Neal Stephenson on the decline of genre

Thanks to @dbschlosser’s link on twitter last week, I listened to Neal Stephensons’s lecture on the decline of genre. As a writer of what can variously be called speculative fiction and good books, his primary interest is in the fate of the genre and community he’s been associated with. Though I agree with the thesis that genre as we know it is in decline, I have some different perspectives on the nature and causes of the change.

Stephenson sees speculative fiction as fundamentally about intelligence – books and movies about smart people; and about exploring the impact of ideas. The genre has become increasingly mainstream, since it is increasingly cool to be a geek, an intelligent person with an informed passion. Stephenson makes it a point to describe intelligence outside of the framework of social class, of going to a brand-name school, of the signs of high culture; an informed passion for machine shop metal work is also geekery and good.

But there are some key aspects of the transformation of genre that Stephenson doesn’t address. The primary transformation over the last 10-15 years is in distribution, in marketing, and in the creation of publics and communities to engage with art. The existence of a broad “mainstream” and identified “genres” was related to older techniques of marketing and distribution. Powerful, expensive mass marketing was used to promote the biggest hits. More targeted marketing was used to reach narrower but still broad demographic categories of buyers. And, of course, physical distribution in bookstores meant that books needed to be shelved in one place, grouped with other books that people in the audience category would be likely to buy.

Given the limitations of mass media and the more targeted niches of mass media, the categories of audience were broadly demographic. Mainstream movies have tended to be segmented by gender, there are “chick flicks” about relationships targeted at women and “action films” about violence targeted at men. Music in the US was segmented in an invidious fashion by race, with white and black radio stations, and the categorization of similar musicians into differing genre shelves based on melanin. The emergence of internet distribution and the “long tail” means that the formerly cartoon-broad marketing categories are no longer applicable, and the allocation of physical shelf space is no longer relevant. People are free to describe content outside of marketing categories, and to organize themselves in groups that may or may not bear a resemblance to the groupings created by marketing departments.

Around culture in general, and speculative genres especially, fans have an easier time finding each other, creating large and active communities around Harry Potter, the Lost tv series, and much more. There have always been associations of fans; the internet makes it much easier for like-minded fans to find each other and the bond around fictional worlds and other art.

In Stephenson’s talk, he takes a few swipes at the “postmodern” schools of cultural theory, where critics call into question the ability of artists to control their material; related disciplines examined that lack of control with the lenses of gender and politics. Now, postmodern critics can swim slowly in a small barrel. I went to college at one of the hotbeds of postmodernism. It was rather common for grad student teaching assistants and undergrads flaunting scarves and cigarettes to claim that the text deconstructs itself, therefore imply strongly they were smarter than shakespeare. This was annoying. I avoided really engaging with the ideas until my senior year and then after I graduated. The extreme views of the junior disciples notwithstanding, the postmodernists and their economic and political cousins had some valid points.

Stephenson talks about the disappearance of the Western as a genre; the simplest explanation is the decline of social confidence in the “cowboy and indian” narrative. Fewer people were sympathetic to stories about heroic european people fighting native americans. Cultural criticism would identify the pattern. Stephenson makes a really insightful point about crime getting absorbed into television because of the good fit of detective stories to episodic structure. He makes a much less compelling point, I think, about romance being absorbed into everything – there’s still a big divide between chick flicks and action flicks – though I can’t talk about this in huge detail because those are the mainstream hollywood movies that I don’t go to, in part because of lack of identification with either broad gender stereotype. So, another argument explaining why sci-fi themes have broad appeal is that they operated outside the narrow confines of hollywood gender stereotypes.

Stephenson makes fun of the post-modernists, saying that it’s ridiculous to think that, say, Heinlein was not in full control of his material. But Heinlein is notorious as an old-fashioned pre-feminist whose female characters and gender relationships reflected stereotypes. The classical writers of science fiction, who wrote about colonists exploring other planets and experiencing tensions with the beings they found; world-threatening conflicts; male heroes with buxom heroines; in a world with the cold war, colonialism, and sexism, were tightly bound to social structures they could not clearly see. The postmodernists had some valid points.

So, I think that changes in technology, economics and social structure have at least as much to do with the decline of genres as they were constructed 50 years ago.

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