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, 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 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.