Further reflections on Genre, or What makes Rowling, Whedon, and Shakespeare Great

The title of this post may seem strange to you. Why would I link J.K. Rowling, Joss Whedon, and William Shakespeare? It is all the Playwright’s fault. Once I asked her (because someone asked me) what makes Shakespeare great? I wasn’t disputing the greatness, I just wondered at the universal acclaim surrounding the name. She gave me a long disquisition on the topic. I’ll summarize it for you:

Reasons Shakespeare is Great:

  1. Timing – the renaissance was a very fruitful time for all the arts in Western Europe.
  2. Number of works and Scope of work: Shakespeare wrote a lot about all kinds of things, both comedy and tragedy, history plays and  fantasy plays, and also poetry.
  3. He was Joss Whedon, that is, he took familiar stories/genres, and  gave them a little twist so that they became something different. That is, both Shakespeare and Whedon play with the boundaries between categories.
  4. He wrote fractals, that is the words, lines, stories, symbols all were interconnected and reflected each other very well so you can take a word or a line and begin to see the whole.

You’ll see that the Playwright put Whedon and Shakespeare together for me. She claimed that their works do similar things — blur category boundaries. Example for Whedon: Firefly. This completely awesome series blurs the boundaries between a Western (y’know with cowboys and gunfights and things) and Science Fiction. The stock characters from Westerns are present – the doc, the courtesan, the loner-fighter-for-justice, the minister, the hired gun, and etc. But they all live in a space ship. The best comedy moment of the series plays with the genre bending. (Wash: That sounds like something out of science fiction. Zoe: We live on a spaceship, dear.)

The other day when discussing genre, I acknowledged that Rowling flies pretty close to the edge of the way I define Fantasy. I posted my thoughts on genre and then went away and thought more about the Potter books. In an aha moment I made a connection between the genre boundaries Rowling negotiates and the genre boundaries that Whedon and Shakespeare also play with. Possibly this is part of why Potter is such a huge success. Rowling has given us something new — in between familiar categories she found and carved out a new space all for herself.

It seems that simple genre categories never work for really good books. Possibly this is the reason — really good writers find a niche between categories all their own and write it up. Then the rest of us sit back and admire what they’ve done, what they’ve seen that we hadn’t been able to see before. We are amazed we didn’t notice this between-space before because it now seems so obvious and familiar. Now we should all go read Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams.



Filed under fiction

2 responses to “Further reflections on Genre, or What makes Rowling, Whedon, and Shakespeare Great

  1. catllauer

    The title of your post does not seem strange to me at all! In fact, I clicked on it because they fit together so well – although, I may click on any blog post with ‘Whedon’.

  2. Joss Whedon = William Shakespeare.

    Firefly = awesome.

    This post = also awesome.

    Still enjoying!

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