Quality vs. popularity in fiction by summerfling

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Title: Quality vs. popularity in fiction by summerfling
Creator: by summerfling, posted by paradise city?
Date(s): March 19, 2006
Medium: online
Fandom: Stargate Atlantis
External Links: Quality vs. popularity in fiction by summerfling (now offline), archive link; another archive link; WebCite
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Quality vs. popularity in fiction by summerfling is a 2006 post and resulting discussion at The Cutting Board.

It generated much discussion within its 132 comments.

Topics Discussed

Excerpt from Opening Post

Quality and popularity are two separate concepts that, in theory, are complementary. In practice, however, they are often intimately entwined and certainly play an important role in what gets read, watched, listened to, etc. That the same mechanism is at work in fandom and fan fiction is not surprising, though perhaps, with the independent community nature of fandom as opposed to professional published fiction, it should be.

What follows is a discussion on quality vs. popularity in SGA fan fiction, with the purpose of exploring the structural dynamics of fandom and the social norms and mores that contribute to those dynamics.

Fiction and its attendant trappings in the SGA fandom can be very frustrating, in that I've noticed the same authors get recced and acclaimed repeatedly, regardless of the quality of their work. There have been multiple instances where I've read a fic whose quality struck me as notably out of proportion to the amount of glowing feedback it received and I needed only to double check the author's name for the proportions to make sense. Perhaps belatedly, I've come to realize that being a well-known author in other fandoms takes one far in this fandom.

Of course, this isn't unique to the SGA fandom, but it is happening more often here than I've seen in other fandoms. This could be a function of the little black dress nature of the fandom as a whole: perhaps, as SGA is drawing many popular authors from other fandoms together, these effects are being multiplied to noticeable levels.
Of course, this is the same lament seen in many other fandoms likely since the dawn of fandom. I had, however, anticipated SGA being different because of the aforementioned little black dress nature of the fandom as a whole. With many authors being brought in from many other fandoms, I had expected there to be more open and experimental air in terms of reading new authors. That doesn't seem to have happened and I'm not entirely sure why that is.

Excerpts from Comments

[wickedwords]: Instead of going with 'quality' vs. 'popular', I'm going to bring up that most of what is widely-recced in SGA is what I'd call the 'chick lit' genre: smart, witty, and light, where the focus is on romance. They also tend to be longer stories, starting at around 8K-12K words, and moving into novella length, so that the reader has an opportunity to really absorb the author's world.

Both crack!fic (meaning that the story starts with an outrageous premise) and canon!fic (meaning that the premise of the story can be derived in canon) can be written using this style, and both sources end up with a rather breezy, consumable story that's emotionally satisfying.

In contrast to the chick lit story, there's the melodrama, which is typified by plots that appeal to the heightened emotions of the audience. These stories are long -- epic level long -- and tend to tell more emotion than the easy, breezy chick lit stories do. There is much less light-hearted dialog and much more internalization; whereas the chick lit stories are archly self-aware, the melodramas are determinedly naive.

The interesting thing to me is that in this fandom is that the melodramas aren't being recced as much as I'm used to. Usually half the stories are melodramas on any given rec page, and it takes some time to search out reccers with a different taste.
[z rayne ]: I would venture to say, too, that "quality" is a tremendously subjective thing. What you see as quality fic, I may think is garbage, and vice versa.
[sweetvalleyslut]: I think the major reason people read (and rec) well-known authors more often is simply because they are known. There are dozens of new SGA stories posted every day (and still a lot in any given major pairing), and for my part, I just don't read the ones that are by unfamiliar authors; I don't have the time or the patience to wade through them all. I'm happy about this post simply because I'm hoping people will mention good, unappreciated stories in the comments, so that I can get a chance to read them.... I know many of the authors in SGA from other fandoms, and I knew of them because they're so widely recced in those other fandoms. I know that they will pretty much always deliver the goods--even if the story premise sounds insane, I know their writing is good, and their betas are good, so even if they were having an off day, there probably will not be too many errors in their stories.
[the lana]: But, if people only read the "name" stories, recommend the best of them, again breed a group of people who read only the name stories and therefore of course rec only that, isn't there a danger that the whole thing gets too incestuous?

Don't get me wrong, I don't fault people for doing it, but the idea is kind of, I don't know, diversity? Like have some reccers of the first style and some reccers of the second style?

I realize that fandom, especially once it reaches a certain size is more like a buffet where everybody takes what they want rather than any sort of nuturing environment, still, the fear of always the same rears its head. Grin, but I guess the solution for that would be more reccers with a specific eye for new stuff and diversity ;D
[cathexsys]: I am having trouble beginning with your first claim: quality and popularity are *not* complementary for most of literature. In fact, if you look at many, if not most of the texts that are considered "quality" (and I'll get to the attempt to establish objective aesthetic criteria in a second), you'll find that over the centuries they were, indeed, popular in their time (see Shakespeare and Dickens as two of the more extreme examples)....

What makes this even harder is that fanfiction, unlike capital L literature, is--as far as I'm concerned--about more than just good writing. I read stories that satisfy certain kinks for me (plot, style, characterization, sex, etc.) and yes, fanfic is deeply tied in to the community that creates it (i.e., I'm not sure if you've ever read fanfic out of context, but it's an interesting and slightly disorienting experience).

Which is a long way to say what several others pointed out: you claim that the good fic is not necessarily the popular and vice versa, but who's to say that to me the fic that is popular *isn't* good??? And how do we decide what is good and what isn't? Can we objectively establish criteria? I may like the slick, restrained, no descriptions of thoughts and emotions style...or I may like the overwritten, overemotive, ten pages for three thoughts style...or something else entirely.
[executrix]: Even if it weren't a case of Regression Toward the Mean Girls, the incidence of repeated recs would probably be a case of Regression Toward the Mean anyway. Because once a fandom and its base of stories gets big enough that it's difficult or impossible to read everything, one of the main factors in selecting the things that *can* be read in limited time is a) a BNF wrote it and/or b) a BNF recced it. Pretty soon there are even too many recs sites to keep up. So many newbies, and even a lot of experienced fans, will gravitate toward the popular critical apparatus. If they see something they like, they may rec it on their own sites or their own LJs, and it may be picked up by their friends. Naturally there are plenty of stories that Fan A would really like--if she ever found them in the obscure corners where they lurk--but if she doesn't know that the story exists, of course she won't even read it, much less rec it, so the memetic propagation favors the already-popular.
[milleflore]: I'm still stuck on the fact that for the most part BNFs become BNFs because people like their writing. I think this is an important point. I can only speak for myself, but there are certain things I look for in fanfic, and when I find writers and reccers who seem to be on the same wavelength I generally stick close. Reading the replies here got me comparing two writers I've read. One is a BNF and one isn't. I think they both have a major, consistent flaw in their writing (by that I mean that almost every one of their stories [that I've read] have the same flaw). The difference is that the BNF's flaw is one that annoys me, but doesn't really keep me from enjoying the stories. The other writer's flaw is one that gets *right* up my nose, and prevents me from wholeheartedly enjoying her writing. I think it's totally a matter of personal taste, but there must be a significant number of people who share my personal taste, at least to some extent, given the relative popularity/number of recs garnered by the two writers.
[milleflore]: I've been thinking about this since I posted my comment and I realized why I'm interpreting the "flaws" differently. And I'm going to bite the bullet and name names (since the chances are good that neither of them give a shit what *I* think!).

The BNF is Astolat, and most of her stories in this fandom (I think I've read them all) just really *work* for me. The problem happens at the end--the story will be going along really great and then ends at what is for me an unsatisfying stopping point. I can't say that this happens in all her stories, but it's happened often enough that I started to notice (and it takes me forever to notice things like that, so I think it's a trend).

The non-BNF is Mousewitchy, and I've only read two of her stories, so it's entirely possible that I've got the wrong idea about her writing. It's just that in the stories I read the emotions seem oversimplified, everything is very black and white, and if the good guys do it it's automatically right. (FWIW this is IMO a consistent flaw in canon, too.) I think that can make for a very satisfying read if one is in the mood for it, but the older I get the less I like it.

{{Quotation|[thepouncer]: See, this is interesting to me, because neither Shallot nor Speranza have written SGA stories that work for me. Transcendental made me actively angry, and I've only enjoyed a couple of Shallot's subsequent SGA stories (most notably the mail order bride one). Her take on the characters is too far from my own, plus I think she has pacing issues and doesn't set up her plots well enough to make me believe in the scenarios she creates. Speranza's stories in this fandom haven't followed through on their initial setup to earn my liking (her recent incest story is an example of this - I thought it was interesting up until the point that people started shooting at John and Rodney and then it careened wildly off the rails and never recovered the emotional thread that would have resolved the situation).

Trinityofone is somebody who's garnered a lot of recognition in this fandom, and I like a lot of her stories. The trend toward crackfic and really out there AUs has made it difficult for me to enjoy a lot of stories based on far-out premises. The thing I've come to realize is that I have a very firm vision of who the characters are, and if a writer has a different view (going back to [Sabotini's three-point characterization theorem) then I need them to begin with a canonical reference and *work to* the alternative. In other fandoms I've been far more accepting of wider ranges of characterization and it just doesn't work for me in SGA.}}

[mmmchelle]: While I would agree that most of what we consider classic art, art which has stood the test of time was popular in it's time--witness Beethoven and Mozart. However, not all popular art will become classic.

The Beatles were popular, but so were the Bay City Rollers. Debbie Boone won a Grammy for Best Song.

Some popular stories are the fandom equivalent of "Yesterday," but others are merely "Rock and Roll Love Letter." And some are "You Light Up My Life."

Additionally, just as there are barriers to becoming well-known in music or art, or literature, there are barriers to becoming well-known in fandom. They are nowhere near as extensive, but they do exist. I tend to think that good authors will eventually become well-known, but it isn't instantaneous.
[paradise city]: Additionally, there's much more of a personal side to the fanfic that gets read as opposed to the profic that gets read, it seems. Profic is much more...generalized, I suppose, because by necessity it needs to appeal to as many people as possible. Fanfic makes much more use of the niche. Bondage? First time? Aliens made them do it? Amnesia? Wings? Animals? Genderplay? If you want it, fanfic's got it. That's a large part of its appeal, of course, and a large part of the reason fanfic exists. Therefore, it stands to reason that quality and popularity would be so much more subjective because of this niche approach, which is something I hadn't realized until I started reading the comments here.
[aka arduinna]: Large fandoms, of which SGA is most definitely one, have to deal with the opposite situation -- tons and tons of stories to choose from, but then having to actually choose which to read, because who has time to read them all? Wraithbait has had at least 80 stories added in the last week, and a whole lotta authors don't bother putting their stories in the archive. I'm in fandoms where in five years, the fandom hasn't managed to generate 80 stories. Hell, in *25* years, one of my fandoms hasn't managed to generate 80 stories. Large fandoms provide more opportunity to read a wider variety of authors, yes, and in terms of sheer numbers, I've read more unknown-to-me authors in SGA than in any other fandom in a long time -- but given a choice between an author I know and trust, and an author I've never heard of, I'm going to take the author I trust if I'm on a half-hour lunch break. I want to read something I'm reasonably sure I'll like during my scant free time, not make sure I'm careful to engage in socially correct behavior of providing every SGA author equal access to my time and energy (which, again... no. It's my time, my attention, my energy. My choice where it goes.)
[aka arduinna]: I cut my teeth in fandoms where people most emphatically do talk about stories, and name names, and discuss what does and doesn't work. There's usually also a part of the fandom that prefers not to hear any of that in favor of protecting the author's ego above all, giving everyone a place to go where they're most comfortable, whichever attitude they prefer.

Fic discussion is a part of fandom, as much as discussing the source itself. Once the author has written and posted her story, she's said her part of it; from there, readers can and should react to it however (and wherever, and whenever) they choose, and if that involves public crit, so be it....

As for how writer, reader, and reccer expectations affect crit -- who knows? Crit is an entirely separate thing from reccing, and will always be a contentious thing in fandom, because fandom will always be in two general camps about it: 1) "Yay, crit! Fic discussion that is totally impersonal and all about the stories! It's all good!" and 2) "OMG, those mean-ass bitches are at it *again*, picking on perfectly nice authors! They should all die!! Why can't they be nice like us??"

That divide is never going to be bridged. People will either crit, or not crit, depending on their own temperament - and their temperament will lead them to hang out with people of similar temperaments, forming a localized expectation one way or the other, but never a universal, fandom-wide one. One or the other may have more precendence in a given fandom because its proponents are louder, but there are *always* people in the other camp, grumbling in corners.
[cupidsbow]: I'm often a bit conflicted about what I say in recs, which I wouldn't feel if I wasn't aware that other people are reading what I say. I find this strange, as if I like a story enough to rec it, it means I've engaged with it, so it's an endorsement even if I then say a few negative things about it. I never rec stories I don't like, and often I find flaws the most interesting part of a story. Obviously with a fandom as big as SGA it's impossible to be a completest, even just within the McShep pairing. But, to give you an idea, I probably rec between 10% and 30% of what I read in SGA (which is my current "hot" fandom). I read way, way, way more than I rec, and I even like some of the unrecced stories a lot, but there's something about them that doesn't quite satisfy or intrigue me enough to put them on the rec list. I sometimes think I should list all the stories I read, just to be able to do a compare and contrast with what I rec... but again, that would be like *anti* reccing, and I'm very uncomfortable with that.
[ceares]:Primarily agreeing with many previous comments. When I was much younger, I read anything I could get my hands on-some excellent, some crap. I also felt obliged to read the entire thing once I started, whether it was working for me or not. It was the same when I first got into fandom. I would literally go alphabetically through an archive.

I have a lot less time now, in terms of hours of the day, and in terms of hours of my life basically, so I have to be a little choosier. Even in my small fandoms, if I start reading it and it does nothing for me I stop.

I basically followed a BNF into the SGA fandom and was so happy to immediately find authors I liked. I branched out, but SGA newsletter alone has 10+ McShep stories a day posted. I immediately scan for an author I know and trust first, then since there aren't summaries, I'll check out titles. Unknown authors usually get chosen by title or story summary.

Another place I usually will read anything is in challenges. If the challenge topic appeals I'll check out pretty much all the stories unless the summary makes me run away.

As far as rec pages all having the same stories-well, I only check out a few rec pages, period, so I might see the story a few times, but not constantly. Also I've only been in the fandom a few months, so even some of the most popular stories might have slipped by me. I really enjoy rec's from places like CrackVan because you do get a nice mix of stuff you might never see otherwise.
[hardlyfatal]: I really can't say "word" loudly enough, in agreeing with you. I read fics by BNFs expecting them to be fantabulous after all the hype, and I'm just not impressed with any of them. Way too many cater to shippers' fanon instead of actual canon characterization, and assume we're all down with speeding from the introduction to the mighty mighty sex scene.
[carolyn claire]: Fanfic offers something most profic doesn't, though, and that's accessibility. That's changing, some, as profic writers are making themselves more available than in the past, but it's not the same as the opportunity to sit at the right hand of the BNF, to become her bud and bask in her reflected glory, to have one's social status elevated through association, to have one's stories noticed because the BNF recced or betaed them. I think that when people feel frustration over seeing the same people lauded and applauded while they feel others are overlooked, they're suspecting something of that sort, some toadying and ass-kissing. This is probably especially frustrating when EVERYTHING that writer writes seems to get that kind of attention, and the frolicking throng doesn't seem to be exercising any kind of objective standards, in the frustrated individual's opinion, but seems to be mindlessly and slavishly devoted more to the writer than to the stories.
[cathexys]:There are stories utterly beloved by large numbers of people that would never ever make it anywhere near the rec lists I read. Or, said differently, before I was part of any community, I would randomly search rec lists and discover that there were certain groups that were quite incestuous but not with one another.

Which, to me, all comes back to...yes *g* interpretive communities. Different people do not only have different interpretations of the text but also different expectations of what constitutes good writing. Last year SGA seemed to divide into cold pricklies and warm fuzzies and while there were many that crossed the line and with the influx of many, many more writers and fandoms, there still remains the ffnet/LJ dichotomy (and I'm clearly simplifying here b/c it's much more complicated and more nuanced, of course).

You and I were just sharing our love for melodrama, but for one reason or another we might not admit to that by reccing it in a public post. In fact, I have entire subfolders with comfort fic which hits my kink yet I'd never rec it. And yet there are people who own up to that love, who might either not acknowledge or be able to overlook the serious flaws or are just more honest than my pseudo-academic self :-)

So, if all the rec lists look alike, it might be because we've stayed within a self-selected interpretive community. Clearly, another group of people has very different criteria in what makes a good story..it's just that I may have filtered out their recs as I've filtered out their stories!!!
[harriet spy]: What troubles me whenever I see this conversation occur in a fandom--and it occurs in every fandom--is the view of recommending that it implies. That is, it treats recommending as though it were some kind of collective process that the rest of fandom is somehow jointly responsible for, but the individual observer has no power over.

The fact is, there is nothing more individual than a rec. Even if she claims to make reference to objective standards of quality, the reccer can never speak for anything but her own assessment of the story. To treat this as a collective action problem is thus mistaken. Although she might be able to increase the overall volume of recs, the most community-minded, most beloved BNF can't get people to rec stories they don't actually care for.

If a fan feels that stories to her individual taste are not being recommended, there is exactly one thing she can do, and that is rec those stories herself. Spread the word about what strikes her, and she stands some chance of helping to mold fannish taste. Objecting to what other people rec simply can't accomplish anything. Even though I actually do feel that it wouldn't hurt if fannish taste in general were a little more diverse, I can't possibly expect anyone to rec a story that doesn't suit them just to advance that cause, because I wouldn't do the same. The responsibility, in the end, rests with the individual who loves the story; and if the individual really loves the story, normally she should be glad to share the love.