Fandom Über Alles

Writing in Salon, after receiving poison pen letters for his warmish review of Star Wars: Über Alles, Andrew O’Hehir notes something that I’ve long found weird about the dynamics of fandom:

Why is it important to fans of a hugely popular movie, which has already dominated the entertainment media for weeks and will surely wind up among the top-grossing releases of all time, that no one disagrees with them or adopts a more detached perspective? Why are dissenters from a mass-culture wave phenomenon like “The Force Awakens” or the “Avengers” and “Dark Knight” movies so often subjected to venom and name-calling, as if they had simultaneously run over someone’s dog, spat on a wounded veteran and begun a conversation by loudly saying, “Not to be racist, but …”?

As O’Hehir points out, there is a strange cultural assumption that simply not embracing a popular event film (say the horrific The Avengers) is an attack on those who swim with the tide, marking one out as an insufferable snob somewhere between Andy Warhol and the Duchess de Guermantes, when, in reality, snobs have no power or significance in contemporary culture anymore:

Despite the total global victory of ComiCon-style pop culture on all fronts – which happened years or decades ago, at this point – the last ghostly vestiges of the old, defeated high culture still linger on the margins of the battlefield, wearing pince-nez and translucent cardigans and murmuring in disapproval. Victory was total, yes, but not yet totalitarian. Fans of space operas and comic-book movies and other dominant popcorn genres in film and TV can dimly remember, or think they can remember, a not-so-distant past when “culture” was the province of severe-looking Susan Sontag people out of New Yorker cartoons who looked down on them and viewed everything they loved with contempt.

But, those days are long past, if they ever existed. By the early 80s, Pauline Kael was already recording that the “kiddie matinee” had fully taken over the movie theaters and nascent multiplexes. The most successful movies released in theaters are aimed first and foremost at teenage boys with some hopeful appeal to less important demographics, such as adults and women. While there are plenty of great films and directors today, the heyday of the “art houses” in which directors like Bergman or Fellini were at least sufficiently well-known to parody, has passed. Similarly, the modern equivalent of a “literary event” would be the release of a new Harry Potter or Twilight book; aimed primarily at children but strangely appealing to adults looking to escape adulthood for a few hours.

In other words, so-called “high culture” is the true guilty pleasure in the digital age, the sort of strange taste that social misfits keep to themselves for fear of swimming against the tide. The geeks rule the cultural roost and, as plenty of silicon valley employees discovered long ago, more than a few geeks are aspiring bullies at heart.

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184 thoughts on “Fandom Über Alles

  1. Well, Rufus, by describing The Avengers as “horrific” you give the game away. You are entitled to not like it, or The Force Awakens or anything else.

    I’m sure that I like Pauline Kael’s top ten favorite films a lot. AND I love stuff like the above. What irritates me is pronouncements that “X is terrible” made in objective language, by people who have been taught to think that their taste is superior to everyone else’s.

    I recall my first quarter in college. I took a 300 level Russian lit in English class (and did well in it, by the way). I was also taking a required writing class which was dressed up as “read science fiction and write about it”. Because of the latter I read some Ursula LeGuin. When I mentioned how much I loved “The Left Hand of Darkness” to one of my classmates in the Russian Lit class, he replied, “Well, I’ve heard she’s done fairly well for a genre novelist”. Wow, I could almost hear the sniff of disdain for “genre”. I think people like him made the bed that they are now lying in.

    I can understand why someone might want to push back at snobbery. A movie is supposed to entertain someone, and if it does so, who am I, or Pauline Kael or anybody else to say it was “terrible”, as opposed to “not my cup of tea”. And yeah, I know lots of people, not just highbrow critics who do that. Why do they do that? Perhaps it’s because an English teacher somewhere along the line told them that “of course it’s your opinion, but saying so makes it weaker” or something?

    It’s kind of a proxy dominance battle, really. And dominance behavior doesn’t ever end.

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    • But isn’t there a kind of “reverse snobbery” in fandom?

      I am not sure that there are many snobs anymore with powers of position anymore. Most of the web and media, including the alleged highbrow places like, the NY Times, Slate, etc. spend a lot of time talking about YA, TV, and Hollywood movies. The new generation of cultural critics is much more interested in talking about Broad City, Girls, and whatever else was on prestige TV than they are about finding Son of Saul or modern dance or the hot new painter making their way through the galleries. The Internet has largely caused local culture to collapse and with it a lot of high-art. It really doesn’t make sense for Slate to cover a theatre performance in D.C. or a gallery exhibit in Seattle because only so much of their audience can go and see it.*

      There are a lot of people out there who insist that liking so-called highbrow culture is nothing more than a signal and a con. How can someone prefer Hermann Hesse or William Carlos Williams over Harry Turtledove or Tolkien? Hesse doesn’t have dragons! How can you like something without Dragons?

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      • Yeah, there’s some reverse snobbery, but it’s a reaction to a real thing, where people say, “I like this,” and are told “Then you are a philistine and a child, unable to know True Art.” See, eg, the OP. There’s also the fact that “high culture over genre” promoters tend to be unable to distinguish between good or at least interesting writers who happen to write genre and genre writers whose work is not remarkably different from the James Fenimore Cooper described by Mark Twain. Believe me, Alastair Reynolds, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Allen Steele are as different from each other as Twain, Defoe, and Cooper. And, of course, the annoying habit that some folks have of claiming that sufficiently old/literary genre authors cease to be such (Twain, Marquez, often Shelley, in some ways Defoe).

        I like my kind of thing, you (speaking generically) like your kind of thing. You don’t need to understand why or how I follow stories that drip out one page every few days; I don’t need to know why anyone might pay to watch a story told in a language they don’t understand*. If people are being mean to you about your preferences, then those guys are jerkwads, but that doesn’t mean your cultural touchstones are better than theirs.

        To shorten things a bit:
        “Highbrow” stuff is essentially another genre or set of genres, distinguished from various others by its content and style. My problem, at least, with its promoters is strictly phrases like “high culture” and “literary fiction”. You don’t get to claim generically positive words just for your own favorite genre, and you also don’t get to misdescribe other things that you like (or don’t like!) to avoid some association between things you like and things you’ve decided are for children.

        *Speaking here of theatre opera, and then only maybe, as I can imagine technological innovations which would remove the problem. Anything with subtitles is told in a language the audience understands, assuming the subtitles, at least, are in the correct language :)

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          • Most of my post was in response to Saul, not anything specific in the OP.

            The specific thing that did bug me in the OP was this:

            By the early 80s, Pauline Kael was already recording that the “kiddie matinee” had fully taken over the movie theaters and nascent multiplexes. The most successful movies released in theaters are aimed first and foremost at teenage boys with some hopeful appeal to less important demographics, such as adults and women. … Similarly, the modern equivalent of a “literary event” would be the release of a new Harry Potter or Twilight book; aimed primarily at children but strangely appealing to adults looking to escape adulthood for a few hours.

            Which absolutely feels like I’m being talked down to for having the preferences I do.

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            • Well, fair enough. My point is more that the current cultural hegemony is weighted strongly for pop culture that is aimed at young adults but is sufficiently well put together to appeal to adults too. John Cassavetes, for instance, didn’t make movies that would appeal to young adults. And whatever cultural prominence films those sort of films once had (which, let’s face it, was always somewhat marginal) has evaporated. To be fair, though, I tried to read the Harry Potter books when my ex-wife was enraptured with them and just didn’t get the appeal.

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              • All I can say to that, I suppose, is that it’s happening within sf/fantasy as well as in the wider artistic world, although that might be more a matter of what is remembered than what is popular in the now. As far as Harry Potter, I’ve read it, and I enjoyed it, but I don’t really have any desire to pick it up again. There’s some weirdness to it because it aged with its primary audience, to an extent – books 6 and 7 are distinctly more mature (in their sensibility, I mean, though also in the amount of violence present) than most of the earlier books, and there’s a distinct tone shift that starts at the end of the fourth. For a fan of more literary stuff looking to see what popular sf/f has to offer, I might recommend Gaiman as a solid author. The main problem with him is that, except in Neverwhere and his actual childrens’ books, you have to get through the Gaiman Sex Scene and Gaiman Gross Out Scene to actually enjoy the novel.

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                • For popular sci-fi, I’d recommend Doumei. His writing is absolutely trollish, but a good troll is a great work of art.

                  And he’s just as likely to namecheck “Cinema Paradiso” as he is that scene with a dragon getting impaled over Tokyo. (which is hilarious, because I actually want to know if he actually expects his Japanese audience to know what-the-hell he’s referencing or not).

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              • Pauline Kael’s rant about the kiddie matinee seems more than a little erroneous. The key word in show business is business and if I’m remembering my movie statistics, teen boys have always been the largest plurality in the movie audience. They continued to go to movie theaters in large numbers long after lots of people above them for television. It would make sense that the movie industry would start catering to their biggest audience rather than people who stayed away. The housewife matinee didn’t produce movies of stunning artistic and deep human emotion either. The kiddie matinee gave you technical motivation.

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                • I’m not sure how that makes it erroneous though. She was basically right that in that period- really after the first Star Wars film broke box office records- the studios started focusing on movies for teenagers and not on movies for adults to go out with their married friends to see. Adults started staying home for cable, but it’s pretty clear at this point that the multiplexes don’t want them there, aside from the one month “awards season”. I don’t know if it’s good business. It reminds me of the recent time in which the American auto industry brilliantly decided that, if Americans buy a lot of SUVs, let’s just make those and let Japan worry about making cars and other vehicles. It’s no secret that Hollywood is terrified at this point of the bubble bursting.

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                  • There were many Hollywood movies aimed at adults throughout the late 1970s to the early 1980s like Crossing Delancey, Manhunter, or many others. They might not have been to Pauline Kael’s standards but low-key movies strictly for adults continued to get made.

                    I’m also going to say that Pauline Kael is looking through cinema past with rose tinted classes. B-movies for teen boys always did well and a lot of the movies for adults like Hawaii or Penny Serenade would have been savaged by the critics. The adult movies were middle-brow Babbitry rather than high brow Bohemianism.

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              • Over on LGM, Campos asked why people made such a big deal out of Star Wars. One woman said that as a nerdy 14 year old girl in 1977, this was the first movie she saw with a viable female hero. She saw most movies in the 1970s as just being too serious adult stuff and offering nothing for her.

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              • “…pop culture that is aimed at young adults but is sufficiently well put together to appeal to adults too.”

                Isn’t this itself a pretty remarkable achievement?

                Isn’t it harder to do what Pixar does — making movies that children AND adults love — than what Disney did/does?

                If a movie can appeal to the sensibilities of people from 15 to 50, shouldn’t we applaud that? Even if it isn’t to our taste? The assumption seems to be that this is only achieved cheaply, that it is inherently less artistic to appeal to a broad audience. Why?

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                • Because, um, we like sex in everything.
                  Cinema Paradiso and one of the Toy Story sequels had the same theme of nostalgia and growing up, and leaving things behind. But only one of them had a working prostitute in a movie theater.
                  [yes, I’m being a tad facetious.]

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                • I’m not saying we shouldn’t applaud it. What bugs me is the coercion of it all. The attitude of how dare you say you didn’t enjoy the Avengers/Dark Knight/Star Wars/ whatever it is that we have a civic responsibility to applaud this year?!? Why aren’t you applauding it?! What are you, a snob?!

                  A secondary issue is, okay, fine, those movies are great. Why can’t we also have those movies and a culture in which one could still imagine something like Midnight Cowboy, the Graduate, or hell even Serpico getting released in a multiplex?

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                  • I guess I just don’t see all the coercion. I fell asleep 30 seconds into the Avengers and never came back. I enjoyed the Batman movies. I might see Star Wars. With very few exceptions, I don’t do nerd shit. And I have *many* nerd friends. Like LOTR viewing party nerd friends. They have certainly attempted to engage me in their interests. But that’s to be expected… they love that stuff and want to share it. I’ve never been made to feel snobby. But I am really tuned out on most things pop culture — largely as a function of just not being able to keep up; I’m not opposed to pop culture and have gotten swept up in certain elements at times — so maybe I don’t feel this broader battle going on.

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        • Reverse snobbery is a very weird thing. Snobbery says “That stuff you like is crap, because you have no taste.” Reverse snobbery says “You don’t really like that stuff you pretend to like. You like the same stuff I do, but if you admitted that you couldn’t act superior to me.”

          Which I think is the answer to Andrew O’Hehir’s question.

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    • A movie is supposed to entertain someone, and if it does so, who am I, or Pauline Kael or anybody else to say it was “terrible”, as opposed to “not my cup of tea”.

      I agree to some extent, but this is also a stylistic question. For me (and I am making a purposeful deviation here), the construction of “I think X is horrible” is needlessly cumbersome. Of course it’s a a personal opinion; that is the nature of criticism. Better to simply say “X is horrible” and leave it to the reader to judge the source.

      And yes, The Avengers was horrible, mostly because it was a mediocre exercise in competent storytelling with very little in the way of stakes and it’s horrible that mediocre with no stakes becomes the gold standard for what a genre can achieve.

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      • I do think there is a slight difference between saying, “The Avengers was horrible,” and “The horrible Avengers film.” And given that we want the former to be interpreted as yet another slightly different thing, I can see why the latter might be a bridge too far for some people in terms of being charitable.

        That said, whenever we are discussing terms that are by their nature subjective, it seems silly to not infer as such. Of course, a problem is that people tend to assume that their opinion is purely objective and therefore those that run contrary to their own are being offered in a similarly objective — but wrongheaded — tone.

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      • And yes, you are putting your finger on one of the things I think accounts for this – the stylistic “X is horrible” which is taught to replace “I think X is horrible”.

        The thing is, I don’t think that works these days, at least not on the internet. I don’t think there’s a shared understanding that “X is horrible” has the same meaning as “I think X is horrible”. I also think that “horrible” is very likely to be taken as highly judgemental, even with “I think” prepended to it. I think that the same people for whom this lesson stuck are the people who tend to be snobs. (And now I wonder if snobbishness doesn’t have some root in resentment that the snob went to all that trouble to learn a bunch of stuff, and it didn’t end up mattering all that much in life.)

        There is an endless amount of confusion and anger on the internet these days because of confusion between subjective preference and objective judgement.

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        • Curb your own Enthusiasm is an objectively bad television show, because it is tuned towards a remarkably small in crowd that doesn’t watch enough television to justify the show.

          Is Girls, or Sex in the City a bad tv show? They’re new york shows for newyorkers, but that’s a much bigger market.

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          • I watch Curb, and I watch a lot of television (too much, really).

            Larry David has a deal with HBO where he can make more Curb whenever he wants to, so it sounds like HBO is happy with how many viewers (and what kind) the show draws.

            In short and as usual, I have no idea what you mean here.

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        • There is an endless amount of confusion and anger on the internet these days …

          That is something that is not going to be fixed by any amount of grammatical or stylistic tinkering. That said, holding the line is the best course of action here. The more you acquiesce to the “I think” or the “to me,” the further you head down the slippery slope towards everything is relative. Or even worse you end up with a generation of people who start every sentence with “I feel like…”

          The problem with this way of talking is that it doesn’t accomplish what you claim it accomplishes. If anything, adding these qualifiers leads to a deeper entrenchment of positions. After all, if it’s only my thoughts or my feelings, then how can I ever objectively be wrong?

          The Avengers is a horrible movie. I stated my reason above. Below, some folks have offered countering reasons. Maybe they will change my mind. Maybe I will change theirs. Or maybe we will all walk away with our minds unchanged, but with a deeper appreciation of the alternate positions. That’s how discourse happens. Adding the extra appendage of “I think” adds nothing to the process but a sort of false modesty that actually makes discourse more difficult.

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          • I’ll come to the defense of “I think,” at least when we’re not talking about formal writing.

            One function of “I think” in “I think the Avengers is horrible” is to soften the blow. It temporizes the opinion and signals to one’s interlocutors that the speaker is acknowledging it’s an opinion, even though we all know that “the Avengers is horrible” is the speaker’s opinion, anyway.

            To say “I think the Avengers is horrible” is poor argumentation for an expository essay. It can be a way to hedge without acknowledging one is hedging, which is dishonest. But conversationally, it serves a purpose. Blog OP’s and, even more, blog comment threads lie closer to the conversational than expository essays do.

            One or the other way of saying it isn’t wrong, and I guess it’s truly up to the reader to adopt a rule of charity when temporizing statements aren’t used. But there’s still a role for such temporizing, as long as it’s not just used as an excuse to weasel out of the implications of what one is saying.

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          • This goes back to the Greeks. A statement that began with “ego” meant one thing. I statement that began with “egoge” meant the same thing but somewhat softened. A quick google mentions that it was used to say something like “I, on the other hand,” but my prof in college said it meant something like “I, for my part,”.

            All that to say, I, on the other hand, think that hedging one’s statement by pointing out that it came from a point of personal perspective goes back a loooooong ways.

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            • I’m not sure you meant that comment as an answer to me, Jaybird, but I’d want to distinguish between hedging and softening/temporizing. For me, “hedging” means, “I’ll say this, but I’m not sure I’m right” while softening/temporizing means “I’m right, but I don’t want to be a d*** about it, and there’s some room for each of us to maneuver without coming to virtual fisticuffs.” For me, hedging, in my sense above, is wrong when it’s hidden behind a “I think (that)” instead of being stated upfront.

              Of course, I’m very guilty of hedging in that sense, but I think it’s still wrong.

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      • And yes, The Avengers was horrible, mostly because it was a mediocre exercise in competent storytelling with very little in the way of stakes and it’s horrible that mediocre with no stakes becomes the gold standard for what a genre can achieve.

        That…is wrong.

        Not because of your opinion of Avengers, which is your opinion. But what you described Avengers as is not simply not what the word ‘horrible’ means.

        If you use ‘horrible’ to describe ‘mediocre’ movies that have ‘competent’ storytelling, you have nothing to describe *actually bad* movies.

        You can think it’s horrible that the movie became a gold standard, which you also say. But that’s different than saying the *movie* is itself horrible.

        Or to put it another way: If it’s a sin to raise a mediocre movie so high, because that messes with expectations, it’s also a sin to pretend it was a complete disaster of a movie, because that *also* messes with expectations.

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        • it’s also a sin to pretend it was a complete disaster of a movie, because that *also* messes with expectations.

          Then it is a good thing that I didn’t say that. I will repeat what I did say: The Avengers is competent, but mediocre and has no stakes. I find that horrible.

          Actually, if I were going to honestly describe The Avengers, I probably wouldn’t call it horrible. I’d call it “trrble,” without the ‘e,’ Charles Barkley style.

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    • I think you misread me. I didn’t say horrifically bad; I said horrific. I was mostly confused watching the film because presumably hundreds, if not thousands, of people die in the last reel as huge parts of New York City (?) are destroyed in the middle of a work day. That is horrific. But the movie never addresses that. In fact, it ends with a semi-amusing bit where the heroes are exhausted and eating in a diner after those thousands of people perished. When I pointed this out to the friends I saw it with, they said I wasn’t supposed to take it seriously because it’s a “comic book movie”. But I’d been hearing all the way up to the film that I was supposed to take it seriously because Joss Whedon is a brilliant writer and director. At the least, it seemed like a weird plot hole.

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      • Interestingly, in the TV shows that take place in the world after that battle, ordinary people have a deep distrust of the Avengers and anyone who might be like them because of all that death and destruction. The TV shows are much, much better than the movies.

        Actually, I think there’s something like this in the Transformers movies as well.

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      • I actually thought they did a pretty good job showing the horror. The final sting does lighten the mood, because it isn’t exclusively a drama and can’t get away with being such (this is an actual gripe I have with modern sf cinema – 2001 and even the original Star Wars did just fine without having to toss jokes around all the time), but the movie itself has a slow pan across a number of people reacting to the battle, with everything from disbelief at what happened (ie Stan Lee’s cameo), to recovery efforts and vigils for the dead, before picking up with the protagonists deciding to stick together.

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      • Rufus,
        What do you suppose mercenaries do after the battle is over? They go out and celebrate.
        It’s a team bonding thing, and has less to do with “I’m going to process everyone who’s dead now” than “we did good, let’s eat!”. People really do compartmentalize, and deal with grief in a slower timescale than two days.
        (also, it’s Stark’s idea, and we all know Tony is an asshole. Pretty sure if you let Bruce take the helm, he wouldn’t have just gone out for food — his character class is healer/berserker)

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      • You are right, I did not understand your meaning of horrific. However, I will point out that soliders do eat meals after battle.

        Oh, and by the way, in several other of the MCU works, there have been references to the Battle of New York, and its fallout. Iron Man 3 shows Tony Stark having PTSD, for instance. Age of Ultron is also driven to a large extent by Stark’s guilt and feelings of inadequacy. I don’t think it didn’t have consequences.

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      • The fact that people have to point other movies and shows in the MCU to demonstrate the fallout of a major human tragedy within that universe is proof itself of how little is at stake in these movies. Or maybe it’s how much, since I assume these characters are saving the world. The problem is, “the world” is a big abstract concept that doesn’t necessarily connect to the individual lives of actual human people.

        Say what you want about a schlock-maker like Michael Bay (and I have a lot of bad things to say about Michael Bay), but at least his movies tend to spend some time establishing what its characters are actually fighting for. And maybe Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are unnecessarily brooding, but at least they make me care what happens to Gotham. That final scene in The Avengers could have taken place in the middle of an uninhabited forest and it wouldn’t have changed much.

        I actually wonder if the detachment of these Marvel films isn’t, to some degree, a reaction against the like of Michael Bay movies.

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        • The problem is, “the world” is a big abstract concept that doesn’t necessarily connect to the individual lives of actual human people.

          It is reasonable to point out that we don’t actually *know* any of the people in New York in the Avengers (Except the Avengers), and the movie have have worked better if we needed to save someone specific. (They tried something with that blonde woman that kept looking at Captain America, but it did not work.)

          Well, it was reasonable until you mentioned Michael Bay, and we notice we don’t actually know, for example, any people in Chicago in Transformers 3 *except the heroes* either.

          Which is, in fact, the actual point: The Avengers is not a stand-alone movie. The people you are supposed to care about are the people that have been introduced in *previous movies*, and are mostly the heroes.

          It is possible to go into the movie without that and not care about anyone, and, in that case, it is a crappy movie.

          The fact that people have to point other movies and shows in the MCU to demonstrate the fallout of a major human tragedy within that universe is proof itself of how little is at stake in these movies.

          Ah, yes, I remember with fondness where the Dark Knight Rises shows the aftermath of a city held hostage for months with a nuclear device and terrorized by criminals. How terrible that must have been for the population. The lawsuits against the government. The mass exodus. The cries for new laws. The-

          …oh, wait, I’m informed that we see Batman supposedly die, and then Bruce Wayne being dead, and, Robin finding the Batcave, and, huh. That seems to be all. No actual city aftermath at all. Weird.

          But, okay, Transformers 3, after alien robots invade Chicago, we see afterward…you know, it’s late, I’m not even going to bother doing the joke again. Let’s just say, we didn’t see the aftermath of that *either*.

          (Please notice the reason I’m picking Transformers 3 and The Dark Knight Rises is not because the others show aftermaths, as they don’t either, but because those two specifically have paradigm-shifting city-wide disasters in them, one with another alien invasion and the other with nuclear terrorism by a quasi-mystical order of nihilists.)

          At least in the MCU, we *do* get the aftermath actually addressed and taken seriously. Unlike Batman, where that was the last movie, and unlike Transformers, where the aftermath was some inexplicable ‘Everyone turned against all the Transformers and now the US government is working with the Decepticons’, which makes no sense at all.

          So, basically, what are you talking about?

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          • So, basically, what are you talking about?

            Dude, you try way too hard.

            A few thoughts, though:

            – When push comes to shove, I do not actually hate The Avengers. If it is not already obvious, I am engaging in hyperbole. It’s a rhetorical device. It is a competent movie that I find mediocre at best. And that is what I hate about it. I would prefer that filmmakers dared to make something that I might actually hate.

            – I’ve never seen Transformers 3, so I have no comment on it. I have seen a bunch of other Michael Bay movies and, for the most part, I don’t like them very much. The Transformers movies have the obvious problem of the rapid editing, which I tend to think is there to cover up some of the shortcomings of most of the action being in CGI. It is almost impossible to process what is actually happening on the screen. The latest round of MCU movies don’t seem to have this problem. This is what I mean when I say that they are competently made.

            – I have seen and do like the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. I’d watch The Dark Night Rises over The Avengers any day of the week and twice on Sunday. That is my personal preference. It is obviously subjective.

            – Here is where I get objective. The Dark Night Rises simply has more in the way of stakes than does The Avengers, even though, and perhaps precisely because, The Avengers are fighting to save the entire planet from subjugation. This has nothing to do with showing aftermath. It’s not about plot. It is about connecting the plot to some form of human, individual-level consequences. We get that Bane has taken Gotham hostage not just because the movie tells us; it shows us in any number of different scenes through the point of view of any number of characters. In The Avengers, New York is just where the final battle happens to take place. It is a set piece. Again, you could have that in a forest and the movies doesn’t change much.

            – Back to Michael Bay. One problem with his movies is that they are overly sentimental and filled with all sorts of sanguine images and tropes. In Bay’s movies these things add up to overkill, but they serve a purpose. As bad as he is, the man manages to make movies that connect with a wide range of audiences and not just people who happen to already like the thing that the movie is about.

            – All of the things that I have written above are important to me most likely because I’m not a comic book fan. For people who are already comic book/Marvel universe fans, none of this matters much, because they already care about the characters and are already invested in the fictional universe. And that’s great. I am happy that comic book fans and geeks in general have movies that are fully As a different kind of watcher, however, these movies don’t do a whole lot for me.

            – As an addendum, I will say that the MCU TV shows that I’ve seen do a much better job at this stuff.

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            • Avengers was way more risk taking of a movie than the latest incarnation of Star Wars. For one thing, they changed the Hulk’s ability-set (look, he’s actually intelligent! and he remembers what he does). And they did some decent, subtle characterization of both Banner and Stark.

              Which for a shoot-em-up bang bang movie, is a pretty nice thing to do.

              Yes, there were big stakes that failed to deliver. I’m not sure Star Trek often delivers on “world is at stake” plots. Dr Who often fails to deliver on that, too. (Davies, I blame you!). The thing about world-ending plots is they have to be used rather sparingly, or it takes the sizzle out of everything. “Monday is destroy the world day” is a boring universe.

              They didn’t have anything like “awesome” bad guys, but I don’t look for awesome bad guys from these sorts of movies. (Except for when Catwoman decided to cosplay as a black leather couch…)

              Designing awesome bad guys is a talent, and the Lonely Assassins (from Dr Who) are the best bad guys I’ve seen in years.

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            • Here is where I get objective. The Dark Night Rises simply has more in the way of stakes than does The Avengers, even though, and perhaps precisely because, The Avengers are fighting to save the entire planet from subjugation. This has nothing to do with showing aftermath. It’s not about plot. It is about connecting the plot to some form of human, individual-level consequences. We get that Bane has taken Gotham hostage not just because the movie tells us; it shows us in any number of different scenes through the point of view of any number of characters. In The Avengers, New York is just where the final battle happens to take place. It is a set piece. Again, you could have that in a forest and the movies doesn’t change much.

              I agree with this completely. In The Dark Knight Rises, you’re supposed to care about a bunch of different characters, many of which are not the heroes. (You’re even supposed to care about one of the villians until she is revealed as such.)

              They did not do that in Avengers. The only people you know who are in danger during the finale are the Avengers. (Even Erik Selvig, a normal-ish guy who is mind-controlled and working for Loki, is never in danger for some reason.)

              But Erik, I think, sorta reveals the real problem. Even if Erik had been in danger, many people wouldn’t have cared about him either. Nor do they care about the heroes.

              Why? Because the movie wasn’t trying to make us care. We were supposed to go *into* the movie caring about most of the main characters. It’s why we get the introduction we do to Bruce…because he’s sorta a new character. (Well, recast and no one saw the first movie.) It’s why we spend some time on Natasha, showing who she is, because she’s had almost no characterization previously. It’s why no one cares about Hawkeye, because no time is spent on him.

              But everyone else…viewers were supposed to already be ‘Hey, it’s that loveable asshole Tony Stark’ and ‘Look, it’s Captain America’ and ‘Thor is facing his brother’. And ‘Look, it’s Erik from Thor’. Either from the movies themselves, or the comic books.

              This worked for some viewers. It did not work for some others.

              But, anyway, the whole thing about complaining about ‘not showing the aftermath’ was because Rufus F. said it, and a lot of people, you included, sorta latched onto it as a valid critism. Action movies…don’t show aftermath, at least not in the same movie. That is simply not something they do. Critizing Avengers for that is silly, especially since Avengers *did* spend a small amount of time on that and the MCU as a whole has treated it seriously. Avenger really sorta wins the gold star there, or at least a silver.

              I can sit here and come up with dozens of movies that had much worse disasters and spent literally no time on the aftermath of those things…Independence Day, for starters, blew up every major city on the planet. Aftermath shown: People dancing that alien ships were crashing. Yeah, good luck on everyone not starving to death.

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      • I was mostly confused watching the film because presumably hundreds, if not thousands, of people die in the last reel as huge parts of New York City (?) are destroyed in the middle of a work day.

        I…think you’re confusing this with another movie. We see exactly one building come down in Avengers.

        Most of the mayhem is on the individual level. A lot of cars get blown up, buildings take cosmetic damage or have broken windows.

        But the movie never addresses that. In fact, it ends with a semi-amusing bit where the heroes are exhausted and eating in a diner after those thousands of people perished.

        Hundreds died. Not thousands.

        And there’s already an entire minute, right at the start of the denouement, talking about the invasion and the aftermath of it, presented via a bunch of TVs. Parts of that include scenes of memorial candles and people reopening businesses.

        Did…everyone just forget that part of the movie? It’s literally a *third* of the denouement. (The other two minutes are Fury explaining to SHIELD exactly what’s going with the Avengers and why he’s not doing anything about them.)

        Should the movie have rambled on for another five minutes, showing dead bodies?

        Also, I feel I have to point out, the movie *isn’t about that*. Movies have something called ‘protagonists’, and we follow them from start to end. We don’t spend a lot of time on ‘Oh, hey, those other people we don’t know died, let’s talk about them for five minutes’.

        Seriously, I’d actually like an example of the sort of storytelling you think *should* have happened here. Give a movie. Movies do not actually work that way. I was going to say action movies don’t, but *no* movies work that way!

        (Well, except LotR, and that was, uh, crazy storytelling.)

        In fact, it ends with a semi-amusing bit where the heroes are exhausted and eating in a diner after those thousands of people perished.

        I can’t even start to figure out the objection to that. Showing heroes exhausted and relaxing together is, uh,a pretty common way to end a movie.

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        • I have no idea what “movies” you’re talking about here. Your only comparisons were Independence Day, which I think it’s not too controversial to say wasn’t a very good movie, and LOTR, which you offer as a counterexample. Offhand, I can think of a few dozen war movies that spent more than “an entire minute” showing the aftermath of major battles. It actually adds to the dramatic weight of the battle scenes. Nobody’s asking for The Avengers to become Shame, but if the argument is that big budget summer B-movies aimed at teenagers aren’t supposed to break from formula, then let’s stop pretending that there’s anything special about this one. The writing and direction were hacky and formulaic, which is a shame because the performances were pretty good and we always hear about Joss Wheedon being something other than a hack. I suppose he’s a good gag writer.

          The problem with these movies and their fans is just this- they’re basically mega budget versions of the old genre drive-in popcorn flicks for teenagers, and yet every year we get told that this one is the one to take seriously as a film that transcends its genre. Star Wars is “our mythology”, The Dark Knight Rises is more than just Death Wish in latex, The Avengers is “the greatest superhero movie ever”. But then, if you actually try to take it seriously as a movie and find it wanting in any way, the fans freak out about how “You’re not supposed to take it seriously!” So, they get to have it both ways.

          I mean, these tent pole genre films are essentially critic-proof, unless the director does something too far outside the formula, like Ang Lee’s Hulk in which case he’s violated the pact with the audience. Otherwise, they aim so low and risk so little and spend so much money that it’s inevitable they’ll be seen as another triumph just for having great production values and clever performances. I guess it’s sort of understandable why the fans take umbrage and overreact about criticisms. It’s like ordering a Big Mac and complaining that it didn’t have chicken in it.

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          • Joss Wheedon being something other than a hack. I suppose he’s a good gag writer

            I’m a die-hard Buffy fan so I can’t be unbiased here, so I’ll just say that Whedon wouldn’t be the first person to have his prior-demonstrated strengths and quirks ill-served by going mega-budget Hollywood tentpole flick. See also: John Woo, and arguably Peter Jackson.

            That’s not to try to excuse the films’ flaws – the first Avengers made me think I was maybe done with superhero movies for a while, and I never even bothered to see the second; but dismissing Whedon as a “hack” or merely a good gag writer might be premature or limited, unless you are evaluating a larger body of his work than just a mega-budget production which necessarily serves many masters.

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            • Okay, it’s fair to say that his strengths as a writer were probably not used well here. I know many Buffy fans who speak highly of his writing, including an ex who loved the show enough that I bought her a prop from the show for Christmas one year, and perhaps I went in expecting more for that reason.

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              • Avengers the Second (whatever its name was) was held together through sheer grit in Joss Whedon’s teeth.

                The man writes excellent dialogue, and made the whole franchise better because of it.

                He didn’t have much time to make us care about the characters, but what time he got, he used well.

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          • I have no idea what “movies” you’re talking about here. Your only comparisons were Independence Day, which I think it’s not too controversial to say wasn’t a very good movie.

            It is *you* who are supposed to be presenting movies, because it is *you* who asserts that Avengers didn’t do something that other movies did do. I pointed out…movies do not, in fact, do that. To rebut that, it is your turn to list movies that *do*.

            Offhand, I can think of a few dozen war movies that spent more than “an entire minute” showing the aftermath of major battles.

            None of these movies, of course, have names. And let’s ignore the fact that Avengers, uh, isn’t a war movie. It’s an action movie.

            But, hey, let’s pick a critically-acclaimed war movies: The Deer Hunter.

            The Deer Hunter doesn’t show the aftermath of the battle, at least not on anyone but our protagonists. A bunch of civilians get killed, and we *literally never know who they are or anything about them*, and we never get anyone’s reaction to that but our heroes. (And, it must be pointed out, the movie ends *in a bar with our heroes drinking*. Heh. I hadn’t even realized that when I picked it.)

            Nobody’s asking for The Avengers to become Shame

            Ah, now we get a name of a movie. Of…a movie that is not, in any manner, an action movie. At all. And is, in fact, a psychiology study of how people *react to war*.

            Hey, look, everyone. In a dramatic movie about how people react to war, they show the aftermath of a battle! (Well, no, actually, they don’t really do that, at least not in the way talked about here. They show how a war continues to affect two people, not how everyone is grieving the dead.)

            You know what the real problem with Avengers was? The lack of a meet-cute between the love interests! All romantic comedies are supposed to have those!

            And aren’t horror movies supposed to have a last minute scare after the villain is supposedly defeated? Avengers had *nothing* like that?

            Do you not understand that movies have *genres*?

            Action movies do not show the aftermath of battles. Hell, even a lot of *war* movies do not, especially not the action war movies. Yes, there are psychological war movies that *are* about the aftermath of the battle, and, duh, they show it, but those movies *are not the genre of movie* that Avengers is.

            but if the argument is that big budget summer B-movies aimed at teenagers aren’t supposed to break from formula, then let’s stop pretending that there’s anything special about this one.

            …and now I’m completely baffled at who you think is pretending there is something special about this movie.

            Avengers was a good action movie. I have no idea what sort of things you have imagined people have said about it.

            The writing and direction were hacky and formulaic, which is a shame because the performances were pretty good and we always hear about Joss Wheedon being something other than a hack. I suppose he’s a good gag writer.

            What you have just said is a complete opinion which means I really have no way to dispute it, but if you think the direction was ‘hacky’, I’m suspecting you were watching the movie with some preconceived ideas. I actually can’t think of *any* failure of direction in that movie. (The writing, OTOH, *was* formulaic.)

            The problem with these movies and their fans is just this- they’re basically mega budget versions of the old genre drive-in popcorn flicks for teenagers, and yet every year we get told that this one is the one to take seriously as a film that transcends its genre.

            No, the problem here is that we keep having people *claim* they ‘are being told that’, when, in fact, they literally do not appear to be being told that by *anyone*.

            Oh noes! Angry responses on twitter, including something that author of that article decided to pretend was a death threat, even though it wasn’t! My God! And people are otherwise so civil on twitter!

            And, hey, look, Rufus has decided to pretend that he keeps being told he has to think a certain way about these movies, despite, uh, the sole article he linked to not even supporting that. (The article is about how the writer merely disliked Star Wars, and people took issue with that. Not once is there a mention of fans demanding he hold it up as a shining example of cinema or the greatest thing ever. They just didn’t like that he didn’t like it.)

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          • As a popcorn action movie, The Avengers was good. This is notable because there are so many dreadful popcorn action flicks released every year.

            It was entertaining, successfully juggled a large number of characters, had some fun dialogue, had good action scences, and successfully refrained from reducing its female characters to whimpering victims or eye candy/love interests. It used its time well and refrained from having overlong exposition sequences. Most popcorn movies fail on one or several of those counts.

            Moreover, it did something that no previous superhero movie had done, and that a lot of fans had been waiting for: it brought together a bunch of different superhero characters, effectively balanced their screen time, and retained a coherent, fairly streamlined plot. This contrasts with films like X-Men 3 and Spider-Man 3, that collapsed under the weight of too many characters.

            I’ll freely grant that it had no depth, but it was lots of fun to watch and didn’t make me want to roll my eyes or beat my head against a wall, which is a standard that all too many action movies (Jurassic World, Man of Steel, Age of Ultron, Skyfall, Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men:Days of Future Past, Star Trek Into Darkness, and on, and on, and on) fail to meet.

            So, in my opinion, it’s pretty much the epitome of how to do a shallow action flick well. It doesn’t transcend its genre. It just does a very good job of its genre. If you hate that genre and think it’s all terrible, you’re entitled to that opinion.

            I appreciate more creative science fiction and superhero films (Inception, District 9, Chronicle, Looper), and don’t have much regard for any critics who prefer to lump everything interesting or creative as dumb “genre” films.

            On another note, I watch movies for fun and for emotional connection to the characters. Avengers fulfilled the first quality. Ones that fulfill both the first and second qualities are the best films. Pixar’s Up is better than any number of high-class Oscar-nominated dramas, because it makes me actually care about the people in the movie. A “high art” movie done to play with a concept (the most popular one is starting out with a bunch of unconnected people living their lives and then showing how they’re connected, a la Babel), or to show off how clever the director is, or to mix genres for the simple sake of saying “look, I’m mixing genres” (a la Birdman), or yet another white-middle-class-angst-fest, is not superior to a movie that actually makes you feel something.

            To grab something from a recent reread of a favourite book, I say of most Academy-acclaimed movies: “It never made me forget for one instant that it was a story. Therefore it is not a story.” If you can see the strings, the magician has failed, no matter how nice the strings are.

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            • Pixar’s Up transcends its genre though. It’s a big budget animated movie with a higher level of emotional depth and characterization than is necessarily demanded of that sort of movie. And it’s still highly entertaining. It’s possible to do both.

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      • He has every right to dislike it, whatever his reasons. I hoped that I had made that plain. My complaint isn’t about whether he has the right to dislike it, but how that dislike is communicated.

        As it turns out I misread him a bit, and it sounded like he just gave a tossed off “it’s horrific”, which would be an example of preference dressed up as objective truth.

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  2. Several thoughts:

    1. There was a long time when fandom was considered worthy of bullying and mockery and now it is cool. It was not too long ago that Shatner got on an SNL sketch and mocked trekkies as having no life and the Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons was a symbol of derision. Now Comic Con is big business and the oppressed becomes the oppressor.

    2. There are a lot of people I knew in college who were “too cool for school” and now they seem to be coming out (so to speak) as long-term secret geeks and making FB posts on their D and D games and reading comic books to their babies. I think if you made these people choose in college between 1. Getting shot in the head and 2. Admitting that they liked Dungeons and Dragons, a good number of them would choose getting shot in their head. My college did have an SF and Fantasy club. I wonder how all the people who were open about their fandom for a long time know about this.

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    • The shitty part of this dynamic is that, at least in my anecdotal experience, the dominance of nerd culture doesn’t mean that nerds aren’t being picked on. I’m into tabletop wargaming, a supremely nerdy hobby, and even at tournaments full of people who all chose to spend hundreds/thousands of dollars on armies of little plastic orcs, there’s a good nerd/bad nerd distinction The guys with poor social skills, less than stellar personal hygiene, speech impediments, etc., are still at least partially outcasts. The shitty parts of the nerd/jock distinction never really had anything to do with the cultural ephemera that separate each camp so much as the distinction between those with and without social power.

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      • Concurred. Even fandom, which is allegedly filled with social outcasts and nerds, has their own hierarchies and outcasts. I remember that there used to be a joke of “got soap” at cons directed at the outcasts and then there were people who seemed to be the fandom equivalent of jocks in varsity jackets. Power and no power is exactly the dynamic.

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        • , see my post bellow. I think that there are elements of class involved. The anti-fandom critics are similar to the intellectuals who were dismayed about how popular television was with the working classes because it destroyed the overly idealized version of working class life they had in their heads. While fandom isn’t working class, intellectuals have this idea of the masses gratefully receiving the ideas on what they should and should not like from them as students learn from their teachers. When the masses make their own cultural tastes known and it contradicts what the intellectuals feel they should like, the intellectuals experience rejection and the masses perceive the artistically inclined as smug elitists.

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        • Got soap isn’t a joke. it is an attempt to keep people who go to conventions healthy, despite the various and sundry activities.

          (I know someone who runs a LOT of conventions. There are hotels that you do not want to patronize after particular conventions. And I mean ever again.)

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      • The complaints of nerds are not reducible to “there’s nothing for me to do on a Friday night.”

        Treating the complaints of nerds with the response of “what are you complaining about? They make superhero movies” is to completely misunderstand the outgroup.

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          • No, not at all. I got into it with Freddie over the weekend on Twitter where he said:

            You can tell nerds are oppressed in our society because it's so hard to find positive coverage of Star Wars.— Fredrik deBoer (@freddiedeboer) December 18, 2015

            This irritated me.

            It still irritates me.

            So I’m not yelling at you. I’m yelling at Freddie.

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  3. The mention of Susan Sontag is ironic, since her essay on high and low culture played a seminal role in encouraging self-serious critics in America to take the attitude of the visual artists exploring “Pop Art,” not to approach it in relation to the aspirations of High Art – avant-garde or classical – but as a phenomenon worthy of intense cultural-critical scrutiny.

    Over the decades or generations, the approach has taken many different forms, and some critics have also questioned whether very much of the work that aspires to be taken seriously as art deserves to be anymore than much of the work that doesn’t or doesn’t seem to. It is certainly not a given that the latest “popcorn flick” reveals less of interest to a cultural critic, or an “ordinary citizen,” than the latest movie designated important by lovers of art films.

    Pure only the “formal” questions, I don’t know whether THE DANISH GIRL, for instance, adds more to cinematic art than STAR WARS VII. I tend to doubt it, though on the other hand THE DANISH GIRL likely calls upon other artistic values – narrative art, thematic development, dialogue, acting, etc. – much more than STAR WARS VII does. I suspect, but do not yet know, that as pure cinema, there will be sequences in STAR WARS VII pursuing effects that few to no current “serious” movies even think about attempting, although the idea was much on the minds of the likes of Godard, Fellini, Eisenstein when they went about their work with much less developed technical tools. For the same reason, you’ll often find more interesting montage and audio-visual complexity in a good TV commercial, or even a trailer, or a title sequence, than in so-called art movies.

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  4. There is a long history of people allegedly in favor of the masses and the working class hating the cultural tastes of the working classes and the masses. The British historian Dominic Sandbrook describes this phenomenon well in his book Never Had It So Good:A History of Britain form Suez to the Beatles. In the chapter dealing with the explosion of television in the United Kingdom, TV with Auntie on pages 365 to 370 describes how most of the Intelligentsia on the left and the right hated the growing infatuation with television besides some exception like Kingsley Amis.

    Money passage from page 367:

    Doris Lessing, for instance, wrote that television had invaded and destroyed traditional working class culture:

    ‘Before, when the men cane back from work, the tea was already on the table, a fire was roaring, the radio emitted words or music softly in a corner, they washed and sat down at their places, with the woman, the child, and whoever else in the house could be inveighed downstairs…THey all talked…
    And then…television had arrived and sat like a toad in the corner of the kitchen. Soon the bag kitchen table had been pushed against the wall, chairs were installed in a semi-circle, and on their chair arms, the swiveling supper trays. It was the end of an exuberant verbal culture.”

    “As Anthony Hartley noted in 1963, this critique of television was rooted in the outrage of intellectuals that their romanticized image of working class values had been repudiated by the working classes themselves. ‘Instead of holding discussion groups or organizing amateur theatricals,’ he wrote ‘the English working classes have been reading women’s magazines and comics or watching television -and commercial television at that. What is worse, they have appeared positively to enjoy doing so.”

    In other chapters Mr. Sandbrook describes how intellectuals hated rock music even though working class kids loved it and ate it up.

    Fandom isn’t synonymous with working class and many people in fandom are very well off but I think a very similar dynamic is at play. Fans represent the bulk of the population or the masses and the critics who aren’t enamored with their cultural preferences seem to be the same leftist intellectuals who feel betrayed that their precious working class people do not meet their ideal. The critics are emitting a sense that we know better than you and what you like is horrible. Instead you should like this and that is that. No discussion.

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    • This is a pretty astute observation. A lot of critics have probably trained themselves out of liking mass culture. Many probably have grad school educations and are looking for something that lasts the ages.

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      • Its more than training themselves not to like mass culture. Its also identifying mass culture with elements of society that they hate. With mid-20th century leftist intellectuals, mass culture was associated with the hated middle classes and the United States. Their rightist cousins saw mass culture as part of the working class and the United States. You posted how the British novelist J.R. Priestly rallied against popular movies and cheap mystery novels on LGM. Tolkien was resolutely trashed by intellectuals for not following modernist writing ideas or styles but some critics and authors like W.H. Auden did defend him.

        I’m not sure what hated group nerd-mass culture is identified with because the ideological lines and societal divisions are more jumbled now. Baby boomers did a lot of the leg work to make nerd culture mass culture and to get rid of the old high culture-low culture distinction. Their are fewer prominent critics that can or will take a harsh stance against mass culture. Most are inclined for a more charitable interpretation and to judge things as they are rather than what they should be. There are still a handful of critics that hold fast to the old modernist ideas though.

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      • Back to the Future is a movie that will last the ages. Groundhog Day is even better.

        The latest “I’m not an entertaining movie” tends to run together with the last ten “I’m not an entertaining movie” movies… Who really likes jeremiads, anyway? They’re not even supposed to be liked! They’re supposed to be endured! And maybe that’s a decent point, the FIRST time you watch a movie like that.

        (answer: the Academy Awards, who love smoke being blown up their ass).

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        • But they (there’s always a they) will say that “Groundhog Day” isn’t SF because reasons. Same as how Margaret Atwood continues to claim that “The Handmaid’s Tale” isn’t SF.

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            • Sorry, didn’t unpack – “SF” in discussions conventionally is generally taken to mean “speculative fiction” to avoid having the “Star Wars isn’t science fiction, it’s science fantasy” argument every. single. time. There’s a broad spectrum, from the likes of Tolkien that don’t even have the technology in the real world at the time, to diamond-hard futuristic works where the author apologizes for getting an orbital wobble in his Dyson ring.

              “Groundhog Day” is, like Ken Grimwood’s “Replay”, a work exploring a very specific “what if”, only the “if” isn’t scientific or technological – it isn’t even explained at all, and all the better for it. But the “exploring” makes it speculative, which puts it in the broader SF ghetto.

              Hell, the story where a cancer-ridden MLK takes a rifle after a victorious President George Wallace during his 1972 re-election campaign is SF, despite having no mystical or scientific trappings whatsoever.

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              • Ah, my bad for treating ‘sci-fi’ and ‘SF’ as equivalent terms.

                In my defense, I’m pretty sure when I was a kid the ‘SF’ on the book stacks stood for ‘science fiction’. I wasn’t aware that the acronym had been reassigned, though I can see why it’d be useful to distinguish the terms.

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                • No, as I said, I should have made sure to unpack (as in technical writing, always spell out an acronym the first time you use it to avoid this kind of ambiguity).

                  I don’t think it is officially reassigned as such. It’s a peace settlement that carried over online from print criticism due to general jadedness over the endless Western Front style battles between “science fiction” and “fantasy” that led to millions of casualties and moved the front three yards.

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                  • Speculative fiction, while it’s mentioned, should be noticed to *also* contain alternate history.

                    Basically, speculative fiction is any fiction that is set somewhere that is not a real place that actually existed.

                    Science fiction is where the setting could, in theory, be real. Or at least some sort of explanation is given explaining how it could be real, even if that explanation is total nonsense. (Unless the explanation is ‘magic’.)

                    Fantasy is where the setting couldn’t be real, or no attempt is made to explain how it could be real.

                    Alternate history is where the setting could have been real, but wasn’t.

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              • “Groundhog Day” is, like Ken Grimwood’s “Replay”, a work exploring a very specific “what if”,

                I disagree though — there are numerous works that explore what it would mean to replay a particular moment in time with slight differences, but Groundhog Day wasn’t exploring anything like that. GD is a romantic comedy, and the supernatural phenomenon was merely a plot device, another way to have the guy struggle to get the girl and to grow up in the process.

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                • Well, that,and learn how to play the piano, and rob a bank and …
                  There’s a reason it’s in the Library of Congress.
                  (Never doubt that some film critics are trolls. Someone made a very famous statement in his review of the movie saying it would never make the Library of Congress.)

                  Groundhog Day has one of the top ten screenplays of all time.

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      • Another thing that I should have noticed earlier, Doris Lessing and other British intellectuals were complaining about displacing traditional working class culture but they were romanticizing the radio. Radio culture did not exist before the 1920s and did not become widespread before the mid-1920s. You could be old enough to remember your family getting a radio and listening to it and still be under forty by the time television became a big thing in the United Kingdom in 1953.

        There was something about television that rubbed a lot of mid-20th Western intellectuals in the wrong way across the political spectrum. They simply hated it in the United States and the United Kingdom. Many countries tried to delay the introduction of television and really limit the amount of programming available for years. David Ben-Gurion loathed television and it did everything he could to prevent it from coming into Israel for as long as possible. Saudi Arabia allowed for television four years before Israel. If I’m remembering correctly, Israel only had one channel until the early 1990s.

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    • I think the critics who feel betrayed by fandom or hate those tastes are mostly imaginary at this point. It’s interesting to me really that it’s a fantasy that persists so strongly though. People very much want to believe there’s some coterie of black-clad intellectuals discussing Sartre and trashing Star Wars or the latest superhero movie somewhere in Manhattan because it makes those mass tastes more authentic somehow, and it just ain’t so. Plenty of academics are writing thick tomes about Star Wars as we speak. Pop culture is taken very seriously by the intelligentsia.

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  5. I wonder if this is less about “culture, high or low” as a general topic and more about the transition from the cultural hegemony of the baby boomers to the cultural hegemony of the millennial generation.

    When things shifted from the WWII generation to the baby boomers, they called it a counterculture movement and maybe that was an overstatement as well.

    Or maybe not. Maybe these are significant shifts and that is just how history happens.

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    • I am not so sure. There are plenty of people in fandom who are not Millennials and are Boomers. A lot of Star Wars fanatics are in Generation X because they were kids and/or college students when the original movies came out in the 1970s.

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        • Baby boomers initiated the cultural shift though. They were the ones that created the idea that growing up doesn’t mean an abandonment of youth culture and that people in their thirties and forties can still wear jeans, listen to rock, read comics, and like other entertainment associated with kids on their own rather than with their children. Before the baby boomers, there was a definite split between mass youth entertainment and mass adult entertainment.

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          • That was why I said this:

            When things shifted from the WWII generation to the baby boomers, they called it a counterculture movement and maybe that was an overstatement as well.

            To what exactly are you guys objecting?

            Each generation, in its own revolution, sews the seeds of the revolution that will supersede it.

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  6. If you want to give people an example of cultural appropriation that is relevant and understandable, point to sci-fi and fantasy.

    It is not the case that people suddenly decided that nerds were cool. It is the case that cool people decided that they liked cosplaying as nerds.

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    • My personal narrative for this is after the first Internet Boom, a bunch of very technically-oriented people – nerds – suddenly had a lot of money and power. Everyone else took notice.

      This trend converged with the emergence of CGI in film, which made it possible to put things on the screen that were impossible just a few years earlier. The comic book and sci-fi world was a perfect source to use the new capabilities to serve the new audience.

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      • Doctor Jay,
        I suspect you don’t know many of these nerds with power. They tend to be a bit tightfisted with money.

        Suggest you look towards the rise of autism for “People willing to spend entirely too much money on toyz”. (Also furries, but that’s a more specific hobby).

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  7. Similarly, the modern equivalent of a “literary event” would be the release of a new Harry Potter or Twilight book; aimed primarily at children but strangely appealing to adults looking to escape adulthood for a few hours.

    Actually the modern equivalent of a “literary event” (at least this year) is the rise of coloring books pitched at grown-ups. (Not x-rated coloring books, though those do exist, but more challenging, complex, pointedly middle-brow coloring books.) They are selling like hotcakes, at one point taking up more than 1/2 of the Publisher’s Weekly trade bestseller list, and the articles about “rediscovering coloring” are a penny a pound.

    I say this not to diss people who like to color (I have always liked it, and am thrilled to have so many more options pitched *right at me*), but just because I feel like their mere existence fits into your argument, and their massive popularity even more so.

    I don’t necessarily agree with your argument, as I understand it, but I felt like if you didn’t know about adult coloring books, you were missing a solid piece of evidence. :)

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      • Often they’re very pattern based. Or they’re based on famous artworks with a fairly high level of reproductive detail. Or they are more like Victorian illustrations than coloring book artwork, with the resultant level of detail. Or they’re drawn from tattoo artists’ catalogs… or they’re (theoretically at least) meant to support mindfulness practice (many of those are line-drawing simplifications of historical mandalas) … there are so many different options.

        Some of them are just repackaged normal coloring books, not at all complex, or dumb computer generated patterns that aren’t attractive – but most of those get very harsh reviews from a few pissed off people, so they’re pretty easy to avoid.

        The sine qua non of the genre, which was the tipping point of the whole trend, and which is currently STILL number 4 in Books on Amazon after selling out multiple runs over the past 10 months, is Enchanted Forest. (And yes, I do have a copy, and it’s beautiful. But I have been mostly coloring the decided NON-adult-I-don’t-care-how-it’s-marketed, but still fairly awesome, Santa and Kittens coloring book lately.) If you go through that link, there’s a “look inside” for the book that is fairly representative of (at least the mainstream of) the genre.

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              • Oh!! Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Some of them also involve drawing, doodling, etc. I just got one that has a page for every day of the calendar year and also a bunch of journalling space…

                I feel a bit awkward hijacking this particular post for an indepth discussion of coloring books, so let me bring it back around …
                ********

                For myself, as others have expressed in this thread, I’ve found a healthy dose of low-to-middlebrow culture (which I know when I see it, even when I like it every bit as much) makes me more inclined to high culture, not less…. and vice versa. I’m a bit of a cultural omnivore, at least in terms of class boundaries.

                Given those tendencies I sometimes DO get frustrated when people post about how much they don’t like stuff.

                Not if they are answering an honest question, responding to a solicitation, or telling a story about their day which involves said thing and it just seems relevant. Not if they really liked some previous iteration of something that’s gone through a lot of changes, and are frustrated (and cogent) about what’s changed. Not if some particular THING in some particular cultural object just drives them up the FREAKING WALL and they have to tell the world about it. Not if they are haunted in ways that make them worry about what it means for our shared future if these things are really that popular. (OK, that one makes me roll my eyes a little, but it doesn’t frustrate me.) All of those sorts of dislikes, and many more besides, make perfect sense to me, whether I agree with them or not.

                But I’m always baffled when people comment on someone’s enthusiasm just to say “meh, I thought it sucked,” or go to the effort of writing a 2000 word post to expand at length on how much it sucked while still maintaining a stance of detached disdain. On the rare occasions where I dislike something in a fairly indifferent manner, I tend to subsequently forget about it. Maybe even *go to the effort* (usually brief) of letting it go and spending my energies on stuff I do like.

                And that really does happen, from people whose preferences are all over the map, and what I struggle with myself is not feeling sad for those people. Because I enjoy *so many things* so very much, and I think “gee, sucks to be you.” Or because I don’t have to rant for an hour about how sexist / clumsy / SJW / whatever some TV show is, and thus can spend that time more pleasantly. I’ve actually really pissed off a couple of friends by responding to their dislike of something with “aw, dude, I feel bad for you” instead of vituperative disagreement or agreement. I understand exactly why they feel condescended to, at this point, and I work not to do it… but I always catch myself and fix it, rather than just not having that reaction.

                I suspect that this arrogance, which comes from at least somewhat liking almost everything one can watch, listen to, read, etc., is the actual opposite of snobbery, and that reverse snobbery is just regular snobbery in a different social context. But maybe I’m just snobbish about snobbery.

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      • Hey, that’s twice in one thread that miniature wargaming comes up. Go figure. I guess there will be reminders that I have a lot of grey plastic that needs to see a brush no matter where I go.

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        • I would love to be a miniatures wargamer. I have no talent at any relevant craft, and completely lack any kind of organizational skills or attention to detail (I’m constantly amazed that I continue to survive as a software developer, since I’m temperamentally wrong wrong wrong for the job). I can’t even be arsed to trim cardboard counters correctly, which is why I wholeheartedly embraced the shift to online gaming…

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  8. two observations

    1) people got hella bad self esteem. they identify with the things they love so deeply that any dissent is an attack on the self, rather than a critique of xyz. “you are what you love” is a thing.

    2) people are really bad at dealing with criticism of anything. and many, many times they’re even worse at talking about what they love. and because that love turns inward, saying “operas are hella lame” or “star wars more like thinly plotted butt wars ho ho ho” is the equivalent of setting someone’s house on fire. emotionally.

    and since we live in an age that heavily weighs personal feelings – and upcoming generations are even more committed to this belief system – you’ll see more folk who attach emotional, moral, and even political value systems to something external, imaginary, and mass produced. and because liking the right or wrong things is a tagging system of sorts, lets you know who good people are (because they like good things) and bad people (who most certainly do not like good things).

    so maybe the answer is people need to learn how to love? at least according to this particular value system i’m promoting, which is impersonal, dialectical, and somewhat dispassionate. cishet white male something something something late capitalism, etc.

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    • Everybody wants to belong. I am bemused by the wave of Star Wars hype, because it feels like the hype leading up to the Big Game – something I also feel left out of.

      But it happens for the same reasons, and the people who aren’t seen as “supporting our team” are subject to the same abuse.

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    • dhex: and since we live in an age that heavily weighs personal feelings – and upcoming generations are even more committed to this belief system – you’ll see more folk who attach emotional, moral, and even political value systems to something external, imaginary, and mass produced.

      I think this analysis severely misrepresents the relationship that upcoming generations have with the concept of personal feelings. Late Millennials are are about being conscious of feelings, their own and others. The phenomenon of folks who self identify with star wars so much they viciously attack critics who hate on it is much more about unconscious or unexamined feelings. I think the subconscious connection of emotional or moral value systems to pop culture is much more of a late-Gen X/Early Millennial thing. I love the eighties is so… aughts.

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      • “I think this analysis severely misrepresents the relationship that upcoming generations have with the concept of personal feelings.”

        perhaps, though i obviously don’t think so. but i work in higher education, so in technical terms, everything is all sorts of crazy bananas and perhaps necessarily dilates my ability to properly judge young persons and zeitgeisty stuff.

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  9. The War On Babbitry.

    “Babbitry” was abandoned for a handful of reasons but “bourgeois” was one of the terms I think I remember as being part of the reason we did so.

    Well, we won. Babbitry was destroyed!

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    • Well, also because Babbit and it’s ilk wasn’t all that good. I mean, if you give me a choice between Tolstoy or Dickens or even Twain and Game of Thrones, and I’ll see your argument about quality. If the choice was between Babbit and other mid-tier Great American Novel’s (up to today – I mean, has anybody actually ever enjoyed a Johnathan Franzen book?) and Game of Thrones, then give me the dragons and incest any day.

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      • That wasn’t why we got rid of Babbitry, though.

        It wasn’t “these novels aren’t as good as those novels”. (Well, for reasons of “good” implying quality. It might have been true for reasons involving moral status.)

        It seems to me that it was more about authenticity, and Bohemian values vs Bourgeois values, and casting off of the old stultifying conformity, man.

        Which also caught Tolstoy and Dickens in its shotgun blast.

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        • We really couldn’t come to a definition of what Babbitry was last time we debated it. A lot of the people who are criticizing the rise of nerd culture hold Bohemian rather than bourgeois values and you can make a good argument that Star Wars and similar movies are the most middle brow culture available at the moment. They usually have some message or moral of sorts like Ant-Man’s theme of father-daughter love and some sly wit and enough good writing that they don’t seem to dumb. For some definitions of Babbitry, comic book movies firm squarely in the bourgeois family.

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          • Comic book movies filled the vacuum left by Babbitry’s disappearance.

            It’s the “new” middlebrow mass culture that everybody in the office is expected to know how to talk about if they want to be able to talk about mass culture at the office.

            And, ironically enough, it seems pretty immune to the whole “authenticity, and Bohemian values vs Bourgeois values, and casting off of the old stultifying conformity” critique.

            Funny.

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            • It’s the “new” middlebrow mass culture that everybody in the office is expected to know how to talk about if they want to be able to talk about mass culture at the office.

              Providing more support for my “it’s like the local football team: that thing you can talk about with people with whom you have nothing else in common” theory.

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            • Bohemian and nerd culture allow for a lot more eccentricity in dress and behavior than Babbit culture* did. A Babbit could not dress up as a Roman Senator to the latest Hollywood epic movie. You can dress up as a Jedi Knight or Sith Lord to a Star Wars movie. Babbits always had to dress for the occasion while Bohemians and Nerds can dress how they want under most circumstances. Its is the shared allowance for eccentricity that gives nerd culture immunity to Bohemian critique.

              *I use the word Babbit rather than bourgeois because their is a high culture and intellectually oriented part to bourgeois culture, especially in the European bourgeois tradition, that doesn’t quite fit in with what you mean by Babbits.

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        • We really couldn’t come to a definition of what Babbitry was last time we debated it. A lot of the people who are criticizing the rise of nerd culture hold Bohemian rather than bourgeois values and you can make a good argument that Star Wars and similar movies are the most middle brow culture available at the moment. They usually have some message or moral of sorts like Ant-Man’s theme of father-daughter love and some sly wit and enough good writing that they don’t seem to dumb. For some definitions of Babbitry, comic book movies firm squarely in the bourgeois family.

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      • I kind of love your Jonathan Franzen reference. When people were fussing about him a year ago or so, I wondered, “Why does anybody give a single copulation about this person and what he thinks?”

        My answer is that a group of people with a lot of power in the literary world do care about him, and that makes him important. I’m very glad to have nothing to do with those people.

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        • @doctor-jay

          There is also the fact that Jonathan Franzen makes a perfect foil and he knows it and uses it.

          There is also the fact that Jennifer Weiner was practicing the anti-intellectualism I hate about reverse snobbery when she said the NY Times should stop reviewing scholarly and serious books because no one reads them. I never got this sort of argument in populism. “Media X makes piles of money. Media Y does not. Therefore, every critic should stop paying attention to Media Y.” Isn’t part of being a critic stating “Hey audience, Media Y is small but really good. Check it out!!”

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          • Saul,
            Practically no one writes serious books, because people hate serious books. Serious books work at changing someone’s paradigm, not feeding into preexisting notions.

            They don’t sell well, there’s no market for them.

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      • has anybody actually ever enjoyed a Johnathan Franzen book

        I thought The Corrections was good read; like a much more compact Infinite Jest, in its themes.

        Franzen may well be overrated or -hyped, but (based on that book, anyway, I haven’t read any others of his) I see no reason that he needs to become a punchline either.

        More broadly: “Has anybody ever enjoyed X” is a ridiculous formulation, since for any X, the answer will ALWAYS be ‘yes’.

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        • I’ve never even attempted his novels (and have reason to think I wouldn’t enjoy them based on a bit of skimming), but I loved his book of essays, How to Be Alone, enough that I reread it, and still think about his Post Office essay from time to time.

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          • Do you often skim a little, to get a feel for if you will like a book or not?

            I must be weird, because I never do that with books – I base my choices on reviews/recommendations/blurbs/neat covers; whereas if it’s a record or a movie, I almost always want some small amount of “try-before-buy”.

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            • Only in certain ways. (And probably “sample” is more accurate than “skim” most of the time, now that I think about it.) Mostly I will read the first page or two, just to see if I like the voice, and then put it on my enormously long multi-hundred-page list of things I want to read… which means by the time I get around to reading it I’ve unspoiled myself … and that’s only for things I am initially feeling ambivalent about. With Franzen, and the odd book like that, I’ve occasionally skimmed (again, maybe 7 or 8 random paragraphs) mostly looking for something that makes me want to put the book down, when I have a gut feeling I won’t like a book but have loved something else by the author. It doesn’t rule it out, more takes away any sense of urgency.

              Sometimes with comics, if they are webcomics also, I will read the web comic to determine if it goes in “webcomics I want to catch up on” or “so amazing I MUST BUY THEM ALL IN TRADE PAPER NOW NOW NOW WRITE MORE PLEASE”. Because, you know, webcomics are not always stable and I still like reading graphic narrative better in TP format.

              Then sometimes if I have a ton of stuff that is due back at the library sooner, but something I am absolutely *craving* that has no deadline, I will dive into a random page or two of the latter and just sort of … inhale a few paragraphs… and then slam the book shut, satisfied to know that when I *do* get to it, yes, it will have that delightful voice / wit / rhythm / whatever that I was hoping for. Again, I usually manage to completely forget whatever I had read by the time I actually sit down with the book.

              All that said, however, the vast majority of the books I read (99 percent?), most of which I get from the library, I have not skimmed AT ALL. I’ve also successfully handsold a lot of books without skimming them. (Usually because I know I want to read them later.)

              I don’t do that with movies – my ideal situation is to not even have watched a trailer, but sometimes I am just so hopeful or wary that I can’t help myself – I didn’t even remember the new main characters’ names when I went to SW:TFA for example, let alone have any idea of their context.

              I often do try-before-I-buy with music, but I think that’s because songs are discrete units? And also because I can listen to the whole album online. But I anticipate listening to a purchased album potentially about 100 times or more, before I die, so it’s kind of a different situation. On the other hand, I used to buy tapes or CDs out of the bargain bin all the time, without knowing anything about what they sounded like, and some of my favorite albums came from there. The modern equivalent seems to be letting YouTube expose me to random related things until I fall in love with something. Cheaper :D.

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              • I’ll look at comics ahead of time if I can, just because I want to check out the art and make sure it’s appealing (but sometimes that has led me astray, like when I put off reading Watchmen for years, because at just a glance, I didn’t care for the art style – I didn’t realize the style was part of the story being told. When I finally read it I was mad at myself for holding out so long.)

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        • I have Freedom in my to-read stack. I liked Corrections, and thought it did a lot of the things Infinite Jest did, in mercifully-more-economical ways (and I liked Jest too, but seriously and good God, there was no need to make it THAT long).

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  10. Also, I’d point out ‘pulp’ has always been wildly popular. Dime store novels about my namesake and Billy the Kid sold millions. Noir stories kept a lot of publishers in business during the 30’s. Hell, in a lot of ways, even the Sherlock Holmes or Charles Dickens serial stories weren’t that much different from comic books – over the top villains, heroes with ‘secret’ origins, etc., etc.

    In general, few people actually like seriousness for seriousness sakes. When you’re done working a long shift at a New York factory in the 20’s or a pre-Christmas shift at Wal-Mart, you don’t want to think too hard. You just want to escape.

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