Thomas More’s Utopia did not create a genre. As Slavoj Žižek and others have said, it isn’t the foundational text that creates a genre, it’s the imitations, the repetitions, the texts that follow and delineate the boundaries that really create a genre. Does Le Guin’s Omelas conform to a particular genre?
Genre is actually a pretty complicated idea. Let us use the three basic definitions of genre—formula, marketing, and rhetoric—to understand Le Guin’s short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.
This is a transcript from the video series
Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Genre: The Reliance on a Formula
A genre includes formulas or conventions, and if we pick up a work in a stated genre, we know what to expect. If we pick up a mystery novel, for example, we can be pretty confident that we’ll get at least one murder early on, that we’ll follow the investigation and deductions of a detective who is brilliant but perhaps a bit flawed, and that in the end we will learn the identity of the person or persons who committed the dastardly deed.
Within a genre, there are constitutive features, things that a narrative must include to be considered part of the genre, as well as common conventions, features that appear often but not always. So, what are the constitutive features in utopia?
Constitutive Features in Utopia
First, we need a place. Utopia is no place: therefore, a place. It is a place—a no place, to be sure—but it is a location, situated somewhere, likely in the imagination, perhaps in the memory. Early utopias were often set in isolated places on earth—on islands, or behind gated communities. These were isolated places, quite separate from the society where the writer and the reader were living.
A very interesting development happened in the late 19th century. The utopia moved from exploring a society in a different place to exploring a society in a different time.
A utopia has to be located somewhere within the fictional world. Also, a utopia isn’t typically just a person living in the woods by himself. A utopia needs to include a society, a high-functioning society, that probably isn’t perfect but that seeks perfection, and is at least in some ways better than the society of the reader and the writer.
Other Constitutive Features in Utopia
We need a way to see the utopia. One of the most common conventions is the visitor trope, where you have a place, separated in time or space; you have a well-functioning society that you can describe in terms of its philosophies, its politics, its economics; then you have a visitor who acts as a liaison between the reader and the utopian community.
A work of utopia must be aware of its own contradictions. Any literary work of utopia is not strictly earnest. Some utopias are outright satirical, what Tom Moylan, an extremely prolific scholar of utopian studies, calls a critical utopia.
Even the most earnest utopia, what Moylan calls a classical utopia, has a paradox at its center, and it knows it. There is no way to set up a perfect society, so the enterprise is always doomed even from the beginning. Yet, a lot of us think that it’s still a very important enterprise.
Learn more about Thomas More and utopian origins.
The Formula in Le Guin’s Omelas
To what degree does Omelas fit into the genre of utopia? We do have a totally separate society located in a specific place. The narrator tells us specifically that he or she doesn’t want to lay out the philosophies, governing principles, or any of that, but assures us that they exist and that they are excellent. Whatever we think is excellent!
What about the visitor who liaises between the reader and the society? Well, this is told in the second person, which makes the reader the visitor. There is no character who stumbles upon Omelas and goes home to tell his friends about the place. We are the ones visiting the utopian space—in our imaginations.
And, certainly, Omelas is aware of its own paradoxes. So, thinking about genre as formula allows us to see that Omelas does contain some of the main features of utopia, but it also plays with them enough that it creates an original take on an established genre. We might call this—and many scholars have—a postmodern take of utopia.
Marketing: The Practical Application of Genre
If we were to design a bookstore from scratch, we would use genre as a way to organize our products. So, in a bookstore or library, we would have a fairly small utopia section. We might put it near politics, philosophy, maybe even self-help.
Right next to the utopia section would probably be the much larger dystopia section. People interested in a better world are quite probably interested to know what could happen if no one attempts to build a better world. Critics who study utopia need to be conversant in science fiction and in dystopia, and may well want to have a working knowledge of other genres like detective fiction and horror.
When we look at an individual work and think of its genre this way, it leads us to think of other works that might help us to better understand a critical theme or issue. With Omelas, for example, we might look at Le Guin’s other utopian texts in determining that the ending cannot be as dark as suicide.
Learn more about Samuel Butler and utopian technologies.
The Rhetorical Approach to Genre
Carolyn Miller gives this definition: “Genre is typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations.” A genre develops in response to a specific situation, usually a specific problem or anxiety, and for literary works it is usually something that’s in the world. The genre, with its recognizable conventions, is a way of responding to and addressing that anxiety.
Under this framework, utopia and dystopia represent two different rhetorical responses, often to the same social anxiety. Utopia describes a society in which those anxieties have been dealt with.
Dystopia describes a society in which our fears have probably become extreme reality. Whatever is making us anxious in the real world is even more terrifying than we had imagined. Rhetorically, it functions as a cautionary tale: don’t do X, or Y will happen.
A story like Omelas is valuable to utopian and dystopian critics alike because it allows the reader to determine whether it is a utopia or a dystopia. At the same time, it suggests that perhaps these two are not mutually exclusive
Common Questions about Understanding the Genre of Le Guin’s Omelas
The three basic approaches: feature, marketing and rhetoric can help us understand the term genre better.
Tom Moylan uses the term critical utopia for utopias that are outright satirical.
In the late 19th century, the utopia moved from exploring a society in a different place to exploring a society in a different time.