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Why Norms Matter

Post #1713 • July 3, 2014, 8:43 AM

Eric S. Raymond posted an essay yesterday entitled Why the deep norms of the science fiction genre matter.

It is not fashionable these days to be so normative about any kind of artistic form, let alone SF. The insistence that we should embrace diversity is constant, even if it means giving up having any standards at all. In a genre like SF where the core traditions include neophilia and openness to possibility, the argument for exclusive definitions and hard boundaries seems especially problematic.

I think it is an argument very much worth making nevertheless. This essay is my stake in the ground, one I intend to refer readers back to when (as sometimes happens) I’m accused of being stuck on an outmoded and narrow conception of the genre. I will argue three propositions: that artistic genres are functionally important, that genre constraints are an aid to creativity and communication rather than a hindrance, and that science fiction has a particular mission which both justifies and requires its genre constraints.

It is in many ways similar to arguments I've made in favor of conventions in the past.

Genre is functional. I’ve already described how genre conventions help artists and audiences communicate. Another obvious way is that genre categories reduce search costs in the market for art by helping artists signal about their production and giving art consumers a language for requesting what they want. This is a benefit to both artists and the audience.

Genre has a more subtle function as well – it assists creativity. Meaning relies on context; the frame defines the picture. Usually, artists do their best work when grappling with and using the constraints of a genre or artistic medium rather than attempting to abolish them. “Back to zero” sounds brave, but tends to produce art that is flabby, self-indulgent, and vacuous.

His conclusion is a bold claim about the core function of science fiction that will remind anyone familiar with it of Greenberg's medium specificity. Go have a read.

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