Happy Birthday Bill!

Today, April 23rd, is a day of utmost importance to the nation of England. No, not Saint George’s Day – everyone knows he was Turkish[i] – I’m talking about Shakespeare’s birthday[ii].

I think I can say, without much fear of contradiction, that William Shakespeare isEngland’s greatest literary figure. The volume and quality of plays and sonnets he produced is quite staggering, and I think there’s no doubt that, were he alive and writing today, he would be the toast of the literary world.

Or would he?

I can’t help thinking that, in a world in which novels with the taint of science fiction or fantasy about them are so routinely dismissed as worthless or, at the very least, childish, a writer with such a keen eye for the fantastic might find the literati of the 21st century rather less enamoured of his work than might be expected.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an extract from the New York Times on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians:

“Fantasy novels involve magic and are a little bit like magic themselves. To work, they require of readers a willingness to be fooled, to be gulled into a world of walking trees and talking lions. They affect us most powerfully as teenagers, but then most of us move on to sterner, staider stuff . . . Perhaps a fantasy novel meant for adults can’t help being a strange mess of effects. It’s similar to inviting everyone to a rave for your 40th-birthday party. Sounds like fun, but aren’t we a little old for this?”

How would the New York Times react, I wonder, to a play in which the motivation to launch a coup comes from a prophecy voiced by a trio of witches? Or the very serious matter of regicide is prompted by a couple of encounters with a ghost? Or a play half-populated by . . . oh, how juvenile . . . fairies, in which one character quite literally makes an ass of himself?

Yes, I know: I’ve cherry-picked the review above – but that’s not because it’s the only example of ‘literature’ looking down on ‘fantastika’, it’s because I’m trying to finish this post while it still is Shakespeare’s birthday, and I don’t have time to trawl the net looking for quotable items. But we’ve all seen these sorts of snide comments and we all know how unfair they are. What I’m trying to do – apart from score a few cheap points against the Establishment – is to point out the fundamental unfairness in how modern SF & fantasy is judged.

Shakespeare is (rightly) revered as one of the English-speaking world’s greatest literary figures – perhaps its greatest – and he had no trouble whatsoever taking elements of the fantastic and putting them to use in a serious and considered fashion. If I might be allowed a wish, to go along with Will blowing out the 448 candles on his birthday cake, it is this:

I wish that one day, not too far away, the world of ‘serious’ literature gets around to assessing science fiction and fantasy with the intellectual honesty we deserve. The power of the fantastic to examine the real world is unparalleled. We can scrutinize the most intractable conflicts on Earth by setting them on another world or in a fantasy kingdom and make a real attempt to understand both sides without having to tiptoe around entrenched positions or the restrictions of Realpolitik. And we can tell a damn good story while we’re doing it – just like Shakespeare, we recognise that ‘entertainment’ isn’t a dirty word.

So, let’s raise a glass to the Bard, and thank him for showing us how make serious and relevant points about the world we live in, while never letting up on the intrigue, chases, sword fights, love scenes, magic, prophecy, insults, comedy, tragedy and just sheer good fun.

Cheers, Bill – we owe you!

[i] Or Palestinian. Or Roman. Or … look, the thing is, he wasn’t English. Let’s move on.

[ii] OK, so actually, it’s the day he died (23rd April, 1616), but since we know he was baptised on the 26th April, it’s also not a bad guess for his birthday. Man, you guys are picky . . .