UKL on the problem of genre classification:

Writing about the death of J.G. Ballard for the New York Times (21 April 09), Bruce Weber spoke to Ballard’s American editor at Norton, Robert Weil. Mr Weil said of Ballard: “His fabulistic style led people to review his work as science fiction. But that’s like calling Brave New World science fiction, or 1984.”

Every time I read this sentence it suggests more parallels:

“But that’s like calling Don Quixote a novel.”

“But that’s like calling The Lord of the Rings a fantasy.”

“But that’s like calling Utopia a utopia… “ – Ursula K. Le Guin

 

I figured I’d drop this here as an addendum to my prior post on dystopia.  Like the definition there, this is one my students and I co-wrote based on my lecture comments on genre characteristics and reading an excerpt from More’s Utopia (Book 2, obviously).  I wanted us to come up with a definition because those online and in lit. terms books were not particularly good (to put it kindly).  However, it could still use some revision.  Also, one of the most useful discussions of the problems of defining utopia is found in the introduction to Lyman Tower Sargent’s British and American Utopian Literature: 1516-1975.

 

Utopia: While the common usage of “utopia” as a perfect place derives from literary utopias, it is a mistake to think that utopias are always the author’s vision of a perfect world.  Some are; many aren’t.  The genre begins with Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), and is originally a kind of fictional travel narrative.  Utopian fiction is probably best defined as works that present a realistic, alternate, and in many ways better society than our own through an account by an objective observer.  This observer describes the society’s political and social structures, usually after returning home from a visit to the utopia.  Because of this need for extensive description, utopian fiction is often more concerned with developing setting than with plot, sometimes leading to the characterization of it as boring or bland.  Because of the alleviation of some of our own societal ills in utopias, it is useful to think of them is as critiques of our own world’s shortcomings and, at times, even satire.

mapofutopia

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  1. […] (sub-)genre uses some of the same conventions as utopias and inverts others [see the next post for our definition of utopia].  Dystopias are set in societies whose customs and laws are described in some detail, and in some […]