discover their love for each other. Disney’s repeated lobbying has created some strange limbo states for other works too. For example, most of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (including the character of Mr. Holmes himself) are in the public domain, yet the few published after 1925 are still vigorously defended by the Conan Doyle estate.
Copyright law, despite stirring up young creators’ fears of being sued, is a largely arbitrary distinction. It’s a constructed limit that determines what we get to legally create. It’s a relatively new concept, too, if you look far back to the days when the most common method of story transmission was oral storytelling. A story couldn’t be claimed by its teller for very long then, because it belonged to everyone who heard it, and to whoever retold it. In Shakespeare’s time, playwrights would regularly “adapt” each other’s plays for their own acting troupes, sometimes using underhanded methods to get at the script. Miguel de Cervantes satirized fanfiction of Don Quixote in his own sequel. Outright copying would, of course, never be tolerated under our modern understanding of intellectual property. We need only look to Disney’s possessiveness—which makes sure we can’t own the stories and the characters that have become, for better or worse, an integral part of American culture—to imagine what would result.
If copyright is an arbitrary line drawn around stories, I’m inclined to think that the concept of canon is something similar. But while copyright expires eventually (unless you’re Peter Pan), the idea of canon and originality still persists, no matter how old a work is.
We have created our own canon, based on the evolution of the tale over the centuries to form a story that we treat as true and original, despite the fact that the story wasn’t written by just one person.
I first realized the connection when I started studying fairy tales, of all things. For example, if you search Google for the author of “Little Red Riding Hood,” the search results will tell you with certainty that the story was written by Charles Perrault in the 17th century. However, the actual answer is much more complicated. Perrault is responsible for the earliest known written version of the story, but the now-familiar ending in which the hunter chops open the wolf with an axe was actually an addition by the Grimm brothers over a century later. And Perrault himself can’t be credited with the creation of the story, as evidence from the French countryside suggests versions of the story already existed before Perrault put pen to paper. In fact, versions of the story without the iconic red headwear exist all over the world, known under other names such as “Grand-Aunt Tiger” and “The Wolf and The Kids.” And let’s not forget, of course, that the iconic riding hood is an English feature, swapped for Perrault’s little cap and kept in the story long after riding hoods fell out of style.
Despite the apparent universality of little girls being eaten by large predatory mammals posing as family members, people are still trying to find out the origins of the story, going so far as to use mapping software to attempt to find its source. And while that hunt can be interesting to a certain extent, it is a futile pursuit, since most of us know that we’re never going to actually find the source. We will never find the original “canon” of Little Red. And that’s all right, because we don’t need to. We have created our own canon, based on the evolution of the tale over the centuries to form a story that we treat as true and original, despite the fact that the story wasn’t written by just one person. The story of “Little Red Riding Hood” that you find in a children’s book today is a collaborative effort that took place over centuries and across countries, and its “originality” isn’t owned by Charles Perrault, or anyone else.
Instead of trying to put a copyright-like line between official and the other, let’s think of canon, instead, like a fairy tale. There isn’t a solid map of any fairy tale, but we still never question that they are as real as fictional stories can be.
Returning to canon’s usage in fanfiction—its original home—it might be helpful to look at a Young Adult novel that revolutionized fanfiction itself. Fangirl (2013) by Rainbow Rowell is about Cath, a freshman college student and an avid fanfiction writer who, among other things, struggles to explain how important writing fanfiction is to her in the face of the sideways looks she gets from her friends and even her creative writing professor. Cath obsesses over fictional Simon Snow, a Harry-Potter-esque wizard who attends—you guessed it—a magical school. While Fangirl is something of a milestone for accepting fanfiction as a form of writing and self-expression (and not just something to be denounced because it’s popular among teenage girls), the true innovation comes after Fangirl, when Rowell published Carry On (2015), which has the same name as the fictional fanfiction novel Cath wrote in Fangirl. Despite sharing the name, Rowell has been clear in saying that the real-world Carry On is not the novel Cath wrote, and is not supposed to accurately represent either Cath’s writings or the series she loved.
What I find most interesting is how Rowell responds to the question of whether Carry On is canon or fan fiction. She says, “Even though I’m writing a book that was inspired by fictional fanfiction of a fictional series . . . I think what I’m writing now is canon.”
It’s a confusing statement if you’re still working with a definition of canon as the difference between the “real” fictional events and the made-up ones. Especially because the events of Rowell’s books are not logically reconcilable. However, instead of trying to put a copyright-like line between official and the other, let’s think of canon, instead, like a fairy tale. There isn’t a solid map of any fairy tale, we may never know from where or who they come from, but we still never question that they are as real as fictional stories can be. Rowell uses a similar meaning of canon here. She uses canon to assert that her story is true, in a way that is beyond questions of “what really happened.”
So, in conclusion, “canon” is truth, but it also doesn’t have to be true all the time.
After all, fanfiction has always been more about “what could have happened” than “what really happened.” Consider the countless pages of Harry and Draco romances on the internet, enough to have created a mini-canon of their own. Or that the White Witch of Narnia from the book has black hair and a gold crown, but in the film she is blonde, and has remained pale as ice from head to toe ever since. Or headcanons—those canons so small they fit inside only your head, yet they too, are still a type of canon (I firmly believe that Liesel and Max from The Book Thief get married and no one can convince me otherwise).
So, in conclusion, “canon” is truth, but it also doesn’t have to be true all the time. It describes real fictional events, but those events can contradict each other and don’t have to exist in the same space. It designates what everyone believes, but also what no one individual wrote. It articulates the possibilities of a fictional story and sets its boundaries, without actually preventing anyone from stepping outside of them. It’s a great soup of realness and fiction from which one can always draw with a ladle of creativity. And although the word still annoys me when people use it without knowing its power, I think it’s a beautiful thing.