The elements of a genre are, by definition as I see it, conventional, which is another word for arbitrary. The Western genre has conventional settings (the frontier town, the cattle ranch), conventional characters (the town sheriff, the outlaws), conventional events (the quick-draw gun fight, the posse), conventional atmosphere, conventional symbols, and even conventional structures. It’s the same on a larger scale for a freer genre like science fiction. The elements are all characteristic; a reference to any one is seen as a reference to the genre as a whole. They have meaningful interrelations and purposes outside the genre and all that, but a lot of bits are totally arbitrary.

The connection that draws the elements together into a genre is association itself. The genre exists because people think of it as existing. People associate the elements because other people associate the elements, not because of logic or usefulness (though there’s always some). A genre is self-sustaining once it is established. And yet it’s easy to imagine any given genre as containing different elements with different relations to each other, and your imaginary genre can contain just as much historical background and dramatic structure and commercial potential and whatever else you think is important. Try it! (Please!)

I see people all the time thinking of works in terms of genre first and in terms of internal structure second, especially when doing secord-order stuff like violating genre expectation or pulling together elements from different genres. In the commentary track to Serenity, Joss Whedon says this is noir and western—that’s the top-level characterization, and when he was working on details, he thought first about how to make the genres fit; the raw materials are genre elements, not story structure or whatever. At least that’s my interpretation of what he meant.

To me that’s an alien way of thinking. It is treating a secondary phenomenon, a side effect of how social cognition works, as primary, and the primary goal of constructing a work of art that is intellectually and emotionally meaningful as secondary. It’s as though you were to build a building, and you had a whole town full of examples for inspiration. But instead of starting with bricks or boards, you took whole sections of the existing buildings as your blocks: I want the wall from this one, with the windows from that one. It’s important to think in terms of high-level abstractions, but why arbitrary abstractions?

I felt kind of the same way when I took intro philosophy. We learned that philosopher X believed A, B and C, and so on for various thinkers. I thought, OK, A and B are sort of related, I can see why you might want to believe the other if you believe one. But C is logically independent. In an alternate history, X could have believed A, B and not C. So why are we learning this? Isn’t philosophy about the connection of ideas, about what people can believe rather than what they happen to believe?

To take social associations and historical customs as primary is ubiquitous. I must be in a small minority. My way of thinking is also why I don’t celebrate any holidays that I didn’t make up myself. I do believe in language, though, so I’m not fully consistent!

Original version, October 2006.
Updated and added here April 2010.