Neal Stephenson lecture on whether genres matter anymore

Here's a 40-minute talk that Neal Stephenson gave to Gresham College in London last May, discussing the nature of "literary genres" and why these distinctions are melting away. It's a fascinating noodle on a subject close to my heart -- is there such a thing as genres anymore, and is science fiction a genre? Link (via Beyond the Beyond)


  1. Just the other day I was looking for Stephenson vids on Gootube and came up dry. This is great!

  2. In music, genre seems more defined by audience then the style of music. For example, Mutemath went from a christian rock band to a rock band playing the same music, but changing their branding and where they play. How would this relate to literature? My wife’s agent is shopping her upcoming novel as teen fiction, and she is wondering if she needs to make changes to it to shoehorn it into this unanticipated genre. Should she? If so, what changes?

  3. Given his writing style, I was somewhat expecting he would be a more engaging speaker. Regardless it was a really interesting talk.

  4. Genres never really existed in the first place… They are just arbitrary lines drawn on the map.

  5. Does anyone know if there’s a transcript of this available somewhere?

    Listening to it is difficult in my current environs and I’d really like to be able to highlight and underline his insights for my annotating pleasure.

  6. Science fiction is fine as a genre until you start insisting that fantasy should get tacked on. Then it’s just dumb. Atomic robots and fairy princesses just don’t belong together.

    A genre is about how you frame the environment in which the characters do their living, right? If you frame it in an Italian villa, you’re probably in the romance genre. If you frame it in a back alley in Brooklyn, you’re probably in the crime drama genre. And if you frame it on an alien planet or a beeping computerized spaceship or a future techno-centric world, you’re probably in the sci-fi genre.

    Just because people are all about lame mixing of genres these days doesn’t make genres outdated. Even then the genres are still useful for identifying the blend.

    It’s about like saying that heritage doesn’t matter anymore because few people are pure one culture (at least not in the non-european first world).

  7. Speaking as someone who co-created what may be the first published cyborg halfling character, I must proudly disagree with Romulusnr @7. Atomic robots and fairy princesses certainly belong together. If they truly love one another, who is to say that their relationship is wrong?

    I would also ask where Romulusnr would place series such as Death Note, or indeed Stephenson’s own Baroque Cycle. Are these works “just dumb” or a “lame mixing” of genres, or are they fresh, well-crafted, insightful works in their own right, that, as Stephenson says, have intelligence as their baseline.

  8. A genre is about how you frame the environment in which the characters do their living, right?

    Not really. A genre is really a bundle of things. Not just the setting but the characters and their goals (and as a result, the kinds of possible plots) vary from genre to genre. A romance is about two people falling in love — if it doesn’t have two people falling in love, it’s not a romance, no matter where it takes place. The goal the writer has in telling the story also varies — in SF, the point is often to explore how society is changed by some hypothetical technological development or some other adjustment to the underpinnings of the world, which is something you usually won’t find in a straight crime drama. It’s a compare-and-contrast exercise with the real world, a scientific approach. (Hence the original term “scientifiction.”) A secondary goal is broadly didactic — ideally, you should be able to learn something from a SF story.

    I have thought for some time that SF is no longer a genre as much as it is an approach — both to the world and to writing. There is also in fact a true SF genre, a collection of stock characters and tropes and settings that were shaped in SF’s early days, but this has fallen out of favor because it’s dated and limited, and it was from the beginning, although SF fans were so enamored of the new approach that it took them a while to notice the limitations of the genre’s conventions.

    The user interface guru Alan Cooper has pointed out that adding a computer to any non-computer piece of equipment makes the result a computer. (For example, if you add a computer to a camera, the result is a computer that takes pictures, at least in terms of how you are forced to use it.) Similarly, adding the SF approach to any fiction makes the result SF, regardless of what genre it originally was. This is what makes the Baroque Cycle a SF work.

    Such hybrids are beginning to attain mainstream acceptance. SF writers have become steadily more adept at things like characterization since the pulp days, while mainstream writers have seen that they can increase their audience by adding a SF approach to their work (a mystery/SF hybrid gets a big chunk of both the mystery and the SF audiences). At the same time the number of geeks has been increasing, and they have money now, which makes them an audience worth courting. Now writers are pushing things to see just how far their combined audience will let them go. A lot of people who thought they “didn’t like SF” because they didn’t care for the threadbare genre trappings are finding that the approach is engaging in a way they hadn’t expected and are seeking out more. At the same time, SF fans are discovering the joys of large ensemble casts with lots of complex character relations — they’re basically watching soaps, and loving it!

    After a long time wandering in the wilderness, SF is joining the mainstream, and I think we’ll all be a lot richer for it. Those of us who enjoy SF will find that more shows scratch their what-if itch. Those of us who didn’t consider themselves SF fans will find that the what-if adds an extra layer of richness. And TV and movie studios are learning that it’s not necessary to dumb things down to appeal to a mainstream audience. If we’re lucky, this may herald a new golden age of fiction.

  9. Of course genres exist. And always will. But they may go out of fashion for a spell. Still they will always exist. Otherwise how else do you describe a book to somebody other than to say, “Read it.”


    Genres are an entry point — not much more, not much less — to describing a book (or music) to somebody. What are words but classification? And all genres are are a more customized set of and agreed upon set of words to describe books, music, whathaveyou, etc.

    To say genres do not exist is silly. Typically the people against genres and labels are the people who think everybody has the same interests and all the time in the world to get into what they are into… to have the same experience(s)… to have live the same life… to fuck the same people… to something something something…

    This topic makes me insane.

    Okay, now I’ll watch the video.

  10. Samuel Delaney explained the Fantasy-SciFi link in a way that resonated with me. If I may paraphrase: both represent a transition between economic models. With Fantasy it is the transition from a feudal to a capitalist economy which informs the action, while with SciFi, the transition is from a capitalist to a credit economy. In the eddies of such dialectics, we find the most interesting foam.
    That out of the way: boy was it fun hearing someone speak well(I for one was fully engaged) about a subject dear to my heart, though I tend more to the Veg than the Geek. While I have been looking, though not too strenuously, I still haven’t found any Stephenson in my price range, i.e. free at my local library. I do look forward to the day it falls into my lap. Ah well, back to my copy of Tristram Shandy in the meantime. I won’t be suffering too much.

  11. Tristram Shandy? Say Hi to Uncle Toby for me. I just finished Smollett’s epistolary novel, ‘The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.’ Those old guys invented a genre every couple of weeks.

  12. Interesting. We lose distinctive genres because we’re simplifying art into generic entertainment, so injecting themes and forms from any genre produces “unique” products.

  13. I constanatly see his huge sprawling three volume bodice ripper in the science fiction section at bookshops. Some editions even have “science fiction” written on the back for the really slow workers at Borders. Yes, I did plow my way through the whole lot. I even enjoyed some of it. Yes, it is certainly fiction but I strongly dispute that it is any sort of scisnce fiction or even fanatasy. IMO it belongs firmly in the great shelf of general fiction, occupied by everyone from Tom Clancy to Salman Rushdie.

    Robert Silverberg seems to manage to get his fantasy in the fantasy section while keeping his historical, er, fiction and popular science in the appropriate sections.


  14. A few years ago a woman wrote a number of novels set in, of all places, Europe during the Upper Paleolithic. (She shall, for a number of reasons, go unnamed by me.) The books, huge expensive things, were insanely popular among those whose reading tastes usually run to bodice-rippers. She lugged the original manuscript around for years, from one fiction writing workshop to another, soliciting criticism and contacts, especially publishing contacts. What she had was a typical gothic novel, but populated with Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons and set at the foot of a glacier. She had poured an old wine into an older bottle.The series made her very rich, of course, despite being really crap books. I guess you just can’t keep a bad genre down.

  15. #10 posted by Anonymous
    “This topic makes me insane.”

    Then stand clear of Derrida and Foucault. Their rejection of ontology would lead you to a killing spree…

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