Book Review: Portal of a Thousand Worlds

This is a discussion of a fantasy novel, which ended up being weird enough in an experiential/literary way that I thought it worth some extended thought.  Quite apart from anything else, it’s a pretty fun read, as fantasy novels go.  Good prose, engaging characters, etc.  If “magic assassins and court intrigue in fictionalized Qing-era China” sounds appealing, well, Portal of a Thousand Worlds will probably appeal.  It will also be a bit disconcerting, for reasons that constitute the topic of this review.  But overall I probably recommend it.

That said: I cannot talk about the things that make this book noteworthy without spoiling it in a very substantial way.  I am not holding anything back.  So, uh, don’t look below the cut unless you’re OK being spoiled.  Go and read Portal of a Thousand Worlds first, if you think you might be interested.

Continue reading “Book Review: Portal of a Thousand Worlds”

Book Review: Portal of a Thousand Worlds

The Story of the Self

“Is our identity a real and definite thing, or just another model that is useful to describe the complex contradictory web of things that find some locus around us?” bambamramfan, 2/20/2017

It’s neither of those.  Not on the most fundamental level, anyway.

People who talk about the role of identity-narrative in the human psyche, these days, tend to characterize it primarily as an artifact of knowledge — as a sort of map to the territory-that-is-the-real-self, meant to serve as a guide to uncovering or understanding the empirical truths of that domain.  Rationalists are especially prone to this, which is understandable, given that rationalist philosophy in general is obsessively focused on acquiring empirical truths.  So you get a lot of discussion about how identity narratives maybe aren’t very good maps, how they’re prone to leading you into certain kinds of distortion and error, etc.  You end up with exhortations to “keep your identity small” for the sake of not getting wedded to falsehoods, and suchlike.

Which is all very reasonable, as far as it goes.  It is true that people sometimes turn to identity-narratives for predictive power, both their own narratives and those of others, and that this can yield some painfully stupid results.  (E.g., a self-identified libertarian asking “can a libertarian believe X?” rather than just figuring out whether X is a reasonable thing to believe.)  It is true that having a strong identity-narrative sometimes puts you in the position of really wanting to double down on empirical wrongness because that’s the only way to avoid a narcissistic injury.  It is true that in actual fact people are very complicated and multifaceted and messy, often much more so than their personal narratives would suggest, and that you lose a bunch of potentially-important detail if you try to use their constructed identities as perfect maps of reality.  These things matter, and if you don’t take them into account, bad outcomes lie in wait.

But this is all somewhat missing the point.  An identity narrative is not primarily designed to be an artifact of knowledge.  Insofar as it offers any predictive power, that’s a tertiary benefit at most.  All these very real costs of the “narcissism” technology need to be weighed against its legitimate primary benefits, which generally don’t even show up in the conversation at all.  So…it may be worth taking a few moments to spell out, in slightly more detail, what those benefits are.

Identity is not about Truth, but about Beauty.

Maintaining a narrative-of-yourself gives you the power to appreciate your life in the way that you appreciate stories. 

Which is fortunate, because it turns out that humans appreciate stories in a different way — often a more robust, satisfying way — than they appreciate actual things in the actual world.

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Let’s step back for a bit and talk about “narratives” in a more normal sense.

In the West, for close to a century now, the dominant prestige form of literature has been the “literary novel” (along with its made-for-the-stage close cousin, the “literary drama.”)  This is usually a relentlessly grounded narrative, constrained by genre convention to be close-to-maximally realistic and close-to-maximally relatable, in which Basically Normal People who are embedded in a Basically Normal Situation have Basically Normal Feelings and Reactions which are explored in exhaustive detail.  The mean, only-kinda-unfair stereotype is that the genre centers on “stories about middle-aged adulterous English professors who endlessly contemplate the petty frustrations of their lives,” and that every literary novel is only a step or two away from that archetype.

It took the artistic world by storm.  All the Serious-About-Literature people got really, really, really into this kind of thing.

There was, of course, all kinds of popular resistance.  The literary novel wasn’t splashy and wasn’t fun and often wasn’t especially easy to consume.  It didn’t really speak to your imagination, your sensawunda, your desire for grand and romantic and numinous things.  Lots of people thought that prestige fiction was fundamentally boring and stupid.  My own notional culture-tribe, the geeks, were especially vehement about this.  They were so goddamn adamant that stories should be about exciting and cool things!  Like spaceships and wizards and dragons and heroic last stands!  They would not be shamed or bullied by the intellectual popular kids!  They would follow their own star, away from the muck and the mire of sordid realism!

Which is why I find it so hilarious that…in their own roundabout fashion…the geeks ended up finding ways to chuck all the exciting and cool stuff out of their fiction, and ultimately reinventing the literary novel.  In their circles, such works are called “coffeeshop AUs” and “high school AUs.”

…I mean, yes, the exact nature of the content tends to be a bit different.  Which is no surprise; compared to your average published lit-fic author, your average A03 writer is a lot less likely to be obsessed with adultery and academic politics and ennui, and a lot more likely to be obsessed with adolescent yearnings and crushes.  But, allowing for expected personal differences between  the creators and the target audiences of these genres, the narrative tactics involved are remarkably parallel.  You take your characters and stick them in the most basic and typical circumstances you can find, deliberately rooting out any possibility of plot-driven suspense and any stakes beyond the personal and emotional.  You have them go through ordinary, everyday interactions with each other and with the world.  And you chronicle their thoughts about those things on a very very very fine-grained level, trusting that your readers will relate and therefore care.

As fan literature has become a well-established phenomenon subject to its own natural laws, it’s become increasingly clear that the highest-entropy state for any fandom is an endless sea of coffeeshop AUs and the like.  Eventually all the cool worldbuilding bits and bobs will cease to be exciting, and then they’ll wither away in the consciousness of the fans, but hashing out the emotional realities of the characters (or of fannish reinterpretations of those characters) can remain compelling pretty much indefinitely.

Stories like this are not the best at getting people invested in them.  Which should not be any kind of surprise; there are all sorts of obvious reasons to find them dull and samey and pointlessly indulgent.  But for those who are already prepared to be invested, whether they’re Big-Name Authors who Take Literature seriously or teenage Tumblrinas in a fan community, such narratives have immense power.  They have enough power to crowd out everything else, in the end, including the cool shit with spaceships and wizards and heroic last stands.

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Do you find that weird?  You should.  I sure find it weird.  I spent years trying to figure out what the hell was up with this phenomenon, including during periods when it was actively playing out inside my own psyche.

A literary novel, or a coffeeshop AU for that matter, is basically a low-fidelity reproduction of normal life.  Why the hell do we find it more interesting than actual for-realsies normal life, which is the same thing with much richer detail and fewer auctorial screw-ups?

I have literally sat at a party, listening to someone talk about the mind-numbing tedious detail of her emotional drama, and thought: God almighty, shut up shut up shut up, I can’t believe you think anyone would be interested in this shit.  I don’t want to be here at all.  I want to go home, and curl up with my nice Philip Roth book, and…read about the mind-numbing tedious detail of someone’s emotional dramaHuh.  

(And you can say that Philip Roth is at least an abnormally effective prose stylist, which is true, but…apparently the exact same thing happens when the author in question is a random teenage Tumblrina writing about Homestuck characters working as baristas.)

What gives?

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The short-short-short version of the answer is:

A story, simply by virtue of being told as a story — if it is acknowledged, by the audience, as a story worth the telling — performs a strange psychological alchemy upon the events that it relates.  They come to matter, in a way that mere material happenings do not matter.  We become able to find beauty and meaning within them.

If you will permit me a moment of poetic metaphor: we perceive stories with the distantly appreciative eyes of God, who looked upon His creation and found it good, and not only with the pragmatic advantage-seeking eyes of men.

I am not going to try to explain exactly what causes this to be true.  At the very least, that’s a project for a very big book, not for a blog post.  Probably I couldn’t do it even if I were willing to devote years to the task.  I’m pretty sure it involves complicated psychological truths, having to do with the mental structures that allow for classical conditioning and suchlike, and I am not any kind of psychologist.  I’m reasonably confident that it also involves the basic constitutive structure of the brain, by which I mean the fact that neurons are linked in an anagogic-associative fashion rather than in any more logic-driven way, and I am definitely not a neurologist.  I will leave these questions to the people competent to address them.

But even on a purely humanistic level, there is understanding to be gained here.  Stories are rituals.  On a basic functional level, narrative is a tool that we developed to allow us to process events in a more-detached, more-contemplative, and more-emotionally-responsive way.  “Once upon a time” translates to “you should shut up and listen to this, not because it contains nuggets of information that will help you find food or defeat your Hated Rival or whatever, but because considering it in its entirety will touch your heart and guide you to wisdom.”  Someone being the main character of a tale is a universal signal that his story is worth caring about, because if it weren’t, there would be no point in telling the tale at all.  Even if none of this stuff is hard-wired into the human brain — which strikes me as deeply implausible, but whatever — narrative is a technology that we’re all taught to use from earliest childhood, and by the time we’re adults we are extremely good at consuming it properly.

The boring person at a party is…just a boring person.  My instinctive praxis with her is to scan her anecdotes for information that looks obviously worthwhile or relevant, come up with nothing, and become irritated.  I could engage with her on a narrative level, and if I did I would probably be a lot more interested, but it’s not a natural thing to do; she’s not speaking the right language or giving off the right signals, I have no reason to trust her as a tale-teller.  When I go home and pick up Goodbye Columbus, I’m walking into that experience planning to be Philip Roth’s narratively-receptive audience, and so it becomes engaging and compelling to listen to some shmuck telling his own really-not-that-different quotidian anecdotes.  Of course it matters what happens to this guy!  He’s the fucking protagonist!  If there’s going to be any kind of artistic soul-firing payout here, I have to care!  And it’s silly to imagine that there wouldn’t be an artistic soul-firing payout — this is literature, isn’t it?

(I should clarify, because it’s important: this mechanism does not require prestige to function, although prestige can help.  You can watch an episode of Digimon and pretty much the same thing will happen, so long as you’re minimally prepared to invest in the narrative, which is why the world contains Digimon fanfic.  There may not be a sense that you’re consuming Great Art that Speaks to the Human Condition, but there is a sense that you’re consuming a story-worth-the-telling whose truths and revelations will affect you somehow.)

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It is really, really, really awesome that humans are capable of perceiving themselves in this narrative-powered sort of way.  It makes our experience of the world less mundane, less rooted in the eternal scramble for small successes, more defined by symbolic and (potentially) mythic concepts.  It can make us happy in moments when the world does not align towards our happiness.  It makes us a little less like beasts, a little more like gods, in the way we perceive things.  It helps to turn us into art.

Occasionally you’ll run into a positivity meme saying something like the following:

When you find yourself fixating on your flaws and failures, remember that if you were a character in a book or a TV show, the audience would love you for those weird quirks. 

You can laugh at the Hallmark-ish sentimentality there, if you like, but there’s a real wisdom buried in it.  When you examine your life in a normal “worldly” operational-logic-driven mode, the only things you can really perceive are desire and fulfillment and loss, pleasure and pain, success and failure.  When you examine your life (ahem) narcissistically, you gain a new evaluative and appreciative dimension.  You can look at things, not as someone inside the system trying to satisfy goals, but as someone outside the system looking at it as an artifact whose value is potentially inherent.  Is this person the person he should be?  Is there something enlightening, or touching, or just-plain-awesome about this story?  Am I beholding a form of beauty?

The utility of this mindset really does not come out of its predictive-modeling power.

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SIDEBAR:

Because narrative identities are ultimately disconnected from any kind of truth-finding purpose, they can easily incorporate elements that are not empirically valid propositions at all.  This turns out to be critical, if you want to understand how identity-building works, and especially if you want to be able to help others construct identities in a practical way.

Consider: I am affiliated with the element of fire.

On a propositional level, this is a meaningless non-statement in several different ways.  It is, as they say, “not even wrong.”  If you’re trying to translate it into falsifiable statements about the speaker’s personality, you will fail; at best you can treat it purely as a metaphor, give it some clunky more-propositional meaning whose nuances are likely to be importantly different, and then evaluate that.

But it’s nonetheless the sort of thing that goes into people’s identities all the time.  And there’s no reason it shouldn’t.  It’s not meaningful as a claim about a person, but it is meaningful as a claim about a story, and the whole point of having an identity is that you can perceive yourself in narrative terms.  We all know what it means to say “in this tale, fire is a symbol representing Character X.”  If you’re affiliated with the element of fire, it probably means that you consider yourself to partake in the traits of fire in some not-very-tightly-defined way, such that you recognize the truth of your narrative when you act in a discernibly “fiery” manner.  It probably means that, when you perceive fire being awesome (as in a pretty picture or whatever) — or anti-awesome (as when it burns down your friend’s house) — there is a resonance that shades over onto the meaning of your own personal existence.  Such relationships and correspondences often serve to define and connect literary constructs, even if they cannot exist with reference to physical objects or logical propositions.

The Story of the Self

Never Has a Fantasy Been More Final, Part 2

…this is less a “conclusion,” or even an “argument,” than an apology.  I am no longer convinced that my literary-theory ideas about Final Fantasy hold any water.  In particular, it is not clear to me how much I’m seeing something real and how much I’m looking through the lens of my own personal memories and resonances.  I’m going to have to think about this some more before I have anything especially useful to contribute.

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As I said: as a kid, I was obsessed with Final Fantasy.  This is not any kind of distinctive or interesting.  Being obsessed with Final Fantasy was pretty close to a default, at least for geeks of a certain stripe, during the late-90s-to-early-aughts era when VII and VIII became unfathomably huge.

I can say that I was obsessed with the series before it became so huge, which is true, but still not super interesting.  Even the early games were pretty big.  There’s no hipster cred here, I assure you.

It may be a little bit more noteworthy to point out that I was obsessed with the series for many years before I ever once played a Final Fantasy game, and before I ever knew of a single other person who cared about Final Fantasy.

When I was very young (five? six?), there was a brief period when I was getting regularly left alone for a while in the public library after kindergarten.  I did some amount of the exploration and book-finding that you’d expect from a Bookish Kid in such a situation, but honestly I was kind of skittish and easily-spooked, so I spent a lot of time waiting around in the main well-lit common area and looking through whatever there was to be found right there.  Mostly there was a ragged collection of magazines.  Including several issues of Nintendo Power, notably this one, which contained a comprehensive rundown on Final Fantasy I.  I read it over and over and over.  It developed a grip on my soul comparable to the grip held by my very favorite stories and novels.

Or, in other words: a sufficiently-thorough description of FFI is enough to enthrall an imaginative child, even without any social or cultural support, even without the (dubious) joys of the actual game itself.  This is the phenomenon that I want to unpack.

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But of course this history makes it clear that my interest in the series is, at least to some extent, an Extremely Niche Special-Circumstances Thing.

It is true that it’s easy to fall in love with almost anything big and weird, when you’re sufficiently young, if you encounter it in an unsupervised way and get to make it part of your own private kingdom.

It is also true that, even within the population of people who are prepared to be obsessed by stories, only a few people are inclined to appreciate those stories by hoarding bits of story-related data like magpies.  Not all geeks get really excited by the appendices; not everyone finds a comforting warmth in fake maps and fake historical chronicles and so forth.  I am, to be sure, pretty much at the far end of that spectrum.  And of course it is mostly this magpie-like love of loremastery that can lead someone to find interest in a Nintendo Power strategy guide, without any access to the game itself.  I really liked knowing exactly what all the monsters were and what they looked like and what they could do, how strong all the weapons and spells were and where they could be found, etc.

If your artistic Stickiness involves appealing to that instinct, well, all I can say is that it’s not going to scale up very well and it’s not going to appeal to more than an  extremely-limited audience.

And yet.  There’s obviously something to the Final Fantasy phenomenon that transcends such idiosyncrasies.  Were it not so, the series wouldn’t have gotten so much traction.  And, as I said in my last post, it’s really not that the games are so pleasant and fun to play.  They are not.

(It must be admitted that FFI came out in the dark days of monotonous grind-tastic RPGs.  There was a definite market for games that weren’t pleasant or fun; for some people, in the absence of better options, filling bars and killing time was enough.  But Final Fantasy rose on eagle’s wings above all its many competitors in that genre, and did so for a reason…)

I dunno.  I shall ponder.

Never Has a Fantasy Been More Final, Part 2

Never Has a Fantasy Been More Final, Part 1

I recently finished the storyline campaign of Final Fantasy XV.

I’m glad to have done so.  It’s been a while for me.  I’ve missed the last several entries in the series — I just never got around to XII (to my regret), I skipped XIII (which I don’t regret at all given what I’ve heard), and XI and XIV are MMORPGs that don’t count and clearly shouldn’t be in the main series in the first place.  I haven’t played through a Final Fantasy game for the first time since Final Fantasy X in…God almighty, it was 2002.

And Final Fantasy is important to me.  It’s been important to me since early childhood.

More than that: I’m willing to say that Final Fantasy is important in general.  It’s got a bizarre kind of social and emotional traction.  Anyone who fancies himself a culture-designer should want to understand it.  It is on my shortlist of Games That Could Be Reverse-Engineered to Help Save the World.

So, in honor of the end of a 15-year hiatus: a little bit of talk about Final Fantasy and what makes it work.

But, first, a little bit of talk about what doesn’t make it work.

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My last post, which laid out a tripartite model of media value, was specifically meant to lead into this one.  Because, when you look at all of Final Fantasy’s success, it’s kind of amazing to realize how many things it does really badly.

It probably doesn’t need to be said that FF games don’t contain much in the way of (ahem) Literary Merit.  The characters are mostly shallow and stereotypical, and their particular quirks mostly come pre-Flanderized — everything they say and do can be derived from a few simple keywords, except at a few moments of Great Drama, when they say and do whatever is necessary to advance the plot or the alleged character-development arc.  The themes tend towards the maximally-cliche, like “love will find a way” or “courage and friendship are good” or “destroying the planet is bad.”  As for the mechanics…well, in Ye Olden Days of Final Fantasy I they represented a clever way of having the player engage with a D&D-type story in video game form, but since then they haven’t done anything to provide a revelatory new experience for the player.  All in all, your English professor will not be impressed.

More surprisingly, Final Fantasy games also mostly fail to be very Digestible.

I mean, they do all right with the standard RPG bag of tricks, finding various ways to string the player along with small achievable goals and irregular-but-frequent rewards.  (Some of those tricks originated in Final Fantasy games.)  They do manage to achieve a certain level of just-one-more-sidequest can’t-put-down-the-controller hypnosis, without which they probably couldn’t function at all.  But it’s less than you’d think, given how popular the series is, and given the genre in which it’s working.  Both the storytelling and the mechanics, rather than soothing, do an awful lot to grate.

Traditionally, the actual gameplay part of a Final Fantasy game consisted of mostly turn-based menu-driven battles.  A lot of turn-based menu-driven battles.  These are not particularly fun, or immersive, or engaging, or anything.  When they’re easy, which they usually are, they boil down to “press X repeatedly until all the enemies die.”  When they’re hard, they are simple spreadsheet management.  Everyone who’s played the series knows the feeling of being driven totally batty by Yet Another Random Encounter and wishing that all the fighting would just fucking stop — despite the fact that the fighting is the core of what the game has to offer.

Recent installations have tried to mix up that model somewhat.  FFXV gets you gameplay that consists of “not-quite-as-good Kingdom Hearts fighting, which is itself not-quite-as-good God of War fighting plus menu manipulation, as well as a few frustrating badly-implemented stealth sequences and a frustrating fishing minigame and similar out-of-genre inclusions.”  FFXIII, as I hear tell, had an innovative “run down a linear hallway and hold down a single button to win battles” model of gameplay for its first 20 hours or so.

Point being, this is not the kind of fun that gets its hooks deep in you.

As for the story, well…there’s a reason that Final Fantasy has become a byword for nonsensical, hole-ridden, aggravating plot.  Here are a few true statements about FFXV, which I promise you is one of the better and more focused Final Fantasies in terms of narrative:

  • Long stretches of events are driven by motivations like “you have to find the One Rare Well-Guarded Piece of Metal that will allow you to fix your boat so you can travel to the major city across the sea.”
  • You spend the bulk of the game on a long meandering journey, with story quests pulling you from breadcrumb to breadcrumb.  Which is fine as far as it goes.  But the actual purpose of this journey is unclear and constantly shifting; it seems to slide randomly between “visit all the royal tombs to acquire the power of your kingly ancestors,” “find all the gods and make pacts with them,” and “make it to the city where your fiancee is so that you can meet up with her.”  At no point is it clearly established why you think that any of these things will help with the very major problems that you’re allegedly trying to solve.
  • The villain — who is actually very well-written and well-acted on a micro level — is a smug-snake type who offers (aggravating and sketchy) assistance as often as he throws obstacles in your way.  It’s the sort of behavior that would make sense as part of a complicated Xanatos Gambit where he needs the heroes to accomplish certain things for him.  Turns out, nope, he just does whatever’s needed to get you to the next plot point, whether or not it makes a lick of sense.
  • Your party members get into angry recriminatory fights for no real reason except “this is the part of the story where tension is generated by an angry recriminatory fight.”  It would not have been hard to give the characters in question actual reasons to be mad at each other!  But no, it’s all things like “you’re a selfish whiner for being sad that your loved ones keep getting murdered.”

Which is to say nothing of gems like FFVII’s “only you can fight the villain, even though the villain has already displayed the power to mind control you at will.”  Or FFVIII’s “whoops, amnesia, we will now reveal that all your relationships and motivations are completely different from what you spent the last many hours thinking they were.”  These are the kind of stories that make you want to throw your TV out the window.

When critics like Yahtzee say “this series is terrible, I don’t understand why anyone enjoys it” — it’s not like they’re pulling their arguments out of nowhere.  Even fans like me can’t help nodding along.

Point being, this is not the kind of fun that gets its hooks deep in you. 

Except that, demonstrably, it does.  So what gives?

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Given all the setup, the core of the answer is presumably obvious: Final Fantasy is distilled industrial-grade Stickiness.  You keep on playing for hour upon hour, trudging through the dumb storytelling and the irritating battles, so that you can keep on being a part of the game world.  Those half-baked shallow-as-a-puddle characters somehow matter enough to people that they inspire reams upon reams of fanfiction.  No matter how dumb you think it all is, at least if you’re a certain sort of person, you can’t help caring.

That’s a power that I would really, really like to understand.

Never Has a Fantasy Been More Final, Part 1

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.

 

 

What Makes Things Good