V. In Which The Audience Is Invited To Participate
And now, at long last (I had planned this initially as three essays) we come to the point of the series. Or rather, the points.
A successful metaesthetic formalism is one that is sufficiently consistent to permit the audience to accurately deduce implicit theorems from the explicit information.
A successful metaesthetic formalism has scalar consistency between mechanical, narrative, and thematic elements.
Compliance with those two principles will not guarantee that a work of art will be popular, simply that it will be comprehensive.
I will be discussing the first principle here. (Which means, God help us, that there will be at least one more of these.)
While I’ve stated it rather dryly above, all that the first principle means is that a well structured metaesthetic makes the reader want to go in the backyard with a bedsheet cape, swing on clotheslines, and swing a stick around, fighting invisible goblins.
Metaphorically speaking, of course.
One can play at a genre. There is room outside the frame of the story or stories presented for readers to imagine, “If I were in that world…”
It is a very simple concept and, like most simple concepts, is significantly deeper than it first appears. This is because play is much deeper concept than it initially appears.
Cats play at being ambush hunters, and dogs play at being pack hunters. Horses play at leading stampedes across the open prairie.
Human beings play at solving problems. That’s our default survival action.
It’s easy to daydream yourself into a Western. You’re the town sheriff and you’ve got a tip that a band of outlaws is fixing to rob the Wells Fargo stage when it comes into town to deliver the payroll for the mine outside of town. That’s the problem, and coming up with solutions to it can be an enjoyable waste of time.
What’s more, there is a clear locus of potential solutions, from hiding with a rifle on top of the feed store, to tricking the outlaws into thinking you’ve got a posse of marshalls backing you up, to just striding down the center of the street and mowing them all down in a thunderstorm hail of lead.
Both the problem and the sheaf of potential solutions are intrinsically coded into the metaesthetic of Western. Equally important, which solutions are inappropriate is also inherent. Joining the gang for a split of the profits is an inappropriate solution. Hiding in the jail and letting the outlaws take the cash? Also inappropriate. Giving your gun to the schoolmarm and making her defend the payroll? Epic inappropriate.
The genre provides a bench test environment for thought experiments, or as the title of the series states, a global discriminatory function for theorium sheafs. One can take a real world situation–say, a conflict in your workplace–and imagine it occuring in a Western, or a Horror Movie, or a Romance, to gain different perspectives on the situation. (Pro tip: going with the Romance option may with you being escorted from the property by security.)
The acid test of metaesthetic is whether it is sufficiently robust to allow the inclusion of non-genre elements and still yield genre-compatible outcomes. You can add supernatural horror elements to a Western (Tex Arcana, Jonah Hex), put a Western in outer space (Outland, Firefly) throw an asian warrior into the mix (Red Sun, Shanghai Noon), all without losing the essential “Westernality” of the genre.
The essential nature of Survival Horror is that it is setting-independant. The same story, utilizing the same beats and narrative events, can be set in an artic station, a moonbase, a jungle outpost, or a lonely house on the bleak moors.
So what is it that makes a genre robust? For that matter, what is it that makes a genre a Genre? What goes into the manufacture of a work of fiction that inspires a new shelf at the local bookstore?
In a word, consistency. And that will be the subject of my next (and, please God, last) post in this series.