First off, let me apologize for the lateness of this blog entry. I had it written up and ready to post, but I was distracted by watching my beloved Washington Redskins find yet another way to fail in 2013.
Earlier today, a post (since deleted) on the NaNoWriMo Facebook group asked why so many National Novel Writing Month participants write science fiction, fantasy and horror stories rather than “classics” or “literary fiction.” (A similar, but much less hostilely phrased version of that question is still being debated on the group.) As one of the people who will be working in a genre that the original poster maligned, I’m going to get somewhat defensive and perhaps a little bit rant-y about that.
First, nobody in NaNoWriMo is writing classics. After all, it’s all about first drafts and quantity over quality. Word count is king when it comes to Nano’s approach, which is hardly conducive to producing classics. Also, a something can be seen as classic once it has been “judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind,” at least according to the Oxford Dictionary definition. For things that are being written this year, there is no period of time for the work to be judged over.
As for literary fiction, it doesn’t seem to have a definition much different from Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous classification on what is obscene: “I know it when I see it.” From what I can tell literary fiction is fiction that doesn’t fit comfortably into other genres, or is considered to have merit by some nebulous process that eludes me. It seems to be fiction that’s more concerned with character than plot, but I think that’s a shaky classification at best. If you have a more concrete definition, let me now in the comments.
I also object to the idea that fantasy, science fiction and horror stories can’t be considered classics. After all, when a 1997 poll asked the British public to nominate the book of the century, the winner was “The Lord of the Rings,” which I would argue is definitely a literary classic, and is most definitely fantasy fiction.
Second and third place in that same poll belonged to George Orwell, with “1984” just beating “Animal Farm,” and while both are clearly allegorical to an extent, I’d argue that 1984 is definitely science fiction, in that it takes a core idea, “the government knows too much about the citizens” and extrapolates that out into how society will handle such things in the future, which is a core tenet of science fiction. The idea of an omnipresent Big Brother watching over us was such a potent idea that it’s entered the pop cultural lexicon and the prospect of thoughtcrime and newspeak looked ominous and foreboding when the book was first published, but almost prescient now.
Or perhaps you don’t consider Tolkien or Orwell classic enough. Perhaps we should look at the works of a man often branded as the greatest writer in the history of the English language (it’s certainly an arguable case), William Shakespeare. Among his works, we find A Midsummer Night’s Dream with its tales of the King and Queen of the fairies, love potions and magical transformations. This is clearly a work of fantasy. Romantic, comic fantasy but fantasy none the less. The Tempest also has fantastical elements, most notably the “air spirit” Ariel. There are also the witches in Macbeth. Clearly, the Bard of Avon was unafraid of fantastical elements. There’s also a case to be made that Titus Andronicus with its gore and atrocities could be seen as a horror story.
Clearly, genre is no respecter of classic status, so why do we insist on such an arbitrary divide?