One of the top things I encounter in my travels online is a sort of thought-police aspect of fandom where people judge others based on how picky they are. The reason this “friction” exists is that, as I’ve described earlier, fandom is a tribal phenomenon, or pseudo-religious. Some people decide when they become fans that they need to be really protective of the object of their love to the point of making excuses for its flaws and shouting down anyone who points them out. It’s a lot like the sort of evangelism that surrounds a political party or a particular political figure.
Where I feel this goes off the rails is the degree to which the layman warps the idea of art and the creative process. I am seeing some of this hand-wringing going on in the lead up of two shows meant to satisfy Trek fans’ hunger: The Orville and Star Trek Discovery.
There is a faction of fandom that is so self-loathing that they revel in suggesting that if ‘fandom’ were to have its way, then everything would be hopefully artistically compromised. This stance elevates content creators to Godhood and suggests that the moment said creators listen to criticism that they will be basically selling out their auteur mojo to the unwashed mob.
It makes sense in an abstract way, but it ignores the fact that many creative decisions made by the powers that be just plain suck, objectively speaking. Not everything that comes out of Hollywood should be classified as art. In fact I’d say Sturgeon’s Law is alive and well and that over 90% of everything is crap.
At the same time, a lot of the unwashed masses have rather poor taste. They’re are also just so many people in this world consuming entertainment that it’s easier than ever for crap to make a profit or at least develop some cult following.
There will never be universal agreement on what constitutes quality. On the extreme end you can make some safe guesses, but there is a vast wasteland in the middle. I’d say most of what Sturgeon would classify as crap isn’t so much crap as merely middle-of-the-road.
Most films produced these days tend to settle in a midd-of-the-road level. I’d include Wonder Woman in that group. It’s competent popcorn fare, but not truly groundbreaking the way some have said it is. I’d say Doctor Strange was a tad more interesting, but still in the MOR category.
Maybe the hit to miss ratio is better in television these days if you look at all these serialized shows that I haven’t been watching, and yet they are surrounded by all sorts of dreck like reality shows.
But the point I really want to make is that there is a balancing act where creators need to have space to create, free of heckling and distractions, and a place to hold up their work to the withers of feedback. I think the same contingent that wants to make excuses for mediocrity are of the “everyone gets a sticker” category.
If there’s anything in pop culture that runs counter to this attitude it’s the talent shows. It’s funny how people enjoy watching singers or dancers compete and have their work dissected by professional judges but when the discussion circles around to whether the new transporter room or uniforms in Star Trek Discovery suck or not some people come out of the woodwork to say that we’re being too picky and that we’re potentially stifling the magic of unfettered creative expression.
The only common trait is that people love to argue on the internet. As long as you can find a group to be upset about, then you’ve got a reason to soapbox and hopefully get hits for your rant.
It’s really nobody’s business to dictate what anyone likes or dislikes. The thesis that if “fandom” had their way, both shows would fail, is bankrupt simply because no show inherently deserves to survive. Just because something is a sci-fi Trek-like premise does not mean it deserves to be coddled and protected like a faberge egg. Audiences should be fickle.
I think part of the reason people have a problem with it is that negativity in general is an unattractive trait. People don’t like hanging around complainers. The fun for some people comes from liking a thing, not tearing it down.
I think you’ll find that there’s a gray area between a mindless couch potato who never thinks about what he or she is watching and a creator. It’s the nerds in the middle who have memorized every episode and know all the continuity gaps, they are already well on their way to becoming content creators themselves. And yet these nerds who are becoming a little too smart and savvy to be just the audience anymore and yet are not empowered to be creators are the ones who get roundly criticized from both sides. The casual fans call them snobs and the creators tell them to “Get a life”.
The laymen have trouble seeing this continuum between the passive audience and the active creator. They put creators on a pedestal as if they were born into greatness. But that’s just not how it works. Every creators started out as the audience and moved through fandom.
For instance, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been dubbed the most expensive fan-film ever in the sense that it directly homages 1977 Star Wars to such an extent. Rogue One does so as well, albeit with a more modernistic sensibility grafted on. What makes these filmmakers so different from fans other than some knowledge of filmmaking craft and being given a blank check? Not as much as you’d think, really. (The subject of amateur fan-films and spoofs and things is worthy of a separate post or two.)
Criticism, then, or back-seat-driving, is really the kernel of creativity.
Star Trek is to a great extent the case of thinking “Gee, what if I crossed Gulliver’s Travels with Horatio Hornblower and Forbidden Planet?” There’s no need to create anything unless you have an idea of how to do something better. 100% creativity is an illusion.
And so this whining that fans do is largely the imagination of the audience wanting to take a more active role in the unfolding storyline than to simply sit there rooted to the screen, powerless to guide the characters or the look and feel.
On the other side, creators will never improve their craft if they think their shit don’t stink, so to speak. The reason Episode I sucked so badly is that Lucas surrounded himself with sycophants who didn’t have the guts to tell the Emperor he had no clothes. However, Episode III really comes across as an attempt on his part to sort of answer the critics. It was too little too late, but at least he tried, and that is how it should be.
Unfortunately Hollywood’s feedback mechanism is driven by dollars and cents rather than critical praise. Based on how something is marketed and what it’s overhead is it’s quite easy to make crap turn a profit. Roger Corman, bless his heart, ran his studio on that basis. His B-movies never made a hell of a lot of money but they cost so little in the first place that he just had to make sure they made back more than they cost. So from a business standpoint, he found a formula that worked. Hollywood works in the same way, just with much bigger gambles. Despite failures like The Mummy, the returns on this by-the-numbers popcorn approach tends to work more often than fail.
If we only vote with our wallets (or eyeballs) then it tends to result in crap. The filtering process in the marketplace tends to be more tolerant of crap than it should be. So it’s necessary for creators to suffer the ego-hit of the critics and whiners to sort of nudge them in the right area. Sure, creators, if they feel sheltered enough in their job security, will just give the critics the middle-finger. The smart ones will at least listen to the content of what critics say and perhaps reconsider this or that creative move. That is the proper role of audience feedback.
Yes, there will be “high art” that people “just don’t get”. For instance, 2001 was roundly criticized when it came out, as was Sgt. Pepper’s or the original Star Wars. But I still feel that creators should at least listen to what the beef is and then decide which bucket to put it in.
The moment we just self-censor in order to protect egos we short-circuit a vital part of the learning/improving process for creators.