What Makes Things Good

I’ve realized recently that I need some better vocabulary with which to think about the media I like and the reasons that I like it.

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There are at least three different kinds of virtue that a given piece of media can possess, three different reasons that you might want to call it “good.”  (In fact I’m sure there are many more, but…these three seem salient to me, and relevant to my current analytic purposes.)  I don’t know whether it’s fair to say that they’re totally orthogonal to each other, but they’re not super correlated, and it’s definitely possible to have them or lack them in any combination.

Literary Merit is the hardest of these virtues to define in a compelling way, and it’s almost certainly the least-coherent of the three conceptually, but it’s also the one with which we’re most familiar.  It’s…well, it’s a composite of all the factors that would cause you to feel comfortable saying “this thing is Worthwhile!” in a judgmental high-prestige intellectual setting, rather than retreating to a less-assertive claim like “I like it.”  In most of its manifestations, it is rooted in theme and technical considerations.  It will often arise from traits like “it has profound things to say about the human condition” or “it depicts such-and-such a phenomenon in a stunningly real way.”  It may also arise from traits like “the creator displays such a virtuosic command of prose / camera angles / whatever.”

Digestibility is the conceptually-simplest of the virtues, although its precise meaning differs from medium to medium.  It’s the thing that makes a work easy and pleasant to consume — the thing that makes you actually enjoy the moment-to-moment experience of engaging with it, the thing that “hooks you in” and makes you want to keep going rather than turning to something else.  In most media, it’s primarily rooted in plot, and sometimes in dialogue — all the various aspects of storytelling that stand or fall on their pacing.  In video games, it’s rooted in some arcane combination of “solid engaging gameplay” (whatever that means) and Skinner-boxing.

Stickiness is, for lack of a better explanation in which to ground it, “the thing that generates fandom.”  It causes you to care about the story after you’ve finished consuming it, not in a detached or observational or critical way, but in a viscerally enthusiastic way; it makes the story’s contents seem resonant enough and real enough to deserve a continued place in your mental/emotional  landscape.  It’s largely an outgrowth of character and setting.  The two most reliable ways to create a Sticky work involve making sure you have (a) a large cast of interesting characters with interesting relationships connecting them, and/or (b) a big sprawling coolness-filled setting that seems like it has room for further exploration.

(I’m not at all sure that I like the names I chose for these virtues.  They get at approximately the ideas that I want, but…managing nuance and connotation is hard.  “Digestibility” doesn’t really sound like a serious non-sarcastic virtue — which it is — and “Stickiness” isn’t great on that front either.)

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Unsurprisingly, because Literary Merit is the virtue that gets used to justify cultural prestige, it’s the one that became an ideological football.  Everyone (including me!) has an opinion about exactly what it means and why everyone else is wrong about it. Deconstructionists proclaim that in fact Literary Merit isn’t a real thing at all, it’s just a form of conceptual bullying used by Privileged Cultural Gatekeepers to declare that their stuff is better than other people’s stuff.  Literary populists declare that Digestibility is actually a key component of Literary Merit and that non-Digestible art is just pretentious hokum.  Activist-types insist that Literary Merit hinges on having the right kind of political(/social/whatever) underpinnings.  All the critics and theorists use the concept in their own idiosyncratic ways.  Overall, it’s very difficult to talk productively about Literary Merit in the public sphere.

Nonetheless I think it’s real and valuable and worthy of discussion.  I care about profound insights into the human condition, and stunningly real depictions of things, and virtuosity, and things like that.  I think they matter independently of audience enjoyment.

Digestibility is, of course, the holy grail of commercially-oriented content producers.  Pretty much everyone values it for its own sake, most consumers really don’t care much about anything else, and — for all sorts of obvious reasons — it’s the thing that gets you quantifiably measurable forms of success.  Most mass-market media is obviously trying to optimize for Digestibility.

Stickiness doesn’t really matter to anyone other than certain geeks (although the ranks of those geeks have been growing for a long time now).  It doesn’t have any impact at all unless the audience possesses a particular sort of narrative receptivity, a willingness to obsess.   Thus it tends not to be appreciated as its own thing.  You see lots of discussions concerning Literary Merit and Digestibility, but Stickiness is either ignored entirely or folded into one of the other virtues.  But insofar as fandom matters to you — and even if you’re not any kind of fan yourself, fandom has come to wield enough cultural power that it should matter to you — it’s worth separating it out and giving it some thought.

 

 

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What Makes Things Good

5 thoughts on “What Makes Things Good

  1. I don’t think it’s the case that stickiness “doesn’t really matter to anyone other than certain geeks”—at least, it’s probably the case that, as niche marketing in media becomes more prevalent, some content creators are realizing that aiming for stickiness alongside digestibility (not instead of digestibility) can be a path to a reliable revenue stream.

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    1. Hrm. Do you have examples in mind that come from outside the general universe of genre fiction? (I imagine that genre fiction creators have always gone for stickiness, on the grounds that genre fiction consumers often tend to be “certain geeks.” And of course that universe has been growing a lot over the past decade.)

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  2. Pickle says:

    I’m not very happy with the current construction of Literary Merit, mostly because I think giving it that name “proves too much”; it seems to be the place where technical execution/craftsmanship lives, but even though I’m a huge fan of Arkham Asylum, I would not be comfortable saying that it has literary merit solely because the mechanics do an excellent job of recreating the Batman fantasy. I know you specifically called out game mechanics under Digestibility, but I read that as “the degree to which the media gives you a smooth on-ramp to experiencing it,” e.g. “the controls are responsive” and “they don’t throw everything at you from the word go” rather than “the mechanics cohere in an interesting way.” Or for a non-video-game example, the sorts of camera work/editing tricks that Every Frame a Painting talks about. I’m not seeing an obvious place *other* than Literary Merit to slot these things under.

    (I guess this includes me in the ranks of people described here: “Everyone (including me!) has an opinion about exactly what it means and why everyone else is wrong about it.”)

    That aside: I am very fond of this concept of Stickiness, in that it feels like a useful generalization of some things I’ve observed about “what things generate fandom and how they do so.” And to answer your question to AJD in the other comment thread: lots of children’s shows are in fact deliberately designed to be sticky with the goal of merchandising the hell of out them (though possibly this counts as genre fiction).

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    1. Literary Merit is certainly the most open-ended of the three things I describe, and the closest to being a catchall category. It is, uh, meant to be a theoretical football for people who want to argue. “Does it display Literary Merit to capture the Batman fantasy in video game mechanics?” certainly seems like a plausible argument of that stripe.

      Or you can just file this under “in fact I’m sure there are many more.”

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