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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...

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Now that I've wrapped another project, I can get round to writing a friendly (one hopes) rebuttal of this Curt Purcell essay, "Why Fans Love Crap."

Despite the elitist sound of the title, Purcell isn't writing to denigrate the phenomenon of fans loving crap, which is a familiar elitist position expoused by writers like Tucker Stone (whose negative reviews of UNCANNY X-MEN are mentioned in WFLC). Purcell's purpose is to explain, in terms of the brain's cognitive functions, why fans might be able to overlook faults in something they love; faults such as these:

a poor writing style goes unnoticed, technical mistakes are ignored, awkward plot developments are accepted, embarrassment and self-consciousness aren't provoked by one's enjoyment of story elements that might otherwise seem silly or childish, etc.

Purcell's explanation centers around the concept that the brain must use "filtering mechanisms" to sort out what is and isn't necessary to a given activity. He quotes Daniel Goleman:

In scanning incoming information, semantic memory need not go into every detail; it need only sort out what is and is not relevant to the concern of the moment. Irrelevant information is only partly analyzed, if just to the point of recognizing its irrelevancy. What is relevant gets fuller processing.

Purcell adds the caveat that:

Naturally, the "smart filter" that makes all this possible is neither infallible nor unlimited. Sometimes it lets something through that it should screen out. Sometimes a flaw crosses the threshold of being too bad or obvious to be ignored. If an experience is rewarding enough, though, backup mechanisms can come into play to continue protecting and pursuing it, even when the filter fails. Thus, for example, a flaw obtrusive enough to break through into awareness isn't permitted to ruin the experience, but is instead interpreted in a more positive light, as a distinguishing element or stylistic touch that actually enhances it.

This might not be a bad explanation for the entire "so bad it's good" meme, in which the audience-member enjoys something despite its obvious faults. However, I believe Purcell's theory fails to cover a number of objections.

First, when he speaks of some of the objectional elements that the brain is screening out, this presupposes that the perceiver has full cognizance as to how the formal narrative elements actually SHOULD be executed. This is dubious with regard to juvenile readers, such as the majority of the TWILIGHT fans. For most juveniles, a good style is one that doesn't distract from telling the story. You can tell them that Joseph Conrad or even Peter Straub are superior in style to Stephanie Whatshername of TWILIGHT, but the abstract appeal of fine style will often be lost on them. The same distinction applies to matters of formal excellence relating to the believability of plot or the perception that certain elements might be thought "childish." If a reader actually is a child, or not far from being a child, a reader might not feel that a work's appeal to "childishness" was any demerit. It's true that as children grow older they begin to develop a pecking-order, and some young people yearn to read, if not adult works, then the things the older kids are reading. But even there, the appeal is not that the books of the older kids are necessarily more finely-wrought: often it's simply that they're more transgressive in one way or another.

My second is 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. Reader A, captivated by a fine verbal writing-style, may get his groove on with Henry James, but when he tries to get Reader B to enjoy a James book, Reader B may attempt the tome with very different expectations as to what an entertaining book should communicate. Reader B may well tell Reader A that he doesn't like "stories where nothing happens," or words to that effect. The point is not that Reader B is an ignoramus, though he may be: it's that he has an expectation that any text will entertain him in a certain way. If Reader A claims that the James book *is* entertaining, then Reader B could easily assert that it's because Reader A let himself become "immersed" in the work; that he's excluding everything that "is not relevant to the concern of the moment"-- that concern being, for Reader A, a finely-wrought writing-style.

Finally, I don't agree that the process of "filtering" takes place in the passive manner Purcell describes. But to delve into that disagreement, I'll need to move on to a Part II.

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