Monday, November 15, 2010

Fans and Crap

Using Uncanny X-Men and Twilight as a jumping off point, Curt Purcell offers a fascinating theory as to why fans love so much crap. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that crappy storytelling may be better suited to create fans than quality storytelling. He introduces his discussion this way:
X-fans won't thank me for drawing this comparison, but I was reminded [..] of [the] extended, ferocious mockery of the Twilight series [...] There, too, we have something much beloved by legions of fans, that seems to positively invite every nasty thing any hater has to say about it. Twilight actually prompted a lot of head-scratching and even soul-searching among feminist critics who couldn't see past its myriad problems, but nevertheless felt reluctant to dismiss outright something loved so intensely by so many female readers. There was genuine effort to understand what fans got out of it. And no matter what the answer, the question remained--couldn't those fans get that from something better?

Well, maybe not.
Purcell offers a lot of psychology to support his theory, but the core of it is this: when we read or watch something that we like, the existence of crappy elements in it forces us to ignore the crap and focus more attention on the parts we like. That intense refocusing then causes us to invest more heavily in the story than we otherwise would have.

It's extremely interesting to think about. I didn't buy it at first, but the more I try to poke holes in it, the more I think Purcell's on to something. It's true that whenever we're reading or watching a story for the first time, we haven't already made up our minds about whether or not we like it. It's also true that any alert, critical reader or viewer will be turned off by weak, crappy storytelling. It's hard to imagine such a reader's being redirected (even subconsciously) by the sheer existence of crap to a greater emphasis on the good parts.

But it's also true that most hardcore fans are born at a young age; often before they even become teens. They're not reading critically, so Purcell's theory comes into play. And by the time they've achieved the ability to think about things like quality and craft, nostalgia and habit have so taken hold that it's difficult to approach that same story objectively. Purcell's theory activates again, but on a more (though perhaps not fully) conscious level. Now I don't want to see the flaws. Or, as Purcell observes, I see them and rationalize them as being "part of the charm" of the story.

I know this is true in my own experience. As a kid, I was very hard on critics. I didn't think they liked anything. "Movie critics must hate movies," I figured. Why else would they poke holes in perfectly decent films that I liked? I hear the same kind of comments from my teen-aged friends today.

What I also notice today is that I'm not a fan of stuff anymore. Not in the true sense of the word where I'm so in love with something that I'll keep reading or watching it past its expiration date. I still love certain stories, but if I start noticing that they're crap, I'll quit them and move on to something I like more. I've lost the ability to redirect my attention to the good parts, so I've also lost the ability to become a "fan." Fortunately, it's a loss that I'm perfectly happy with.


Kal said...

I think you got it right that at the time young people are no 'critical thinkers'. I remember when I first pulled this comic off the racks. It was the greatest thing ever but that was because of the exciting new characters, the good art and the adventures that accompanied the indroduction of these new characters. When I read it now it's like the nostalgia I have for old black and white Twilight Zone episodes. I also have to admit that I read some crap to this day when I am a much more critical comic consumer. You know I have hated much of what Grant Morrison has done with Batman in the past several years. To others he is a god. So to each his own.

Sleestak said...

Preach it. Yeah, there are things I like but mostly can take it or leave it. Comes with age, I think and the unwillingness to suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoyment.

Elgart said...

Uncanny X-Men is the best! I definitely cant remember the pleasure watching this cartoon stuff when I was a kid.


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