The economics of fiction

No, nothing to do with bailouts or closed banks; this video is seven minutes of discussion between two economists, Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson, on the economic value of fiction:

If you’re not too familiar with the language of economic academia (it’s a little opaque, to say the least), Bill Benzon’s summary of their points might be helpful:

It’s about signaling (a term of art in economics). Your preferences in fiction, and the way you articulate those preferences, signal your attitudes, values, and ideas to others. Fiction is a way of “getting people in touch with each other.”

The point is also raised that fiction can in some cases have intrinsic cognitive value as well, but the central idea – that your taste in fiction is an external signal about the sort of person you are – is an interesting one, especially for fans of genre fiction like ourselves. The obvious (and over-simple) response would be a kind of “fans are Slans” argument… but that would be to fail at being properly objective about the whole thing, to ignore the need for a proper examination of what makes genre fiction different to ‘straight’ fiction (which I suspect is, in many respects, a much smaller difference than it may seem from this side of the fence).

But what is it about science fiction that has made it such a socially cohesive artform by comparison to, say, romance novels? Is this simply a function of its minority status in the larger field of literature, or is it something to do with the riffs it tends to repeat, and the way those riffs resonate with readers? Or is it a separate (but related) part of the mindset that science fiction just happens to appeal to?

3 thoughts on “The economics of fiction”

  1. I think also the intelligence level of people who read romance novels varies more widely than those who read sci-fi books, which changes up the demographics, to put it nicely.

  2. Hi Paul, love Futurismic and have been following for a while. I’m intrigued by your assumption that, as a genre, science fiction is more socially cohesive than romance novels. There seems little basis for this (and, for that matter, Screen Sleuth’s claim that the intelligence level of romance readers varies more widely). In my experience, the romance genre is one of the more socially cohesive genres out there and would easily rival SF on that score. Is there some research you’re aware of? Because if we’re purely observing that fans are well-organised and build vibrant communities, both in person and online, there’s plenty of evidence of that in both romance and SF.

    Keep up the great posts. Thanks!


  3. I’ll be quite honest, Kate – it was an entirely unresearched assumption on my part, and I apologise for any unintended slight it may have caused. I was unaware of there being an active fandom around romance literature.

    Actually, if I’d thought about it, I should have guessed – and for exactly the reasons the two economists mention in the video! Thanks for stepping in and bringing me up on that; genres aren’t so different once you get beyond the fences and look in from the outside. 🙂

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