This talk by Neal Stephenson has been all over the place recently; I think I saw it last at the Pyr blog. I finally watched it and was glad I did, even though I find the video player sort of inconvenient.

I think he says some very shrewd stuff, but some of it is beside the point, because he typically draws examples from visual media where genre has always worked a little differently than in print fiction. The science fiction, fantasy, mystery and general adventure genres were mixing in comic books back in the 40s, during the heyday of what Stephenson calls the Standard Model of mainstream-vs-genre. The Wild Wild West was doing the same thing on TV forty years ago. I think this is the result of the pitch: these visual media require a different category of investment and collaborative effort, which requires some kind of high concept hook for everyone involved to hang their imaginations on. “It’s James Bond… on horseback.” “It’s Wagon Train… to the stars!” “It’s The Fugitive… only he turns big and green sometimes!” “It’s Pigs… IN SPACE!”

In any case, genre mixing was always part of the Standard Model. Asimov, Bester and Garret (among others) could write sf/f detective stories without really blurring the distinction between the sf/f genre(s) and the detective genre, because audience demand sustained larger markets for the purer (i.e. less-mixed) examples of the genres. And none of this changed the status of genre-material vs. non-genre, because audience demand sustained massively larger markets for non-genre (mainstream) fiction than for any particular genre.

NS is on to something with the breakdown of the Standard Model, but I don’t think it’s genre which is disappearing. The mainstream (or mundane, as NS slyly calls it) is being, or has been, genrified–reduced in status to one among many other genres. It’s the center that cannot hold, the mainstream which is breaking apart into tributaries. This enables more crossover and genre-mixing than was previously possible (or at least likely). Theoretically, the ground was laid for this by postmodernism, perhaps, but I’m inclined to think the real answer lies in the change in markets. As mainstream fiction drops in economic importance to the level of a genre market, its status follows; it ceases to be the main stream. Purists might beg to differ, but then they always do–that’s why they exist.

(This may sound like a reductionist argument, part of what Cat Rambo recently scorned as “the worship of the commercial”. Eh. In our society economic importance and social status are linked. A quick look at my bank account leads me to deplore this sad state of affairs, but wishing it were otherwise won’t make it go away.)

Genres exist, I feel, because of audience demand. They result from a significant number of people (or, in less democratic societies, a number of significant people) saying, “I want something brand new that’s just like that older thing. Can you give me that? If you give me that, I’ll give you a cookie.” There will always be someone who wants the cookie (which here represents filthy lucre, or deathless κλέος, or maybe just a cookie).

People can produce cultural work without cookies (or any expectation thereof). I’m not going to say their work doesn’t matter, but it will be preserved only by accident. Audience demand not only prompts the creation of cultural work, it is the single most important element (apart from chance, maybe) in the preservation of a work for future generations. (I think this will be true even in the age of the instantaneous digital copy. What difference does it make that a copy of a book exists if no one ever reads it, if it’s not part of a culture’s life? I’m not saying that unread books should be purged from databanks. But those works are dead until and unless some audience gives them life.)

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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7 Responses to Genreflections

  1. Anonymous says:

    Sorry, I’m still struggling with his claim that The Wild Wild West jumped the shark.

    –Jeff Stehman

    • JE says:

      I doubt Dr. Miguelito Loveless would use a weapon as low-tech and unimaginative as a shark, and if one turned up on the show I’m sure Jim West would have punched it out rather than jumped over it. Then Artemus would have blown it up.

  2. peadarog says:

    If nobody reads a book in a forest does it… I’m struggling here, really struggling.

    I’m not sure I agree with you about the fading of the mainstream. I think it’s becoming a bit broader, that bits of genre are sneaking in at the edges. It might be on the verge of reabsorbing all other genres into itself before breaking apart again.

    You’re right if you’re thinking I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ll never be a Vulcan.

    • JE says:

      It’s all in how you look at it, I guess. The trouble with “mainstream” (like “modern”) is that it doesn’t really describe what it’s purporting to describe; “mundane” would really be better, if it hadn’t been appropriated by a subgenre of sf. Let’s call it Type X. If Type X ceases to be the dominant form of literary exchange (in terms of market share, or status, or some other measure), is it really still the mainstream? If Type X starts absorbing traits from Type Y, is it really Type X anymore? Somehow I doubt this is clarifying my point (to use the term loosely).

      The upshot is that I think NS is right that mainstream and genre are undergoing a change in relative status, but I’m not convinced that this will result in a change of sf from genre to something else.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Considering that bunnies usually experience shadows just as they’re being grabbed by claws, yeah…

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