In Defense of Crud

“Ninety percent of everything is crud” — Theodore Sturgeon

I have found myself thinking a lot lately about the issue of quality as it relates to the emergence of participatory culture. Several things have raised the issue in my mind:

The first was reading a very interesting essay written by Cathy Young, a regular columnist for Reason magazine, debating the merits of fan fiction. In fact, Young outs herself as someone who has written and published fan fiction set in the universe of Xena: Warrior Princess. She is in turn responding to a diatribe against fan fiction by fantasy writer Robin Hobbs. She writes:

Hobb’s indictment made the standard charges against fan fiction, from intellectual theft to intellectual laziness. Deriding the idea of fanfic as good training for writers, Hobb wrote, “Fan fiction allows the writer to pretend to be creating a story, while using someone else’s world, characters, and plot….The first step to becoming a writer is to have your own idea. Not to take someone else’s idea, put a dent in it, and claim it as your own.”

Young works through some of the standard defenses of fan fiction (I won’t go into all of them here, since I’ve delivered most of them in the past myself and am a little tired of the arguments.) But she ends with the following:

So is the growth of Internet-based fan fiction a cultural development to be wholeheartedly applauded? Not quite. The good news about the Internet is that, in a world without gatekeepers, anyone can get published. The bad news, of course, is the same. Much fanfic is hosted on sites such as fanfiction.net, where authors can get their work online in minutes–which means that professional-quality stories coexist with barely literate fluff, and reader reviews will sometimes congratulate an author on good grammar and spelling. Even sites that prescreen fanfic and encourage authors to use beta readers and a spell checker tend to be quite lax with quality control, and only a few fan fiction archives are genuinely selective.

For the more sophisticated fanfic lovers, the high crap-to-quality ratio can mean a frustrating search for readable stories. The real problem, though, is that less experienced readers may develop seriously skewed standards of what constitutes a readable story. It is frankly disturbing to encounter teenagers and young adults whose recreational reading is limited to fanfic based on their favorite shows, and there have been moments when I have felt like telling some of my own readers to put down the fanfic and pick up a book. It is even more troubling, as far as educational experiences go, that a teenager can wantonly butcher the English language at fanfiction.net and get complimented on a “well-written story.”

Golubchik thinks that such concerns are exaggerated. “If anything,” she says, “I think that fanfic teaches kids to be more discerning. The quality stuff does tend to percolate to the top; it gets recommended and popularized.” Indeed, while the worst of fan fiction can make a Harlequin romance look like Charlotte Bronte, the popular stories are at least no worse in quality–and sometimes far better–than, say, The Da Vinci Code.

The mainstreaming of fan fiction is likely to raise standards further, bringing more educated people into the arena and perhaps encouraging some voluntary gatekeeping, such as contests with input from professional writers or editors…

Perhaps, as with other cultural products often dismissed as intellectual junk food, the answer to bad fanfic is simply better fanfic.

The second was reading a debate between Andrew Keen, the author of a forthcoming book, The Cult of the Amateur (which I am sure to be saying more about down the line) and Chris Anderson, the promoter of the concept of the “Long Tail.”

Here’s some of what Keen had to say:

Much of the euphoria and optimism about this latest wave of technology is suggesting that we, through these new technologies, are creating better culture. Better movies and music, for instance.

I am not convinced of that. Perhaps I am a reactionary here, defending an anachronistic culture, but my sense is that this latest, democratized culture, this user-generated content, is actually undermining many of our most valuable institutions, including movie studios, music labels, newspapers and publishing….I still think that the wisdom that I value — the scarcity, to put it in economic terms — is not in the crowd, but in people with talent and experience, whether they exist in political life, in economic life or cultural life. Rather than fetishizing this idealized crowd — it seems tremendously abstract — one can pick up so many examples from history where the crowd has not behaved in a very wise or gentlemanly way. I would rather focus on the value of expertise and the wisdom of people who are trained.

Keen’s overtly and unapologetically elitist comments, frankly, get under my skin — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if it forces those of us who believe in participatory culture to question and defend our own assumptions at a moment when the world seems to be moving more decisively in our directions. So, I find myself thinking a bit more about the vexing issue of quality. So let me offer a range of different responses to the issue:


1.We should not reduce the value of participatory culture to its products rather than its process. Consider, for a moment, all of the arts and creative writing classes being offered at schools around the world. Consider, for example, all of the school children being taught to produce pots. We don’t do this because we anticipate that very many of them are going to grow up to be professional potters. In fact, most of them are going to produce pots that look like lopsided lumps of clay only a mother could love (though it does say something about how we value culture that many of them do get cherished for decades). We do so because we see a value in the process of creating something, of learning to work with clay as a material, or what have you. There is a value in creating, in other words, quite apart from the value attached to what we create. And from that perspective, the expansion of who gets to create and share what they create with others is important even if none of us produces anything beyond the literary equivalent of a lopsided lump of clay that will be cherished by the intended recipient (whether Mom or the fan community) and nobody else.

2. All forms of art require a place where beginning artists can be bad, learn from their mistakes, and get better. A world of totally professionalized expression masks the apprenticeship process all artists need to undergo if they are going to achieve their full potential. A world where amateur artists can share their work is a world where learning can take place. If the only films you see are multimillion dollar productions by Steven Spielberg, then most of us will assume that we have nothing meaningful to contribute to the culture and give up. If we see films with a range of quality, including some that are, in Sturgeon’s terms, “crud,” then it becomes possible to imagine ourselves as potentially becoming artists. Bad art inspires more new artists than good art does for this reason: I can do better than that!

3. A world where there is a lot of bad art in circulation lowers the risks of experimentation and innovation. In such a world, one doesn’t have to worry about hitting the marks or even making a fool out of oneself. One can take risks, try challenging things, push in new directions because the cost of failure is relatively low. That is why a participatory culture is potentially so generative. Right now, innovation occurs most often at the grassroots level and only subsequently gets amplified by mass media. Professional media is afraid to take risks.

4. Bad art inspires responses which push the culture to improve upon it over time. I have argued elsewhere that fandom is inspired by a mixture of fascination and frustration. If the show didn’t fascinate us, we would not keep returning to it. If it fully satisfied us, we would not feel compelled to remake it. Many of the shows that have inspired the most fan fiction are not the best shows but rather they are shows with real potential — the literary equivalent of the “fixer-upper” that real estate agents always talk about. Over time, bad art may become an irritant, like sand in the oyster, which becomes a pearl when it gets worked over by many different imaginations. Good art may simply close off conversations.

5. Good and Bad, as artistic standards, are context specific. Good for what purposes? Good by what standards? Good for what audiences? In some ways, one can argue that professionally published fiction about popular television shows is superior to at least most fan fiction — in terms of a certain professional polish in the writing style, in terms of its copy editing, in terms of perhaps its construction of plots. But it is not going to be as good as fan fiction on other levels — in terms of its insight into the characters and their relationship, in terms of its match with the shared fantasies of the fan community, in terms of its freedom to push beyond certain constraints of the genre.

6. Standards of good and bad are hard to define when the forms of expression being discussed are new and still evolving. This would apply to many of the forms of participatory culture which are growing up around digital media. The forms are too new to have well established standards or fixed cannons.

7. This is not a zero-sum game. It is not clear that the growth of participatory culture does, in fact, damage to professional media making. One could argue that so far most popular work by amateur media makers has been reactive to stories, characters, and ideas generated by mass culture. The two may exist in dialogue with each other. This is certainly true of the kinds of fan culture that Cathy Young is discussing.

We should be less concerned with the presence of “bad art” in participatory culture than with the need to develop mechanisms for feedback which allow artists to learn and grow, the need to develop aesthetic criteria which allow us to meaningful evaluate new and emerging forms of expression or which reflect the particular needs of specific contexts of cultural production, and the need to develop mechanisms which help each consumer to locate forms of cultural expression which they regard to be good.

All of this brings us back to Sturgeon’s Revelation: If 90 percent of everything is crud, then we are playing the law of averages. If you increase the number of people producing culture, you increase the amount of good art even if you don’t increase the percentage of good art to bad. This is debatable, I suppose, but what is not debatable is that you also increase the diversity of the culture. Many many groups of people have felt excluded by a system of professionalized art and storytelling that might have vital contributions to make to our culture. To embrace what they produce doesn’t require us to “lower” our standards but it may require us to broaden them to appreciate new forms of expression that do not fit comfortably within existing aesthetic categories.

Comments

  1. Sarah says:

    I would rather focus on the value of expertise and the wisdom of people who are trained, says the critic. I am struck by how often this focus on the importance of elite gatekeepers seems to betray simple class status anxiety. Why does an educated adult require someone else to tell him authoritatively what is good? What is the dread fate that awaits him if he takes pleasure in what is not? Without all-powerful gatekeepers, it is much harder to reduce culture to a series of fetish-objects that may be respectfully consumed to display one’s status in the community, but I’m not sure why this should be so valuable to us. It’s a scarier world when one has to rely so much more on developing one’s own taste, but I think it’s a better one. At least it might not be a world where noted federal jurists assert grimly that we can tell art from erotic dancing because art gives no one pleasure.

    Gatekeeping institutions are, and have always been, profoundly corrupt, the lackeys and allies of power, subject to (hidden) material influences, endlessly biased. The equation of “movie studios, music labels, newspapers” with expertise and wisdom strikes me as particularly naive, evidencing a serious ignorance of the history of all these institutions. I don’t particularly idolize the crowd, but I have no particular reason to have faith in institutions that held authoritatively for millennia that no woman could produce anything worthwhile, either.

  2. Jago says:

    Very insightful as usual – and applicable to all fields of culture. I am definitely taking this into my paper about machinima! The emphasis in the debate surrounding participatory culture is the added value of not only being able to participate, but to join in all the numerous communities brought to live through this participatory culture. They allow us to experience the feedback, encouragement and inspiration of others. We might never be grandmasters of our arts and crafts, but at least with the help of others we can improve and learn (or face the truth).

  3. one can pick up so many examples from history where the crowd has not behaved in a very wise or gentlemanly way.

    Oh right, and the wise and the trained have always behaved thus?

    No-one suggests partipatory culture is a panacea, and in fact, the wise and trained, the elite with their expertise and talent can go gaily on and those who want that can choose it.

    Its those who don’t, and those who couldn’t, that are getting a look in. This isn’t a switch of exclusion from the mob to the nobility, they can co-exist, regrettably those comfortable beneficiaries of the incumbent model of production and distribution might find they have to work a little harder.

    Yeah, it gets under my skin too, because of the narrowness of the mindset that accepts and allows only one right way.

  4. Madeline says:

    Hey, I blogged about this article, too: http://fandrogyny.blogspot.com/2007/01/interesting-article-on-fanfiction.html As usual, your insights are of more depth and grace.

  5. Heather says:

    The commenters to date do not deal with the devaluing of artforms that often accompanies the rise of crud within those artforms. If 90% of what is created is crud, and there are no clear standards for what is NOT crud because there are no gatekeepers, then how is value assigned to the 10%?

    Economically speaking, when an artform is constantly pushed to become cheaper and more accessible, it can become simultaneously harder for the “expert” to make a living at that artform. (Expensive cow, cheap milk.) It’s almost impossible to break into a ‘career’ in filmmaking, theatre, or the visual arts; it’s easy to get work shown somewhere on occasion. The more the public perception is “Anyone can do it,” the more the corresponding perception is, “Why should I pay someone to do it better?”

  6. Graeme says:

    Certain portions of your argument seem to amount to “lowering of standards isn’t such a bad thing because it allows more people to meet those standards”. Which may not be bad but looks a bit different in the light.

    Why does an educated adult require someone else to tell him authoritatively what is good?

    Because education is not a unitary thing, and specialists have insight that non-specialists do not.

  7. n.n says:

    Explain to me again why movie studios and music labels are valued, because I frankly can’t see much value in them. The few good movies and music albums that do get released by these groups are often drowned by a sea of professionally-crafted, slick, mass-marketed productions which are not only bankrupt of meaning but also (and more importantly) not particularly enjoyable.

    (disclaimer: I’ve written fanfiction before, although these days I don’t read it much)

    I think of this as a two-axis problem, although this, of necessity, borders on oversimplification. One axis is the level of polish which the finished product displays; the other is the actual content and (for want of a better word) enjoyability of the work.

    My observations have been that on the whole, “professional” products display a constantly high level of polish, regardless of whether they are enjoyable or meaningful. For an arbitrary individual, approximately 90% of them are crud in terms of those last two factors, and thus we have 10% which is worth consuming (i.e. polished, meaningful and enjoyable).

    On the flip side, fan fiction and amateur fiction is also approximately 90% crud in terms of meaning and enjoyability. However, there is a positive correlation between the level of polish in a fan-work and its depth of meaning (and “fun factor”). There are counter-examples, such as the early Schlock Mercenary strips, which were fun enough but tragically unpolished, and numerous highly-polished but meaningless videos (often 3D demo reels). In the end, I’d guess that about 5% of fan work is worth consuming.

    Which should place the professional media ahead, except for a few factors:

    1. Any given individual, if a regular net-user, is likely to have access to a far higher volume of fanmade media than of professional media. Ergo he/she is likely to consume more (meaningful, polished) fan-made stuff than (meaningful, polished) professional stuff.

    2. The level of polish of a fanwork is a decent (not exceptional, but decent) barometer of its value, whereas professionally-produced media are often deceptively polished but ultimately hollow.

    3. The professional media encourage the privileging of style over substance. This is a subject particularly close to me because I work with video games, possibly the clearest example of this phenomenon. However, it should not surprise anyone that the same problem exists in other media forms. We have been conditioned to judge a movie based on the quality of the cinematography rather than what it’s trying to say, or how people feel when they watch it (which is partly related to the cinematography, but not entirely).

    In the end, I think the world needs more of Leeroy Jenkins and less of Leni Riefenstahl.

  8. I’m on the fence, but leaning to one side. As an educator I’m absolutely in favor of generating and facilitating participatory culture. However as an (ex)singer/songwriter and musician, I understand the strife expressed. Celebrity culture and participatory culture are bed fellows, it seems and perhaps therein lies the conflict.
    What’s the harm in reality shows, Star Search and My Space? Nothing unless that’s all that’s consumed. Unfortunately that’s more the case than not. Celebrity has little to do with the essence of creativity and less to do with innovation. Instead it creates a sense of artificial (self) importance. And like in Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, where mass produced commodities are marketed for their singularity, as if individuality could be achieved by millions of people, so is true with the notion of everyone can be a star.

  9. Amen to what you say, really. All of it. I love the crap. I love the enthusiasm, the excitement these people have. I love that a lot of them get better. I love that they try. I love that I try, and that I get better, even though my stuff probably falls into the lower ranges of the 10%, if at all. I love that we all believe there is something inherently wonderful in the process and the sharing of this kind of amateur work.

    But I do want to add:

    1.We should not reduce the value of participatory culture to its products rather than its process, you say, but I would say that neither is product+process the sum total of what is happening. There is a…gestalt? to so many fans participating in and creating community that is greater than the sum of its individual participants. Fandom (for me, and I may well be an outlier in this) is less about the source text and more about the conversation I have around that text with other fans, in a variety of ways. Fandom is a way of life.

  10. Peregrine says:

    While I concur with many of the points you raise I’m not convinced that you’re speaking entirely to the same issues that Keen is.

    Particularly where you talk about the instructional value of the creative process or it inspiring the ambition to do better (particularly points 1, 2 and 3) I can’t see him disagreeing. However (you could see the however approaching couldn’t you) we tend to value those only for the process, not for the final product. I’ve written, drawn and filmed some awful crud in my time and while I keep some of it a go back to as a process check or because of personal affection for it, it’s bad, sometimes really bad. I showed it to people who were in a position to help but expecting people to take them seriously as cultural products is a compleltely different beast.

  11. Johanna says:

    I find the fact that you found so much verisimilitude between these two excerpts a bit striking, partly because I have a working knowledge of Robin Hobbs and partly because I find few parallels between these two worlds; i.e., juxtaposing the world of fan fiction with the Internet reads like lightly veiled sarcastic commentary. For the sake of the discussion, though, I won’t split hairs.

    An interesting note about Hobbs is that some years ago before she had to stop keeing up with her fans’ emails and message boards due to sheer overload, she took the time to respond to questions about fan art, and with a unique take. She told her readers that they could always take an idea from a story and simply make it their own, and that through the act of development the work would become an original. Her encouragement may have been taken a little too literally, judging from the exponential growth of fan fiction in the years since she wrote that, a lot of which has blatantly copied Hobbs, who is one of the most insighted and gifted of fantasy writers. (It might be added that a lot of her “fans” argued with her online, often refusing to accept what she had to say and respect her wishes.)

    My point, however, is not so much that your comparison between fan fiction and the blogosphere feels awkwardly aligned, but rather that Hobbs did at least for a while encourage her readers to originality and to quality, to thinking for themselves. That’s something that Keen does not seem to have very high on her agenda, considering her seeming airtight opinion that talent is scarce and our ability to infer from this passage that she not only feels that this is right but moreover preferable.

    The more fundamental creature stalking these passages, the issue of of the relationship between participants in this culture and the end-products, is a good one. I find it curious that Cathy Young would so vehemently defend fan fiction while Keen would so flatly disparage technological proliferation, but only in so much that their livelihoods depend upon them donning personas and attitudes born of fear that income may start merely trickling in rather than continuing to trickle down. Perhaps this discussion would fare better with excerpts taken from less stringently economically-minded sources, though: their agendas are skeletal.