The canon is the set of answers and clues which can be reasonably be expected to come up again at quizbowl events of a given level in the future based on repeatedly coming in the past. It comprises much but not all of what one will hear in a given quizbowl packet. Being able to ask about an entirely new (and thus, non-canonical) topic in a way that does not compromise the accessibility of a question is a valuable skill for a writer and leads to some of the most well-received individual questions.
Canon expansion refers to the process of getting a subject into the canon by repeatedly mentioning it in packets.
Even within the circle of competent writers, there is much disagreement about what constitutes the canon and how much role canonicity should play in determining the difficulty of an answer. For example, an extremely canonical topic such as the works of William Dean Howells will be easy for any experienced player to answer, but may in fact be too difficult even for a fairly well-read person who is entirely new to quizbowl. Matt Weiner is a notable advocate of disregarding the canon as a formal means of evaluating accessibility in general-participation tournaments, and relying on actual predicted conversion rates as the sole criterion for selecting answers (while still recognizing a very high degree of crossover between canonical answers and accessible answers as the de facto reality). Ryan Westbrook and Jerry Vinokurov are among those who are more inclined to write based on what is canonical alone.
Important facts about the canon:
- The canon shifts along with "good quizbowl" practices as question-writing practices change over time. One example is the shift to exclude inane clues and non-real topics. Knowing who won various Nobel Prizes or what the professions of the fathers of famous people were used to be highly canonical in 1990s-era quizbowl; now, those clues are all but extinct, and thus are not canonical.
- Subjects which are perfectly askable in "good quizbowl" drift in and out of the canon for other reasons or no reason. For example Ole Rolvaag used to be a staple of literature questions, but rarely is asked anymore. There was no particular agenda to drive Ole Rolvaag out of quizbowl; rather, it was simply an accident that no one wrote about him for some time.
- There is some question as to the degree of a canon for trash, current events, general knowledge, or geography, in part due to the relatively large potential answer spaces (which may also shift more often in the case of current events) for each of those categories.
- The canon generally expands at higher levels of difficulty in quizbowl. For instance, there may be only a small handful of composers in the middle school quizbowl canon while at the ACF Nationals level the number of canonical composers players should be familiar with is much larger.
- Finding non-canonical clues on canonical answers is the usual way to write easy questions in "good quizbowl".
- Becoming familiar with the canon is the best way to become a competent player; being able to predict and learn about the non-canonical answers that are on the cusp of being asked about (in part by reading harder packets but also by recognizing various trends in quizbowl writing) is one way to become a great player.