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YMMV: Stop Bashing Popular Things

🥊 'Cause I've Still Got a Lot of Fight Left in Me...

Some months ago I found myself in a bar sitting between two groups of people involved in separate conversations. On one side, someone was talking about how Hamilton is overrated. On the other side, someone was talking about how the CW show Supernatural is overrated. Now, I'm a huge Hamilton fan, but for some reason the Supernatural conversation grated on me more. Because I'm pretty sure that show is exactly correctly rated. No one watching Supernatural after fifteen seasons is under the impression that this is high art. It is monster-of-the-week melodrama. But, it is exactly what its fans want, and they enjoy it exactly for what it is--which is why it ran for fifteen seasons! Now, I've never seen it, so I can't personally attest to the quality, but the point remains...

Stop Bashing Popular Things

I promise, this will eventually circle back to craft.

When E. L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey hit the market in 2011, it was a controversial sensation--a succès de scandale, if you will. At one point James was raking in a million dollars a week. An entire generation of housewives bought ben wa balls for the first time. But if you waded into the discourse at all, one overarching sentiment prevailed: "Why is this dreck by someone I've never heard of a runaway best-seller?" Often this came with a spoken or unspoken "I write better than this and I can't even get an agent." But across the board, people just couldn't understand how a smutty Twilight fan-fic with the serial numbers filed off could become a cultural touchstone.

So let's unpack that, shall we?

The climactic (ahem) success of E. L. James's BDSM opus was caused by a combination of factors, a unique confluence that you could not intentionally engineer if you wanted to. For starters, it landed at a time when e-readers were blowing up in popularity. One of the accidental selling points of the format was that it allowed you to consume, in public, the kind of media that you wouldn't want to be caught dead consuming in public. All of a sudden, the commuter train was a judgment-free area for reading bodice-rippers. Needless to say, the demand for erotica saw a bit of a spike, and all of a sudden Kindles were the cool new device, Fifty Shades was the killer app.

The second factor was presentation. The covers of those books don't look like anything else, because James originally sold the books to a boutique publisher in Australia and strong-armed them into using the covers she designed herself. Whether this was because she's a brilliant marketer or a narcissistic ass-hat (which she definitely is by reputation) doesn't matter. What matters is that the covers were instantly iconic.

The third factor was baked-in demand. The previous version of this story, titled Master of the Universe, was the most-read title on This is why James got a book deal in first place--she had already done the work of growing her audience. You may not have heard of her, but over a hundred thousand people had, and a great many of them were clamoring for this book. James's boutique Australian publisher did not print anywhere near enough copies to satisfy that demand. That scarcity resulted in many people pestering their local bookstores wanting to know when they'd get in copies of Fifty Shades of Grey. This creates a feedback loop of hype: people ask for it which generates more interest which leads to more people asking for it which generates even more interest.

When it finally hit shelves globally, the dam burst, a metaphorical explosion that was positively gushing with dollars. And it's worth pointing out that--just like Supernatural--no one buying it thinks it's high art. They are accepting it for what it is, and it is giving them what they want. Orgasms, presumably. It is titillating, at times it can be damned sexy. As a vehicle for sexual tension, it delivers. And it arrived with a bunch of pent up (ahem) demand, a novel (ahem... sort of) jacket cover, a dedicated fanbase, artificial scarcity to drum up hype, and a new reading platform that was looking for exactly this kind of material. Because while Fifty Shades may not feel very polished for a best-seller, it's way more polished than a lot of the smut that was initially available. It was very much a Perfect Storm situation. That is why this dreck was a runaway success.

Now, is it flawed? Sure--I give presentations about how to line-edit using the opening paragraph as fodder. The prose is clunky, the pacing is all over the place, the plot meanders, the characters are at times shockingly unlikeable, and it's not actually a very good representation of BDSM. There are plenty of things not to like about this book, but none of them have anything to do with why you can't get an agent...

...he says, pointedly.

Which brings me to the idea of "bashing." Because there's a world of difference between not liking something and publicly admonishing it. There are a lot of reasons to hate Fifty Shades of Grey, and they're all valid. But there are also a lot of reasons to publicly trash it, and none of them are particularly good.

So let's unpack that, shall we?

I've already alluded to petty jealousy being a thing, but let's look some more institutional problems. The obvious starting point is sexism. Anytime something comes out that is popular with women and is a big enough success that it becomes part of The Discourse™, it will inevitably face some backlash. This is doubly true if it acknowledges--or worse, celebrates--women's sexuality. We saw it with Twilight, we saw it more recently with Rebecca Yarros's Fourth Wing. There is a subset of the population who find this... I dunno, threatening in some way? Sometimes it gets tied in to political hobby-horses. People on YouTube are still making angry screeds about Captain Marvel because something something wokeness. Sometimes it extends beyond gender politics. The "Disco Sucks" movement was in large part driven by the fact that disco was--at least initially--tied to the gay and black club scenes.

Sometimes it's because of things that have nothing to do with the art in question. J. K. Rowling has taken a lot of heat lately for her anti-trans rhetoric. And just to be clear, it's heat that she deserves because she's doing real, actual harm to people and honestly she just needs to shut the hell up about it. But that doesn't retroactively make the Harry Potter series bad, actually. Hell, there are people boycotting her work because of her anti-trans stance. More power to them! But that doesn't make her books any less of a cultural touchstone. And I freely admit that this might be a bit of a hot take.

Speaking of hot takes, sometimes it's just trolling. Sometimes someone is just saying something for the attention. That's what was happening with the Southern Baptist Conference decided to boycott Disney. I suspect that's at least part of what was going on with the bar conversations I described up at the top. And I'll freely admit that this can be fun. "Popular thing is bad, actually" is such a common trope these days, but it's common because it can be a potent, if self-serving, conversation starter. With the caveat that "Fifty Shades of Grey is bad, actually" no longer counts as a hot take, if it ever did.

And sometimes it's just elitism. People with high opinions of themselves like to point out that a popular thing is beneath them because they are highbrow and the unwashed masses are not. If you're looking to build yourself a superiority complex, look no further.

None of these are good motivators for bashing something, extra-especially when they're coming from someone who has not actually consumed the media they're criticizing. And this is where it finally ties back into craft. Because "I don't understand why people like this" is a starting point, not an endpoint. It is an opportunity to learn, to discover tastes outside of yourself, and to recognize that they represent potential audiences if you apply some of these lessons to your own work. Making a public show of dismissing something is easy. Making an effort to understand it, that's hard.

I read Fifty Shades of Grey for that reason. Not just to see what all the hype was about, but to understand what it was doing to generate all of that hype. And after reading it, I have a pretty decent idea. It may do a number of things badly, but it does one thing very well, and if that one thing is what you're looking for, that's enough.

To take a less extreme example, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code was another hype-train runaway success. A lot of people dismissed it because the puzzles were contrived or because Brown's prose could be suddenly--almost unexpectedly!--stilted. And those are fine reasons to not like a book. But to dismiss it out of hand as "overrated" because of things that you don't like is to dismiss all of the people who do like it as either wrong or stupid or just beneath you. On the other hand, you can accept it on the terms it offers and make a good faith effort to enjoy it with an open and curious mind. If you do that, you'll discover that while The Da Vinci Code is often inelegant and occasionally too-clever-by-half, it's also a master class in how to pace a thriller effectively when there's a lot of backstory to work in. Learning this makes you a better writer.

You also have to consider the audience. I watched Captain Marvel and thought it was good-but-not-great, and I identified what I thought would have improved it. Then I was surprised to learn how many of my friends thought it was "perfect, no notes." Rather than dismiss them, I decided to re-appraise it and realized that I'd missed one big thematic element. It's a movie about gaslighting. I overlooked that because I haven't spent my entire life being gaslit. But my female friends recognized it immediately. And while this may not make me a better writer, that revelation did force me to start approaching media with a bit more humility.

Because I'm very smart about plot structure and theme and character journey. I study these things a lot, and I have opinions. I also spend a lot of time critiquing other people's work and telling them how to fix it. And I'm good at it. My writing cohort will attest: I give great critique. (I was going to make a joke about giving great head-canon, but it's a bit of a stretch and we're too far from the Fifty Shades stuff for sex jokes to still be topical, but by bringing it up this way I still get to make the joke while also acknowledging its overall weakness and inappropriateness--and by explaining all of this after the fact I get to drop a little meta-humor in there as well as sounding really smart and maybe even tagging it with a little coda at the end. So that's fun.)

On the other hand my opinions are also frequently wrong and often limiting. Take a movie like Pulp Fiction. It breaks every storytelling rule I can think of, but it's a widely-beloved film that pretty much holds up even after... wait for it... and I'm sorry... no, really... thirty years. Nobody would have come close to telling that kind of story by listening to me.


Here's where I'm going to acknowledge the elephant in the room. I've just written an entire post about allowing things to be consumed on their own terms, about approaching them with humility. I also spent all of last year on a project called "Consumed with Hate." Now, in fairness, many of these are autopsies of things that are widely reviled, and many of them are caveated with "Lots of people like this and I just didn't." On the other hand, I pretty much kicked that entire project off by saying "Joker is a bad movie and you're a bad person for liking it."

Is this hypocritical? Probably. My only defense here is that I fancy myself something of a cultural satirist, insofar as people have paid me money for funny things I have written that were casting a satirical eye at some aspect of culture. Which is my way of saying that I'm allowed to get away with it sometimes because I'm funny.

Next time, we're going to talk about why you--yes, you--aren't funny...

In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.