Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, November 29, 2010


Happily Curt Purcell has now responded to my two-part essay over at Groovy Age of Horror.

First off, by way of picking up the discussion where I left it, here's how I concluded part two:

Even before children can talk, before they've ever heard the theme-song to THE FACTS OF LIFE, they know that they live in an imperfect world where you pretty much have to take the good with the bad. If a person never read a single story by Stan Lee, Henry James or anyone else, that person would still have to live with that phenomenological state of affairs.

I think that's the real reason "fans love crap." It's not that they love the flaws and mistakes that prove intolerable for nonfans. *If* they are experienced enough to be aware of the flaws, then they ignore the flaws in an *intentional* manner because they seek something in the reading-experience that transcends the flaws.

That "something" I've frequently called "myth" or "mythopoesis." More on that later, though first I may give Curt Purcell a chance to tell me if he thinks I've misinterpreted his essay.

My first objection was that the argument of the "smart filter" (as worded in the essay) presupposed that the subject is himself "smart" enough to know it when he perceives "flaws" in a narrative that his nonconscious filter must filter out. Curt acknowledges this as a "fair point" but maintains that the theory of the filter can apply under certain conditions. I've no objection to that, for it's a position I've maintained myself for some of the concepts I've expoused. For instance, Jungian archetypal concepts may not have universal appeal for all readers, but they still explain particular responses for a significant number of readers.

My second objection was 'that Purcell's idea of a reader being "immersed" in a text and thus blind to its failings in other departments could be applied just as easily to those readers who ARE supposedly reading works of formal excellence.' Curt replies:

Maybe, with this talk of recognizing flaws and such, I've made it sound too much like I think the smart filter is doing literary criticism. In fact, I think it's basically following an algorithm. Does this element support or enhance the rewarding experience? If semantic memory says yes, then allocate it more attention. If semantic memory says no, then does this element detract from the rewarding experience? If semantic memory says yes (perhaps because the element meets the definition of a flaw), then allocate it no attention.

I like that formulation better than the earlier one, but feel constrained to point out that it's not only Curt's use of the word "flaws" that suggests the Critic as Cerebral Filter. It's also the title of the essay itself, "Why Fans Love Crap." At the first of the two essays I specified that though the essay-title sounded a touch on the elitist side I didn't believe Curt was taking the standard elitist position, but that he was trying to suss out a coherent meaning for what might be called the "cognitive dissonance" of popular fiction. I merely pointed out that a reader's narrarive "immersion" in "crap" is essentially homologous with that of a reader's narrative "immersion" in "good stuff." As example I posed an imaginary conflict between a reader enamored of Henry James and one who was less so, but I could have also used certain real-life conflicts between readers arguing about "the good stuff." Who's right about the quality of LOVE AND ROCKETS, Gary Groth or Noah Berlatsky? Or do all aesthetic choices come down to what each reader chooses to "filter out" and "filter in?" There's probably a broad truth to that assertion, though even if we admit this, it leaves us, to the extent that we remain social animals in a social matrix, continually seeking common aesthetic grounds.

Finally, to my last objection Curt says:

Similarly, I think we have simple, nonconscious, "passive" filtering mechanisms of the sort Phillips denies, and that from them have evolved more complex mechanisms, up to and including our capacity to intentionally ignore things in the way Phillips advocates for.

Actually, I don't necessarily deny the existence of nonconscious mechanisms (though I'm not crazy about the word "mechanism" in this discussion). My position in bringing up my more conscious experiences re FANTASTIC FOUR #2 were more in line with Curt's counter to my first objection:

But even if the process I described isn't operative in such cases, that wouldn't necessarily mean it never is.

And of course the reverse is true. I can easily think of elements in FANTASTIC FOUR #2 that I willfully ignored because to acknowledge them would have spoiled the narrative experience. An easy example is your basic "suspension of disbelief," without which it would be impossible to place credence (as I noted in Part 2 of my essay) in heroes endowed with cosmic ray powers. And I think one could credibly argue that this willing suspension may descend from a more rudimentary "mechanism" of basic play-concepts lodged somewhere in the brain.

However, I think we might be dealing with a different department of cognitive experience when I recognize that an element in the tale doesn't track when compared to the logical set of expectations established by the story, as with my reaction to the "unbelievable twist" of FF #2. But to address that perceived difference, I'll need another essay.

1 comment:

Curt Purcell said...

One problem with your Henry James example, by the way, is that anyone who appreciates James very likely sees the "nothing happens" part as feature rather than bug. It's not a flaw to be screened (no matter how it may seem to other readers), but part of the point. For that very reason, I have my doubts, too, that anyone really gets immersed in James the way we're discussing. There's a great deal of literary fiction (and its antecedents) that seems premised on the notion that immersion is suspect, if not outright pernicious. Formal difficulty and a sneering eschewal of conventionally rewarding elements (i.e. those that directly stimulate strong primary affective responses) work in tandem to withhold from the reader an experience that's immersive to almost any degree.