Friday, 15 April 2011

Shakespeare: fantasy icon

I don't wish to alarm anyone, but I've been thinking. There's a lot of debate around at the moment about literary fiction against genre fiction. So we have the literary critics on one hand cherry picking genre works they like and effectively declassifying them from SF, horror, detective or fantasy story status because they want to. And then we have the proud genre defenders who denounce anything vaguely literary as pretentious.

Time to throw a spanner in the works of both arguments.

I'm not going to say that all SF is good literature. Neither am I going to say that some 'literary' work isn't pretentious. Some SF and other genre work is nothing short of escapist pulp (the production of which gives the biggest genre critics ammunition to shoot down and condemn the entirety of genre fiction as being meaningless rubbish. And it's also safe to say that some literary work is pretentious - especially when it deliberately tries to be obtuse.

It's also more than possible for literary and genre fiction to overlap. And this is true to a surprising degree. I'm not talking about the usual suspects that literary buffoons have 'declassified' from genre status and made acceptable, like 1984 and Brave New World. I'm talking about surprising things. Like the work of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was a great fantasy writer. I can see the literary critics having massive heart-attacks at my statement already (should any ever lower themselves to the level of a mere human being after so many years of being the demi-gods of fine taste in art). But it's true. At the end of the day, he was a fantasy writer, at least to a small degree. I say that considering the context of the times in which he lived. A lot of the things he wrote about we know to be impossible (hey, King Macbeth, there's your old mate's ghost over there, you know, the one you killed...), but they were genuinely held superstitions back then. But then you look at A Midsummer Night's Dream and you realise that he wrote at least an element of fantasy.

It's about fairies, for heaven's sake! You're not telling me that Puck and Oberon, to name just two, aren't creatures of fantasy.

So there we have an argument for both sides just laying down arms and making peace in the issue. The greatest writer of all time wrote what would today be regarded as genre fiction. And frakking good genre fiction at that (argue that point all you want, but we're still discussing Hamlet senior's ghost over 400 years after the play was written - I'd say that alone makes it good genre fiction). At the same time as writing that genre fiction, he was writing literary work that would influence the English language's development like no other single man has ever managed.

I doubt that anyone else will actually spot this (one side's too busy deliberately ignoring any genre elements to their darlings and the other's too busy ignoring the existence of half of the darlings of their enemy). But on the off-chance that someone does, just think about what a pointless debate the whole thing ultimately is when there's such a massive overlap between the two.

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