IV. Aesthetics And Metaesthetics In Practice
Aesthetics is the study of the formalism of a means of communication–that is to say the relationship between what is being said to how you say it.
Metaesthetics studies the process by which an artist determines and encodes a particular formalism, and how that formalism as a whole is interpreted by the audience.
Genre is a metaesthetic concept. Tropes are metaesthetic. When you are reading a story and you think, “this is going to happen next because that is what always happens in this kind of story,” then you are performing a metaesthetic analysis.
The failure to employ a consistent metaesthetic leaves the audience unsatisfied. The stereotypical “Hollywood Ending” in which the good guys obtain an effortless win in the last few minutes upsets audience not because they don’t like happy endings as such but because the filmmakers changed the aesthetic rules in order to bring it about.
In the same way deconstruction of a particular genre–unless handled globally–usually yields a disappointing product.
Genre fiction is popular with both writers and readers because a genre is a global aesthetic that has been tested by time and repetition. It represents a formula, a recipe. It is possible to improvise on the formula, to add new ingredients, make substitutions and to create an original and compelling work within an old formula. It is also possible to screw up a recipe and come up with something stale or half baked or both.
Experimental Fiction is a phrase that has a bad reputation, largely due to it being applied to experiments that fail, either through lack of skill or a flawed concept. But every recipe had to be tried for the first time. Experiments that succeed tend to garner imitators and thus give rise to a new genre.
John Grisham’s A Time To Kill is not usually considered experimental fiction, for example. But if you examine the novel in the context of its time, it is based on a new interpretation of the murder mystery. Grisham saw that the standard murder mystery ended with the apprehension of the suspect. For a young lawyer that was just when things were getting interesting. “What if,” he wondered, “you opened a novel with the suspect being arrested and wrote about the trial, with the mystery not whodunit, but whatwillhapentohim?”
And now we have bookstore shelves labeled Courtroom Drama. Grisham may not have invented the genre from whole cloth (To Kill A Mockingbird is a clear inspiration) but his concise and skillful execution showed sufficient proof of concept to attract others to the formula. Metaesthetics in action.
Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampire is another example. While that novel may be too slender a reed to support the whole of Urban Fantasy, it was a high profile hit that involved the inversion of the standard Horror genre. “Let’s have the vampire tell his side of the story,” Rice thought, “See how the world looks from his side of the grave.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Raymond Chandler’s body of work was, at the time, shockingly original. Chandler was a combat veteran and rebelled against the neat drawing room mysteries in vogue in his day. Having seen human death wholesale, he want to convey the horror and injustice of taking human life. Philip Marlowe–too passionate to be polite and too experienced to be neat–was the result, and spawned a thousand Hardboiled imitations.
You may disagree with my examples, but the point is that at some point somebody had to deviate from the recipe book and try new combinations of flavors, or we would all still be still writing eddas or vedas.
The construction of a new metaesthetic formalism–or genre, if you prefer–is generally an instinctive process. Authors tend to feel their way into deviating from a standard recipe, making one substitution after another until the new product no longer fits on the old shelf.
And I believe that a clear understanding of how existing genres work is an important part of the creative process. Understanding the rhythms and conventions of several genres work–as an avid reader if nothing else–is critical to being able to construct a new formula.
I do believe that there are certain principles to genre formation. Next I will attempt to figure out what they are.