Posts Tagged ‘utopia’

A friend recently proposed an interesting exercise in hypothetical course design where one must select a single American novel for each decade of the 20th century to create a teachable arc for the century (and justify said choices).  Given my own interest in genre, I figured I’d adopt/adapt it for utopian/dystopian fiction (dropping the “American” requirement) to see what kind of survey of the genre I might teach (and what works I’d be willing to drop per only having one choice per decade).  The difficult part about conceptualizing this as an actual course is there is no way I would be able to teach this without starting with More’s Utopia and some other relevant earlier texts (Campanella? Bellamy and Morris? Wells? etc.) or doing a bunch of work up front introducing literary utopias via describing those works that lead up to what is really the dystopian turn in the genre that takes place at the beginning of the 20th century.  Not that I couldn’t do the latter, but I’d much  rather have students at least read More to begin.

That problem aside, I’ve still tried to follow a structure that makes sense for how an actual course might play out: works build on previously read works to allow for connections to be made, I begin with shorter texts rather than hitting students with something big and hard to start, and finish with less time-intensive texts so that students in the midst of final papers and finals prep would hopefully still make time for them.

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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