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Substance and meaning - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Substance and meaning
I told my mother about Slayage, the online journal of Buffy studies, and she made a funny sound on the other end of the phone line and said, "From Buffy? I like it--it's fun--but studies?" She gives me sort of an indulgent tone of voice when I bring up SagaJournal ("Well, I like the movies, but I don't see all that in them...") And so on.

I suspect a lot of people in academic fandom get this kind of attitude--it's popular, which by definition seems to mean that it has no serious substance.

As might by expected, I strenuously disagree. In fact, I think the presence of substantive meaning is what separates works that become wildly popular from similar works that never take off. There are a lot of books about kids in special schools (including magic schools), but there's only one Harry Potter and only one Ender's Game. There's more medieval-flavored fantasy than you could shake a stick at in a year of shaking, but there's only one Lord of the Rings. The eighties saw a flood of penny dreadfuls, but there remained only one Stephen King. Space shoot-'em-ups are dime a dozen, but Star Wars is its own phenomenon.

The cynical response to this is, of course, marketing. All of this stuff is crammed down the throat of a gullible public, the culture is saturated, and it becomes a phenomenon this way.

First, I submit that you can't just sell sizzle for any prolonged period. People aren't that stupid. You can get them to buy a fad for awhile, but when you're talking about something that's lasted for years, marketing doesn't cause popularity--instead, it plays on pre-existing popularity. When the TPM trailers said, "Every journey has a first step," it wasn't trying to create hype, it was speaking to the fan base which had been loyal for twenty-two years. Rowling may be able to sell her notes on magical beasts she'll never use, but selling Fantastic Beasts doesn't cause Potter-mania, it's response to it.

Second (and more to the point), most of these genuine phenomena aren't passed around by manufactured hype, but by people passing them around among themselves. The best example I have of this is Ender's Game, which chienar gave me when we were in high school (we were going to a con where Orson Scott Card was going to be signing), and said, "You have to read this." Of course, I did. I missed most of the con reading it and Speaker for the Dead. Harry Potter seems to be passed from children to parents and teachers, and Star Wars is shared every whichway (my vague memory is not of commercials, but of simply everyone saying, "This is the most amazing thing ever!" followed by animated conversations between movies about what would happen next). No matter how heavily you market, no matter how much money you spend, if the product isn't good, you can't get people to do this for any serious amount of time.

I see a lot of story and author fads come and go at the library, some last six months, some a year or two. When the fad passes, you end up with shelves of duplicate copies and very little interest. All along, though, there are books that have always gone out. They don't necessarily have the splashy circulation of fad books, but they're always going out, and--more to the point--they are talked about. HP, LotR, Ender... these are books that touch people, and they are read and re-read, and passed along to friends like precious treasures, even years after initial publication. This doesn't happen because of advertising; it happens because the books have spoken to people. I submit that this can't happen where there is no substance. You just can't keep a conversation about a book going for that long unless it's about something.

Now, it's true that they're rarely "about" some social issue in the accepted sense. Issue books are notoriously unpopular, even when they win awards. People may dutifully read them and dutifully report on how wonderful they are, but I can't think of one that really took off and took on a life of its own. Books that become perennial are only in very rare cases concerned with anything so time-bound (I'd say "never," but Huck Finn's concern with slavery was pretty time-bound... though its deeper questions about social assumptions aren't). Most of these books and stories are concerned with deeper questions about the nature of mankind--the mythic. A lot of these questions can't be boiled down to a simplistic "answer," per se, but as people read, they recognize the truth of what an author has observed (or a truth in it, anyway). People who don't see a truth in it don't hate the story; they just don't especially care about it, which is what I mean by saying that stories without substance don't end up with this kind of following. People who hate a story certainly see something in it--something that they think is a lie rather than a truth.

In It, Stephen King has the main character's little brother observe that "Bill was good at seeing," and I think this is the crux of it. Books that wake up and look back at the reader (or movies and television shows that look back at the viewer, but I'll stick with using books) are books where the author's eye has seen people clearly. Rowling may have an oh-dear-maths problem with details, but her observation of life in school is sharp and true, and her characters are real enough that you know what they would do in other circumstances, and when she talks about the price of heroism, it rings true. King may trip over his own prose sometimes and repeat himself, but he understands the heroic impulse in the common man very well, as well as the destructive impulse. Heaven knows that Card has some issues in his prose, but Ender sees the world through eyes that gifted kids remember having looked through. Lucas has major dialogue issues, but he sharply observes the nature of temptation and how it leads to destruction.

Anyway, I don't have any neat tie-up, but I did want to point out that there's a reason that some books and stories "catch" while others don't, and I believe that reason is squarely rooted in substance.
31 comments or Leave a comment
myf From: myf Date: December 15th, 2004 01:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
And in light of some of the petty fandom squabbling about oh-dear-maths and other related issues, this is something people tend to forget. Heaven knows I picked up PS/SS in a bookshop because I'd heard some hype, but as soon as I read the first sentence I kept reading because it was worth it - it had substance. Hype may make you pick up a book, but it's never guaranteed to make you finish it.

Oh, and while I think of it (I've just woken up), I had a tremendously odd dream last night in which you featured, Fern. Odd, I know. We were driving somewhere in an open-topped Jeep-type vehicle, and I got the distinct sensation that you hated me didn't appreciate my company all that much. :D
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 15th, 2004 01:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
Heck the HP hype almost stopped me from reading it, and I went in really hostile. But I couldn't help myself once I started actually reading the things. They were something special. But I've tried some other heavily hyped books and just... blah. I can't even get past the first chapter of Flyy Girl, and I wish I hadn't bothered with The Thief Lord, which is a handful of hours I'll never get back.

And ouch, on the dream! I like all of my friends.
equustel From: equustel Date: December 15th, 2004 01:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
I submit that this can't happen where there is no substance. You just can't keep a conversation about a book going for that long unless it's about something.

Truer words never spoken.

I'm constantly getting told that I "see what isn't there" when analyzing my fandoms, or, "that thing ended years ago - what's the point?"

Good stories don't end. Good characters live forever.
ladyaeryn From: ladyaeryn Date: December 15th, 2004 01:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
it's popular, which by definition seems to mean that it has no serious substance.

Indeed. While of course it's perfectly acceptable - and expected - academically to analyze the hell out of Austen or Ellison, which were no less works of fiction than SW or Buffy. What, something's only worth studying if the guy who created it is dead? As you said:

it happens because the books have spoken to people... You just can't keep a conversation about a book going for that long unless it's about something.

On the nail.

Hmm. Actually, I wonder if some part of this disdain isn't because the series we're discussing are sci-fi/fantasy, since there seems to be a long held critical assumption that anything of that genre has less meaning than others. It's fanciful, therefore has no business being taken as seriously as other genres. Hence the snubbing at events like the Oscars.
vytresna From: vytresna Date: December 15th, 2004 05:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
This seems to be true of every English teacher I've ever met (except the one I'm currently under, g'hehehe), and academic workers mostly have the same ideas. I don't know if the Academy counts, but...
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: December 15th, 2004 01:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
There are stories I think have plenty of substance but don't catch on the way Star Wars or HP do. (And I think they have more appeal than Buffy or Stephen King, but obviously this is somewhere my tastes differ from an awful lot of people's, including yours. (I hate reccing books and having people turn out not to like them. Can't be helped I guess.)) It makes sense to me that long-term popularity depends on substance (sort of a comforting idea, too, in a way, though I suppose it isn't always good substance), but I think there are other factors.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 15th, 2004 02:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, it doesn't actually work in reverse. It's a squares and rectangles thing--something that causes a cultural phenomenon must have substance to it, but not everything that has substance will trip a phenomenon. It depends on a lot of other factors, including the exact moment at which it's introduced.

I think that different people are effected in different ways, and a lot of what books appeal to us depends on how we see the world, and what we think of as true in it. Since different things seem true to different people, some people's tastes will always seem "meh" to others. Academically, I'm interested in why Flyy Girl is such a perennial favorite, but I just don't care, personally. Same with Jane Austen. She's a big "meh" for me, but I assume she has substance to the many, many people who are attached to her.
odyssea From: odyssea Date: December 15th, 2004 01:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
I suspect a lot of people in academic fandom get this kind of attitude--it's popular, which by definition seems to mean that it has no serious substance.

What always drives me up a wall about this attitude is that the same people who scoff at studying today's popular culture are perfectly content to turn around and study the popular culture of previous generations.

Shakespeare was very popular. The moral melodramas I've written on were the equivalent of an Oscar winning tearjerker, complete with action sequences. Jane Austen was incredibly popular, while Lord Byron was a celebrity figure as well as a poet.

Yet because I write about the underlying messages in Harry Potter, I'm the freak? I really wish people would actually think before they scoff.

Sorry for the rant - I know exactly where you're coming from.
ladyelaine From: ladyelaine Date: December 15th, 2004 02:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
On your Saga Journal: my geekiness runneth over. Thanks!
likeafox From: likeafox Date: December 15th, 2004 03:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
Wordy McWord. I especially hate it when people pass books like Harry Potter off as Kids' books, and not worth the attention they get from adults. I think this is part of the reason I'm reluctant to read Jonathan Strange and Mrs. Norrell. People keep tauting it as the "Harry Potter for Adults", and I keep getting ticked of by that. In the words of Stephen King, Jonathan Strange isn't Harry Potter for adults, Harry Potter is Harry Potter for adults. gah.
sreya From: sreya Date: December 15th, 2004 06:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm afraid I'm a bit too worn out to write a proper response - the semester has finally caught up, I think, on top of a day of errands and cleaning - but I did make something I hope you'll appreciate.

For some reason that line struck me as entirely quotable, and appropriate for an icon. :~)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 15th, 2004 06:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, cool. I don't think I've been iconed before. ;)
cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: December 15th, 2004 07:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
Speaking of Academic!Buffy, in my last issue of New York Review of Books, I saw an ad for Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon, which appears to be primarily a linguistics study.

Thought you might be like to know (if you haven't already)
lazypadawan From: lazypadawan Date: December 15th, 2004 09:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
Movies like SW, t.v. shows like Buffy, and books like HP are viewed as entertainment and many people don't think there can be anything meaningful to entertainment. As someone else already pointed out, a lot of what's considered literature or art today was at some point entertainment. People saw Shakespeare's plays for entertainment. They read Dickens's novels and Poe's novellas and short stories as entertainment. They went and sat through Richard Wagner's Ring cycle for entertainment.

I think it goes back to the old ideas of high and low culture. High culture was the opera. Low culture was vaudville. Since movies and t.v. are popular entertainment it sort of has the old "low culture" stigma attached to them.
scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: December 16th, 2004 05:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Amen to that. I got hooked on LotR during the dark years between the 70's and 2001. It was my father who handed down the books to me, and no marketing campaign could have convinced me more than Dad reading us his twenty-year-old copy of The Hobbit before we went to bed.

Then there was this sizeable campaign for Eragon by Christopher Paolini. I was left utterly cold by the book. Never mind if the writer is some kind of child prodigy, the book didn't mean anything. It doesn't sell much now.

If a book has substance, there's always more to find. If a story has depth, you'll enjoy diving in time and again.
31 comments or Leave a comment