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.


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.)


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