by design shadowy and vague and open to interpretation
June 14, 2019 7:59 AM   Subscribe

"There's a modern (or at least louder in modern era) tendency in both fiction and the interpretation of fiction that every narrative be some sort of very specific kind of hyper-literal puzzle box that can be 'solved' by wikis and lore and clues" is near the start of a 2017 Twitter thread by Scott Benson. "After we released our game I was really blown away by how large the hunger for really concrete literal explanations were for things that were by design shadowy and vague and open to interpretation. But like, not in the sense of 'hey I'm curious', but 'hey, you left this out, when are you going to finish it or write the backstory lore etc'"

A related discussion started by Brandon Rhea (2017): "people relate to their fandom by knowing everything. And the more they know, whether it's what this character did or how this engine from a comic 30 years ago works, the [more] real those things are to them"

"Our Reaction to 'Cat Person' Shows That We Are Failing as Readers" by Larissa Pham, 2017
When we treat a short story like a personal essay, we end up, like Margot, projecting our own ideals onto the characters. Instead of viewing fiction as an opportunity to enrich our view of the world, or as a way to explore emotional and philosophical themes — in the way that a painting, for example, explores color — we’re asking it for lessons on how to live. When we cannot even understand that a short story is fiction, and that a writer has carefully chosen how to construct her world, with its own architecture and a universe separate from our own, we flatten it completely, and we also flatten our own ability to think critically.
An articulation of the values of affirmational fandom (in contrast to transformational fandom) by obsession_inc in 2009: "the source material is re-stated, the author's purpose divined to the community's satisfaction, rules established on how the characters are and how the universe works, and cosplay &etc. occur. It all tends to coalesce toward a center concept; it's all about nailing down the details."

Joss Whedon's "Heart (Broken)" (3-minute song; YouTube notes include lyrics) from Commentary! The Musical, a variation of which is featured in in This American Life's 2009 episode "Return to the Scene of the Crime" (transcript): "It's broken by the endless loads / Of making ofs and mobisodes, / The tie-ins, prequels, games, and codes the audience buys. / The narrative dies"
posted by brainwane (90 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
How much of this desire for expanded universe, lore-creation, and so forth was created by the capitalist demands to have more product tied to an IP to sell to fans, and how much of it arises organically from fandom? I suspect the current demand for it is largely a function of capitalism superseding the fandom desire to know more about a fictional universe. It seems as though before it was an easy way to juice profits on IP by creating lore, a lot of this was the responsibility of fans to create for themselves.
posted by SansPoint at 8:07 AM on June 14 [7 favorites]


I read an interview with Diana Wynne Jones years ago (in SF Eye, maybe?), where she said she much preferred writing YA, because younger readers were used to “making an effort,” while adults demanded answers.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:11 AM on June 14 [10 favorites]


It truly doesn't matter who killed the driver in The Big Sleep, and I will defend this stance to my grave.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:15 AM on June 14 [9 favorites]


This is what happens when your educational system is about teaching to tests and finding correct answers and not appreciation, analysis, or interpretation
posted by The Whelk at 8:15 AM on June 14 [62 favorites]


SansPoint, I think that sort of geekery is something people just naturally like. It's possible they're overdoing it.

GenjiandProust, I'm pretty she meant that children were more careful readers, while adults needed for more of the story to be explicit.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 8:20 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


This also kind of gets into the difference between transformative fandom vs. curative/affirmational fandom, no?

My main fandom experience is with Doctor Who, and that's a fandom with a very very bright-line clear (and very gendered) split between the transformative fans and the curative/affirmational fans. There's 50+ years of canon (much like some of the major comics-derived properties) so if you're a curative fan, it's like catnip. But it's also a canon with a lot of built in mystery right down to WHAT EVEN IS THE MAIN CHARACTER'S NAME? The fan battles between people who care about the answer to that question and the people who most adamantly do not (and would prefer to make up their own answer) are decades-long.
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:24 AM on June 14 [14 favorites]


GenjiandProust, I'm pretty she meant that children were more careful readers, while adults needed for more of the story to be explicit.

As I recall (and it’s been... 25 years), she was talking about ambiguity, but also tying up plot threads neatly. Her take was that younger readers were much more willing (at least in the 70s and 80s) to create headcanon and be happy with that, while adults seem to want their fan theories officially confirmed. But, as I said, it’s been decades, so maybe I’m making up my own version of the comment...
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:30 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


I thought this was a great point from the first thread:
addendum 2: i think this also coincides with folks that encounter a narrative considering themselves less as "readers" than "consumers", and thus a narrative that doesn't behave this way is ripping them off somehow.

something isn't "vague", it's "unfinished". i paid for a finished thing. as a consumer i have a right to the kind of story i want. etc. it's a subtle thing but i think it plays here.
I think the author goes out of his way to acknowledge that it isn’t “wrong” to engage with narratives in this way, while also being pretty clear about how exhausting he finds it.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 8:34 AM on June 14 [11 favorites]


This is what happens when your educational system is about teaching to tests and finding correct answers and not appreciation, analysis, or interpretation

I mean, yes, but it's probably closer to the "louder in the modern era" thing than being unique to contemporary audiences. Borges is addressing basically this exact phenomenon in The False Problem of Ugolino, where he makes the point of defending a specific type of ambiguity: the unresolvable ambiguity of fictional worlds. It's not just that the reader doesn't have all the clues — the clues don't exist, there is no "real" answer, and that position is difficult for people to accept. It's alien to our experience of life in the real world, where only one thing happens and time's arrow only flies in one direction.
posted by penduluum at 8:34 AM on June 14 [15 favorites]


To expand on my original post a bit, worldbuilding and lore is certainly something certain people love and really get into. Science fiction and fantasy fans especially, and superhero fans too. (Yes, there's a lot of overlap here.) It can be a lot of fun to dive into the details especially in a fictional universe that has been widely built out over time. I'm not ashamed to admit I've gone down more than a few Memory Alpha rabbit holes, and I'm far from a hardcore Trekkie.

The vibe I got from Scott Benson's thread was that this impulse to require lore for things has ballooned out from being a geek scifi/fantasy/superhero thing to something that is influencing how other forms of fiction and literature are being interpreted, and being written. That's where I start to wonder how much capitalism is to blame. Does an IP like, say, the Universal Monsters need an elaborate Cinematic Universe with a detailed canon and lore for all the characters? Do people get deep into the weeds analyzing, say, the Bridget Jones universe? (A cursory Google brings up the Bridget Jones' Diary Fandom Wiki, so... maybe?)

Is there room in capitalism, and in fandom, for self-contained stories that don't require fleshing out detailed lore and backstory? If you're a fan, you can create your own lore and backstory. if your're an IP rights holder goal is to make as much money of a piece of intellectual property as possible, then the way to do that effectively is to create all that lore and backstory, and sell it.
posted by SansPoint at 8:37 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


I think people misunderstand the purpose of why things happen in fiction and it annoys me really bad. Things happen to tell us things about the characters so we can think about the things the author is saying indirectly. They don't happen so that we can know exactly why the prince went into the forest when the old woman by the side of the road said that a frog told her there was a magic well. You're not taking a course in magic wells in forests that you need to be prepared to encounter. I hate it when people do this.
posted by bleep at 8:41 AM on June 14 [20 favorites]


Excellent post, I can't tell you how satisfying it was to see Benson articulate the problem with this tendency towards wikification of fiction, this hyperliteralism, as well as its... existence (I completely get his trouble with putting a name to it, it's fairly nebulous).

It seems to have been deleted but there was a line from another twitter user referring to it very usefully as "Anti-Borgesian fiction because it presumes that the sum total of facts in the universe add up to coherent narratives that humans can discern and understand."

How much of this desire for expanded universe, lore-creation, and so forth was created by the capitalist demands to have more product tied to an IP to sell to fans, and how much of it arises organically from fandom?

I think it's both. The desperate nerdy obsession with the story as a quantifiable set of Facts that click together cleanly, the need* to have a quantifiable body of knowledge that can be explored/puzzled through/used to demonstrate your fan-cred. The tendency of big multinational media folks (your Marvels or whoever) to recognise that as something that can be pandered to, with the knock on focus of their story telling around increasingly intricate and unimportant details ("who were Peter Parker's parents???"). It spirals. And then you get aspiring writers looking at this and asking for advice on how to structure their magic system before they even know who their characters are...

Benson actually touched on this weird dynamic elsewhere, when discussing Ready Player One: https://twitter.com/bombsfall/status/971388534925021186

*soren_lorensen's note that this isn't the only way to approach a fandom is definitely solid but it seems like the curative aspect of fandom is... maybe not in the ascendancy but the aspect that the owners of big IPs are most happy to engage with.
posted by ocular shenanigans at 8:41 AM on June 14 [6 favorites]


i think one of the appeals of fiction, especially genre fiction, is that it can allow the reader to understand the action as a clear causative chain, where the bad guy is bad for some intuitively understandable reason, and the good guy's plan to foil them, even if it has some hitches in the execution, proceeds stepwise toward resolution

real life rarely offers this 360 degree view of what is happening to us, and there is comfort in the comprehensibility. so much so, that in absence of it, fans will create their own comprehensibility from whatever is lying around, like ancient humans making just-so stories about natural phenomena they could barely begin to interrogate

tl;dr: people find this shit comforting, and have grown accustomed to it, and get pissed off when it's absent or explicitly violated
posted by murphy slaw at 8:41 AM on June 14 [9 favorites]


I do wonder how the access we have to creators - countless post-movie interviews with anyone tied to a popular film franchise, twitter, ect - affects people's perceptions of affirmational fandom. Because I know I've gone from thinking it'd be interesting to get tidbits from authors to refusing to pay attention to interviews because of people like JK Rowling. I'm interested in people's thoughts, I'm not interested in declaring anyone to be right.

I'm also eternally confused as to how affirmational fandom continues to exist with big-name superhero comics, because everything and nothing is canon with them always.
posted by dinty_moore at 8:42 AM on June 14 [5 favorites]


I mean there’s always been a certain kind of reader who wants an encyclopedia, not a narrative, and they tend to cluster online and toward speculative work - and the split between transformative/accumulative fandom is ...very real
posted by The Whelk at 8:45 AM on June 14 [5 favorites]


also you should play Benson's Night In The Woods and then send me your fan theory about what actually happens in it
posted by murphy slaw at 8:45 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


this isn't the only way to approach a fandom is definitely solid but it seems like the curative aspect of fandom is... maybe not in the ascendancy but the aspect that the owners of big IPs are most happy to engage with.

It's very effective at selling product. Meanwhile, transformative fandom has always been heavily female, and creates things that make a lot of people super uncomfy (and I'm not just talking about porn--a lot of curative fans find any kind of fanfic deeply weird and wrong, on the belief that it is "stealing" from the creators.)

The way that fans (of all tendencies) have been engaging with creative works for decades has become more mainstream due to the accessibility of the internet.
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:49 AM on June 14 [5 favorites]


Surely this goes back at least as far as Doyle and Sherlock Holmes? I recall my father having an exhaustive Sherlock collection that included, not only every novel and short story, but also a reference encyclopedia that included commentary, analysis, argument and counter-argument. My father is a Doylist, he accepted that sometimes the writer can change their mind and contradict their earlier work, but he was amused by the Watsonians with their creative bending and stretching of established canon to fit theories.

Being raised Jewish, I could also speculate that the Talmudic tradition is also an attempt to put together "wiki and lore and clues" about the Torah, no?
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 8:51 AM on June 14 [18 favorites]


Being raised Jewish, I could also speculate that the Talmudic tradition is also an attempt to put together "wiki and lore and clues" about the Torah, no?

yes, and Paradise Lost is fanfic
posted by murphy slaw at 8:55 AM on June 14 [11 favorites]


One thing I like about transformative fandom is that fic writers will straight up say they're ignoring what's happening in canon, call it an AU (alternate universe), and nobody will say boo about it. It might be a single detail, like a character making a different decision at a major plot point, or it might be a total reimagining of these characters as running a coffee shop somewhere.

Personally, I don't generally read these, but I like the pure authority of imagination that these fans are exercising. It allows them not only to enjoy what they are doing but to begin invention on their own worlds; I believe that Naomi Novik (a huge influence on transformative fandom) got her idea for Spinning Silver that way, and that is a masterful, original book. (Of 50 Shades, we will say nothing, but to be sure it was not a waste of E.L. James' time.) And it completely handwaves away the obsessive detailing and locking down of imagination that Benson describes.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:57 AM on June 14 [5 favorites]



From the Twitter Thread:

And it leads to seeing things that aren't written like that as incomplete or broken or full of "pointless" bits. It's like reading Watchmen and trying to figure out how Tales Of The Black Freighter literally fits into the literal history of not just the world, but the main cast.
[...]
Like Ozymandius needs to be the great great grandson of the guy from Freighter, a thing that actually happened, or else it's just a vestigial pointless frustrating addition.


feels to me like some folks are imposing science on art ... or as The Whelk put it already ...

This is what happens when your educational system is about teaching to tests and finding correct answers and not appreciation, analysis, or interpretation

... and unlike the author of the initial Twitter thread ...

I think the author goes out of his way to acknowledge that it isn’t “wrong” to engage with narratives in this way, while also being pretty clear about how exhausting he finds it.

... I personally don't have much ambiguity in my feelings about this. It's a bad way to go. It may be all capitalism's fault (a dubious charge, to my mind), but it's still a dead end. Art is ambiguity, mystery, paradox, uncertainty, confusion even. If you MUST have everything explained to you, stay in the kid's pool, please.
posted by philip-random at 9:02 AM on June 14 [7 favorites]


I personally don't have much ambiguity in my feelings about this. It's a bad way to go

my fan theory is that you secretly like it, though
posted by murphy slaw at 9:04 AM on June 14 [14 favorites]


Anyway I gotta go but I need to tell someone else about this tweet, because apparently, in a documentary, "Ernest Cline describes travelling to the E.T. landfill site as 'like I'm Indy going to Westeros to meet Doc Brown and then save E.T.'" Words fail; buildings tumble.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:06 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]


I really don't think the educational system is related to this problem, and I think there's plenty wrong with conventional education.

I think conventional education trains people to half-ass their way through a subject, doing just enough to get grades and forgetting the material after the test.

This is completely different from wiki-fied fandom. Those fandoms are about remembering the details forever and pursuing logical inference as far as possible. Maybe somewhat farther.

Schooling destroys passion. Fandoms are built on passion.

That passion might be a problem, but it comes from something other than school
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 9:11 AM on June 14 [7 favorites]


If you MUST have everything explained to you, stay in the kid's pool, please.

Hey just real quick what if we didn't display so much naked contempt for people? I think it might make Metafilter nicer to read, even when we're talking about things we think are actively harmful to society or whatever.
posted by Caduceus at 9:15 AM on June 14 [18 favorites]


There are a lot of issues that feed into this, from my perspective. One is that people are simply spending much more time in virtual owned worlds, some finding them more "real" or important than the physical world. Those who own the properties that make up these worlds people want to inhabit attempt to find ever more ways to maintain interest in their properties over competing ones by expanding the universe of the fictions.

This creates a desire for more "reality" and history in those worlds to know and explore, but it also creates a sense of endless deferment of closure and "meaning" to them. Constant need to tinker, change, or add to the worlds keeps the fans from having any sense of finality to their feelings about the works.

They ultimately don't mean much of anything sense there is little clear sense of any story narrative in the older sense as "liking" characters has largely replaced it. Stories are now more episodes shaped towards no end because the hope is for continuous expansion. Audiences now too increasingly demand the stories told show a world as they want it to be, not as what might serve a different artistic end, but fulfill a desire for "rightness" to prevail, which leads to the demand for clear and simple answers on every aspect of the stories.

The very idea that what is said or shown is literally all there is and that anything not noted isn't part of the story proper isn't agreeable and the idea of more than one thing being able to be simultaneously true because of that openness strikes many as impossible to accept, which unfortunately runs counter to much of the way art has worked in what had been considered its greatest accomplishments. The want for answers and the need for clarity of meaning, as if it all should be like GI Joe cartoons where a handy moral is provided at the end of the episode, ironically can lead to a sense of dissatisfaction for not being able to provide the kind of thrill art gives when it isn't spelled out in absolute detail and answers or endings don't go the way we might expect or hope for our "liked" characters.

Yeah, this isn't anything new exactly, but the sheer amount of energy and space now devoted to these kinds of fan friendly constructs isn't great for the art forms, which one might note from how constrained many of them are in their need to constantly recycle characters from older properties in hopes nostalgia will draw in adults who'll help gavage those works to their kids and continue a profitable cycle rather than have to risk finding/making something new.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:16 AM on June 14 [7 favorites]


Art is ambiguity, mystery, paradox, uncertainty, confusion even. If you MUST have everything explained to you, stay in the kid's pool, please.

I guess I'm in the kids pool then. I prefer narratives that have some sort of resolution to them, i find vague open endings mostly frustrating. I have real life for that! I want some answers! I mean, I don't read those books and then demand the author write differently, they're just not for me and I think that's ok?

My pet peeves are a little different than described in the article though, because what I hate is when people act in ways that don't make sense. I find this a lot, and I'm sitting there going "why did he do that?! That makes no sense" and my husband is like "this is a world with ghosts and unicorns, why are you questioning this" and I'm annoyed because I accept that premise, and even in this premise, this dudes behaviour is nonsensical! How did he come to this conclusion and do this thing, it's against his character and this world's described logic! It's not that I need to know all the things, its that when the author gets from A to B seemingly by force, it bugs me.

I find the whole wiki background lore thing tedious though. I'm not a worse fan because I don't know what some persons sword is called.
posted by stillnocturnal at 9:16 AM on June 14 [5 favorites]


I first saw tendency in the hype around Aaron Swartz' analysis of Infinite Jest. He painstakingly plotted every character and action, but seemed to miss the point; it was a novel written inside out, with the big themes on the surface and accessible, and the plot lines and characters obscured.

Aaron (not to speak ill of the dead), didn't seem particularly interested in any of the ideas or themes. He saw it simply as a puzzle to be solved.

And I think his mode of reading has become increasingly popular in online and 'nerd' cultures.
posted by george_morgan at 9:21 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]


There's soooo so much I have to say on this subject, but as I only have a moment to comment right now, I'll just say:

This phenomenon in fiction-fandom is analogous to the rise of conspiracy theories to mainstream discourse. They begin from the same assumptions and enact the same procedures: the world (real or fictional) must operate according to a set of values that conforms to *my* ideal/fantasy (or the ideal/fantasy set by my community, political party, in-group, etc.); in order to make it conform, I will concoct whatever "hidden," subterranean narrative details needed so that the apparent reality becomes only an illusion, a representation to be decoded by those, like me and my group, who know the "key." It's ultimately a circular process, question-begging in which one already possesses the "knowledge" they profess to "discover" in the text before them.

In part, this obsession with uncovering the "truth" in a fictional world is the result of the decreasing role of religion in peoples' lives and the declining status of religious texts. Outside of extreme fundamentalists, the Bible is no longer the foundational narrative for most people (even Christians); it is no longer the "source code" of reality, the "truth" against which one can measure one's experiences. Fictional texts have taken its place, becoming the ideal reality for their fandoms. Hence the importing of the term "canon," and also hence the violent reactions to perceived intrusions by outsiders, the outrage over versions of the story that don't fulfill fandom's preconceived desires (cf. Snyder fandom, the Last Jedi, etc.)...

When civilization crumbles, the roving bands of nomads will say prayers to Luke Skywalker and Captain America, even though the idea of "America" itself will have been long forgotten.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:35 AM on June 14 [13 favorites]


Hey just real quick what if we didn't display so much naked contempt for people? I think it might make Metafilter nicer to read, even when we're talking about things we think are actively harmful to society or whatever.

I appreciate your concern here, and sorry for perhaps pushing things to a nasty level with my kid's pool coment. What I said came from the perspective of a creator (an artist) who finds ambiguity, paradox, confusion etc endlessly fascinating, and thus this current tendency very, very frustrating.

So yeah, I guess I'm being passionate, just like a fan.
posted by philip-random at 9:37 AM on June 14 [5 favorites]


Saxon Kane: there might be two flavors-- one is expanding the author's world in the spirit in which it was offered. How much can we figure out about Tolkien's Elvish?

The other is finding contradictions and hidden immorality. How big was Verne's Nautilus? There wasn't enough room for the crew to have decent living quarters. Hah!
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 9:48 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


I'm deeply, profoundly uninterested in and bored by affirmational/curative fandom, and always have been. I understand that some people derive joy from it, but the moment someone starts going on about worldbuilding details or that kind of puzzle box narrative, I just check out, because unless you anchor it to something larger-- character, themes, metaphor, allegory, something--then it's all just meaningless. It's just stuff, piling up and happening, detail lavished upon a pretty facade for a home that's empty. I enjoy a bit of nitpicking and deep diving into canon and worldbuilding details, but only insofar as that nitpicking enriches the lives and the worlds of the characters I actually care about, or to the point that such nitpicking or digging for details offers new and interesting and weird avenues for story.

Part of what I love about transformative fandom is its willingness and ability to anchor the smallest of details to some insight about character or the themes of a work. I love that transformative fandom can take what curative fandom would call a "plot hole" and drill down into it to uncover and build a fascinating or meaningful or just fun story. I love that transformative fandom can take some small detail given a brief mention in canon, then do the research and analysis, and find out just what that small detail could mean for the character and the world, and then, possibly write many thousands of words of fan fiction about it.

To me, stories and story universes are like getting a big, detailed lego set. I enjoy making the thing shown on the box, I enjoy the whole process of laying out all those pieces and counting them up and seeing them all disassembled and assembled together in the manner in which they're intended to be assembled together. But I also very much enjoy taking the finished thing apart and making something new, or deciding that I can improve on it with legos from this other set.
posted by yasaman at 9:49 AM on June 14 [5 favorites]


Saxon Kane: This phenomenon in fiction-fandom is analogous to the rise of conspiracy theories to mainstream discourse. They begin from the same assumptions and enact the same procedures: the world (real or fictional) must operate according to a set of values that conforms to *my* ideal/fantasy (or the ideal/fantasy set by my community, political party, in-group, etc.); in order to make it conform, I will concoct whatever "hidden," subterranean narrative details needed so that the apparent reality becomes only an illusion, a representation to be decoded by those, like me and my group, who know the "key." It's ultimately a circular process, question-begging in which one already possesses the "knowledge" they profess to "discover" in the text before them.

There's certainly significant aspects of this, but I don't think most of the people who crave backstory and lore do so out of ideology.

That said, I would like to bounce off your point, as it reminds me of the (roundly mocked) push for "objective reviews", that came up during the GamerGate phenomenon. I've had arguments with people promoting this idea, and they're always been unable to define what "objective" means in this context, which led me to determine that in their mind, "objective" is anything they agree with, and "subjective" is anything they don't. Part of this sort of fan's obsession with their concept of "canon" is tied in with that, and the more canon they can accumulate, the more defense they feel they have to gatekeep their fandom. Of course, almost all the people they think they're keeping out of said fandom are happily playing over in the transformative fandom sandbox, and only interact with the gatekeepers when those assholes decide to throw rocks.
posted by SansPoint at 9:49 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


I think "iceberg" world-building is the classical version of the "wiki about everything" method. The books exposed bits of world building to the plot, but you never saw the rest of the "wiki". Dune, Lord of the Rings, Name of the Wind, books/settings with massive amounts of unreleased notes and stories.

There's the sub-genre of "rational" fiction, which seems to require the characters to ruthlessly min-max their decisions. Since the audience needs to know everything the characters do (mainly to heckle the authors about how "stupid" the characters are behaving), they feel similarly filled in and overly detailed. Since I'm not a particularly discerning reader, these can be fun sometimes, even if the communities around them tend to be rather... odious. (Classic example is Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, but probably the only one I'd recommend off the top of my head is Mother of Learning.)

LitRPGs fill a similar space: not only do you tend to know everything about the characters, setting and plot, but there's charts of numerical "facts" about the characters involved. At best, these read like Ready Player One without all the "my consumption is my culture", at worst it's an MMORPG player's daily diary. (Recommendation: Awaken Online)

(Of course, every italicized series here has its own wiki, with the surprising exception of the one set inside a video game.)
posted by Anonymous Function at 9:52 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]


It's not wrong to point a finger at Holmes fans, but I think JRR Tolkein really set the template. He made the mythology and worldbuilding so much more compelling than the characters or plot, that a lot of fantasy writers and readers figured that was the way it was supposed to be done. And of course science fiction often has the issue that the real star of the story is the concepts, not the actual story elements. (I heard so many great things about Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy that I bought the whole series on audio; I slogged through the first book, and while the through-line of the transformation of Mars is fascinating, there's not really enough story there to get me through it.)

That's why I think this kind of all-knowing fandom works better for comics and TV shows, which are broken more into bite-size bits, and it maybe matters less if a lot of them are poorly executed (in fact, that just provides fodder for in-world explanations of why all the Things That Are Bad and Don't Make Sense really exist).
posted by rikschell at 9:54 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]


SansPointThere's certainly significant aspects of this, but I don't think most of the people who crave backstory and lore do so out of ideology.

That was not my point at all.

(Except in the sense that "ideology" can be taken roughly to encompass "worldview" or something like that, and so one's approach to a fictional world would be informed by the same worldview that informs one's approach to the real world)

My point was that the narrative procedures, the cognitive operations that affirmational, obsessive fandom undertake to make a fictional world conform to its fantasies and expectations are the same as how conspiracy theorists approach the world. They are based on the same narcissistic desire to remake the world according to an individual/group subjective ideal.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:03 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]


Audiences now too increasingly demand the stories told show a world as they want it to be, not as what might serve a different artistic end, but fulfill a desire for "rightness" to prevail, which leads to the demand for clear and simple answers on every aspect of the stories.

the response to Game Of Thrones final season was strange from my perspective, even at MeFi's FanFare, because it was such a stew of conflicting angles and concerns.

From my perspective, the main problem (and there were lots of problems) came from not the story points themselves as their execution. In other words, I didn't take particular issue with Daenerys raining fire on King's Landing in the penultimate episode. I thought, wow, that's a shocker, like another Red Wedding. It feels like exactly the kind of thing GRR-Martin might write, and indeed, given that it was based on his notes, he intended to. But the crowd who did write it (the writers room) -- they just didn't do that good a job craft-wise with the raw material he gave them. They dropped the proverbial ball.

Meanwhile, there was a whole internet out there that hated that episode because, well, it didn't "... fulfill a desire for 'rightness' to prevail," ... and almost nothing I encountered in any of the discussions I tracked suggested they were willing to give any ground in this regard. It didn't suit their politics, their ethics, their morality, their whatever. Which is fine on the level that we're entirely within our rights to hate an artist's creative decisions. But please don't go confusing that (a difference of opinion) with the craft itself being mishandled. These are two different things.
posted by philip-random at 10:04 AM on June 14 [7 favorites]


For all that I love games themselves, I think games and gaming culture contribute to this issue as well. D&D Monster Manuals, the expansive nature of the official D&D settings, the metaplots that White Wolf games, Shadowrun, and other similar setting shave, Warhammer lore sections, or the sort of lore discovering nature of big video games like Elder Scrolls and Dark Souls all probably encourage this sort of thinking.

I didn't get enough rest last night to expand on that in any coherent way.
posted by Caduceus at 10:12 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]


That's why I think this kind of all-knowing fandom works better for comics and TV shows, which are broken more into bite-size bits, and it maybe matters less if a lot of them are poorly executed (in fact, that just provides fodder for in-world explanations of why all the Things That Are Bad and Don't Make Sense really exist).

TV shows, kind of, but comics - and to some point most extended universes with multiple authors - don't really have an established canon, so much as a 'rolling' one. Basic facts - what year someone was born, whether or not these characters have a relationship, how some of the powers work - can change from storyline to storyline, depending on who the author is - even if they're happening in the same 'universe'. Comic book worldbuilding as a whole is an incredible mess - and I mean this in the best way possible - because it's dozens of different visions and interpretations of the same character over decades of social change. It's fascinating and it's one of my favorite things to talk about (get me drunk at some point and I'll talk about Marvel Comics vs. Arthurian legends as depictions of societal concerns), but it's not really something that lends itself to affirmational fandom by its own nature.

If anything, it's the aspect of collecting comic books that probably has the most effect on maintaining affirmational comics fandom. Because while you're collecting the comics themselves, you're also collecting the knowledge of what happens within each issue, and collecting comics was peddled as a valuable thing for so long.
posted by dinty_moore at 10:13 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


The best storytelling has room for both ambiguity and definite answers. It's good for the story that we know exactly who killed Laura Palmer, and a decent idea as to the murderer's motives. And also good for the story that we only have the vaguest ideas as to why a teenager's short life is so important to the cosmos.

I personally don't have a problem with the puzzle box approach. It's possible to appreciate something for its artistic qualities, revel in the mysteries and mysticism, and yet want to figure out all the details. That's really only human. To appreciate the beauty of blue skies and puffy clouds, but to also want to know why the sky is blue and how the clouds were formed.

I can't blame certain parts of fandom for pursuing complete answers. The real world is full of unanswerable ambiguities. History will always be incomplete. Science will as well. To be able to define a universe fully, down to the last character's motivations and to the most minute physical / supernatural forces that shape that world, is a powerful thing. It's something that can never be accomplished in reality and I understand why some people would pursue it in a fictional universe.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 10:13 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]


Also really sorry but y'all are looking for "curatative," which isn't a word but is at least close to the correct English construction for what you mean, which is "curation/curator based fan culture." A curative is a medicine that works or an adjective for a medicine that works.
posted by Caduceus at 10:17 AM on June 14 [9 favorites]


I know and it bugged me too but I'm just going with what is already out there on the internet.
posted by soren_lorensen at 10:24 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]


Ah. Ugh. Come on, internet. Carry on then, I guess.
posted by Caduceus at 10:26 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]


I can't blame certain parts of fandom for pursuing complete answers. The real world is full of unanswerable ambiguities. History will always be incomplete. Science will as well.

except there is no fiction I'm aware of that doesn't have holes or inconsistencies in it. None that I've ever written, none that I've ever bothered to study, and perhaps more relevant, none that I've ever worked on with others in a "writing room". There is always something that won't, that can't add up, and it's f***ing insanity (from a creator's perspective) to try to make it otherwise. The trick then becomes akin to what a magician does -- to distract. Which, of course, doesn't stand up to close study, multiple viewings/readings.

So yeah, madness in the end, if you want to go that far.
posted by philip-random at 10:48 AM on June 14


My boyfriend spends a lot of time on the subreddits for assorted cartoon fandoms (Stephen Universe, Archer, that sort of thing) and he is constantly* bitching about this fannish need to have everything tied up with a neat little bow. Everything must be taken literally, there is no such thing as metaphor or allusion, everything seen on the screen is Objective Truth about the story's world even if the show is deliberately pulling a Rashomon.

* probably more like once a month or so
posted by egypturnash at 10:48 AM on June 14 [7 favorites]


I feel like people who demand an objective answer to whether Deckard is a replicant ought to take a Voight-Kampff test themselves.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 10:57 AM on June 14 [11 favorites]


Drank some more coffee, decided that maybe I can elaborate a little more on gaming and its probable (to my perspective) impact on all this.

So in the late 80s and early 90s, a couple of threads in gaming converged, probably for the worse. One thread was that TSR had rolled out AD&D2E and was neglecting Basic D&D, (which (IMO) was better designed but weirder, and also called Basic, which of course no self-respecting nerd who wasn't already an experienced roleplayer at the time wanted to play). This happened because Gary Gygax had been ousted by his business partners, much the way he'd ousted his own business partners in the past, but as a result virtually no one left at TSR knew anything about the origin of the game or how it best worked (to be very brief and reductive, as a sandbox) and shifted to designing it for, essentially, fantasy stories where you play the characters, the style of play frequently derided as "railroading" now. (Improv techniques had not yet infiltrated tabletop roleplaying in the form of story gaming either, so little of TSR's design at the time was very good at producing genuine collaborative story-telling either; if you successfully had fun playing AD&D2E I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that but I think you bucked the trend. There's a reason why the primary design goal of 3E was to systemize things so completely there was no room for "bad DMing.")

While the folks running TSR were better business folks than Gygax, they still didn't know what the fuck they were doing, and so put a lot of resources into producing a lot of campaign settings, which sold poorly, because they were most appealing to game masters and people who didn't have people to play with and so mostly read the books and fantasized about what playing might be like (who are the people who still mostly support the TTRPG industry, even today in the 5e renaissance; I am one of them). They did this partially to have more places to set spin-off novels, which sold much better than the campaign settings themselves, but not well enough to keep TSR solvent. Most D&D players just buy a Players Handbook (if that) and dice, particularly these days, but even back then.

At the same time trends elsewhere in the TTRPG industry reinforced this, with White Wolf spinning out endless World of Darkness games and accompanying lore, and games like BattleTech and Shadowrun created extremely involved campaign settings with ongoing metaplots advanced by each new splatbook's release, which GMs were implicitly expected to fit their own campaigns into. (I suspect this form of TTRPG design/storytelling was heavily influenced by Star Wars/Star Trek expanded universes.)

Finally, video games RPGs like Might and Magic, Ultima, Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior/Quest, etc, imported mechanical concepts from tabletop RPGs but were due to the limitations of early computing mostly not capable of being full sandboxes like a well designed TTRPG campaign, so a lot of the focus shifted to easily mechanized combat and relatively basic exploration and plot-driven storylines, things which in turn lend themselves to strategy guides.

I think all these things--the elaborate campaign settings and their accompanying spin-off fiction, combined with monster manuals full of systemized monsters and play splatbooks full of systemized spells, the lore splatbooks, the metaplots, the strategy guides--serve to reinforce the dominant Tolkienian world building and lore paradigm that has led to this sort of wiki culture.
posted by Caduceus at 11:00 AM on June 14 [9 favorites]


> Audiences now too increasingly demand the stories told show a world as they want it to be, not as what might serve a different artistic end, but fulfill a desire for "rightness" to prevail, which leads to the demand for clear and simple answers on every aspect of the stories.

I think there's a reason for this though, and it's not because the audience is dumbed down or uncultured. I think the big problems facing the world have become a whole lot less ethically ambiguous. For my part, works with a large degree of moral subtlety just don't seem as relevant or meaningful as they used to be. What is meaningful to me is what does a better world look like? What am I working for? And that's the thing I need out of art right now.

Subverting the tropes of heroism and rightness has been going on for decades: the rise of morally ambiguous heroes and antiheroes and grimdark settings starting in the 80's, that's still going strong. That hasn't seemed to have brought deeper ethical consideration or a more nuanced view of right and wrong so much as just resulting in people idolizing crappy heroes and terrible people.

Ultimately, what draws me to something is having a well fleshed out vision of a batter world, or at least a world where people are successfully fighting to make it better. And that doesn't have to be shallow - but ambiguity for ambiguity's sake is kind of a distraction.

Midn you I'm not fond of simplistic worldbuilding, either, that ties of threads with whatever happens to be already in the story rather then letting them trail off into a more expansive universe, but that's probably a separate comment.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:10 AM on June 14 [11 favorites]


For what it's worth (and I meant to include this in my last comment as a side note, but it's just as well because at this point it's morphed into its own thing), I love Shadowrun. I got into TTRPGs at 8 years old because I encountered Paranormal Animals of North America, which I had to have because it was a book full of monsters and I love monsters as a little kid, and only after getting and reading it did I really realize it was a source book for some sort of crazy game of a sort I'd never heard of, which was amazing, because I love games, too. Shadowrun is one of my favorite fictional settings. (And I even liked the metaplot, up through partway through 4E when the current license holders fired all the writers who knew what they were doing for daring to want to be paid on time and replaced them with a bunch of hacks who had no idea what they were doing so that they could afford the owners' fraud. The fact they still have the license is mindboggling.)

But even before you get to its complex, overly bloated mechanics, Shadowrun is an objectively bad setting for a tabletop RPG, at least if you want anyone who hasn't already read a bunch of Shadowrun sourcebooks to play with you. It's such a crazy, complex, over the top kitchen sink setting that it's hard to know how to actually navigate it, and it's not designed such that what you're doing is discovering things about the setting through play, but such that you're supposed to be an operative within the system, a professional who knows more about the truth of the world than the average wage-slave shlub working for one of the megacorps. Really fun if you've bought in and already know a lot about the setting, utterly baffling if you haven't or don't. Other bloated settings like the Forgotten Realms and it's own bad metaplot are similarly bad settings for that same reason, just not as bad, because it's easier to step into the pseudo-medieval early-modern pastiche of the Realms than it is the future magi-cyber-punk kitchen sink world of Shadowrun without knowing anything about it and get by. But it's still not ideal. It's still full of Big Important NPCs who have a bad tendency to overshadow the actual players, at least if the GM makes the mistake of thinking they're Important so they need to be in the GM's game.

The perception that one needs a (edit for clarity: tabletop) game setting to be vast and elaborate and detailed isn't actually true; it actually makes it harder to fit your own ideas into a setting a lot of the time, and makes it harder to get player buy-in, very much, I think, in a similar way that this need to have answer isn't necessarily good for art because it leaves no room for ambiguity and metaphor.
posted by Caduceus at 11:23 AM on June 14 [5 favorites]


Also, I think there's some irony in calling the canon-demanding fandom "Tolkenian." I suspect he would have had more of a historian's perspective: there are absolute facts about what happened probably, but we may not be able to piece them together and a lot of it's mess and conjecture. He explicitly frames the Lord of the Rings Trilogy as in setting works, thus probably works of an unreliable narrator who may have misunderstood or misremembered a few things, even if he was trying to be honest.

And as a student of mythology, I think he would have approached a great deal of the background for the world as a myth... something far less about fact and more full of allusion and metaphor.

And those are the things I think get missed in world-building, especially the obsessive sort being complained about here. Real life is messy. Even if things factually happened a certain way, so much of that we justdon't have access to in present, and only have the conflicting stories and inference to try and figure it out. And I think authors and settings who embrace that end up much mroe deep and rich, and more real than those who pretend like every fact they list is canonical and universally agreed upon.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:26 AM on June 14 [10 favorites]


Also, I think there's some irony in calling the canon-demanding fandom "Tolkenian." I suspect he would have had more of a historian's perspective:

You're totally right. Neo-Tolkienian, maybe? The popular perception that this is what Tolkien did, and what many derivative fantasy authors actually did, as opposed to what Tolkien actually did.
posted by Caduceus at 11:34 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]


Post-Tolkienian, maybe? Because, yeah, it's definitely more about what people felt they had to do to tell good fantasy stories after Tolkien. (And maybe even more particularly after his death when Christopher published The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales?)
posted by tobascodagama at 11:38 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]


Also, I think there's some irony in calling the canon-demanding fandom "Tolkenian." I suspect he would have had more of a historian's perspective: there are absolute facts about what happened probably, but we may not be able to piece them together and a lot of it's mess and conjecture. He explicitly frames the Lord of the Rings Trilogy as in setting works, thus probably works of an unreliable narrator who may have misunderstood or misremembered a few things, even if he was trying to be honest.

He had a philologist's perspective, but it's not really that different. As a lapsed historian, I often feel the compulsion to knit together the pieces of the history. But as a lapsed historian, I also know that we often can't even know the real world with certainty, much less some fictional work not created to be read in that particular way. I enjoy trying to decipher what "really happened" right up to the point where I suspect the creators stopped their own efforts to make the world cohere, and then I get impatient with it. Or, as I suppose you might say, as a present-day lawyer I don't like being a sucker. There are poor folks out there still exercising infinite ingenuity to make Sherlock's season four make sense, and I'm like "stop wasting your sweetness on the desert air!!!"

As a reader/writer, still, I also treasure ambiguity when it's not a front for laziness, and I do find even transformative fandom's habit of scrawling in every white space a little exhausting sometimes. Someone once wrote a biting review of a historical work that said "This work fills a much-needed void." We need those voids for artistic resonance.

Weirdly, I literally just finished re-reading James's The Ambassadors on the way over here--it's all about how a man allowed an ambiguous relationship to the facts to give him the one romantic experience of his life, but also how that cost him everything else. One is left wondering whether he was a fool or inspired. Certainly the resolution of all the facts into the perceived truth represents the abrupt end of the adventure.
posted by praemunire at 11:41 AM on June 14 [8 favorites]


This thread makes me think of Paul Bowles, where the unknowability of what is out of frame is palpable.

The stories are consistent within themselves, and though we are aware that there must be a greater world, it is invisible to us and often looms forebodingly just over our shoulder. This creates a vertiginous feeling that often feels the main point of the story: the horror vacui.

(Yes, Bowles was an unrepentant Orientalist, but leave that aside. I mean, we stan Lovecraft here, so.)
posted by sjswitzer at 11:51 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]


Subverting the tropes of heroism and rightness has been going on for decades: the rise of morally ambiguous heroes and antiheroes and grimdark settings starting in the 80's, that's still going strong. That hasn't seemed to have brought deeper ethical consideration or a more nuanced view of right and wrong so much as just resulting in people idolizing crappy heroes and terrible people.

Part of the problem is in too many people demanding stories that have to have a battle of good versus evil, heroes and villains. That desire to see the world that way is more telling of our current situation than stories that don't feature heroes or villains, but people caught in trying, or unusual circumstance they find want or need to navigate. Trump is a comic book villain, or hero for those who follow him. That simplified world view is a problem in itself and the constant desire for it is harmful to the arts.

Sure, escapism always exists and is fine in moderate doses, but a society that runs on it is one that teeters close to delusion and a childish view of the world. It's also what media corporations love to feed people since it is so profitable for being so easy to enjoy without reference to outside reality. It's complications are those of continuity and probability that people love to argue about, but have little bearing on anything more substantial, which is often intentional as the stories are made to be vague enough to support any point of view as long as one "likes" the heroes.

Morally ambiguous figures in stories and movies have been around since the beginning, but that isn't all there is to the problem. People often like to dismiss "arty" works for being "too dark" which isn't necessarily the case at all save for comparison to works made to look like candy in their sugary brightness. There's nothing wrong with enjoying those kinds of works, most people including myself do, but there is a point where favoring them becomes socially and artistically harmful for what is lost by not broadening one's appreciation.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:01 PM on June 14 [7 favorites]


I did once write a story where the narrator's mother was clearly not human, but it wasn't clear what she actually was. The narrator knew, but had basically built a life around denying the knowledge, so the story was built the same way. About half the readers liked the ambiguity or at least didn't find it a hindrance to the story; about one-quarter were sure they knew precisely what the mother was (which is more than I did); and about one-quarter were gently and sweetly baffled because they didn't know and thought they were supposed to.
posted by praemunire at 12:02 PM on June 14 [8 favorites]


There is clearly a place for intentionally vague and or not-explained story elements. Creators rightfully resent that every one of those things be explicated/get a back story.

But or every one of those, you get nine or more of the following:

* Obscurity for purposes of dragging things out to sequels and next seasons. "Can't reveal the stable-boy is a prince because what do we do next."

* Creators who aren't fans of serious SF/F or military/spy fiction and insist on making every story a mystery/conspiracy/horror story loaded with obscurity and misdirection, because those are the genres they understand. As much as everyone loves Dennis Villeneuve, he did exactly this to "The Story of Your Life" in making Arrival and I worry he'll do the same thing to Dune.

* Creators who DGAF. GOT Seasons 7 and 8 were the perfect storm of the cast and show-runners being bored/tired and HBO deferring to them and not firing the show-runners and holding the cast to their contracts, which would have resulted in 30 well-thought-out episodes in the time they produced 13 mostly bad/inadequate episodes.
posted by MattD at 12:17 PM on June 14 [9 favorites]


(Regarding Pham's piece: previously: MeFi on "Cat Person", and on the discussion around "Cat Person".)

I don't know that much about whether this reading-approach-style is growing at all, or whether it was always happening but those readers didn't have that much of a chance to talk to each other and be heard in mass media/in the public. I'm also curious about whether it's a common style among some readers who are used to mimetic fiction, and get super into a fandom around a particular "mainstream"/"literary" book or series (e.g., Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, starting with My Brilliant Friend). And this is only a partially articulate thought, but I wonder how genre expectations play into the assumption that narrative justice will have been served, that at the end of the story the reader will feel A Sense Of Rightness about how things played out.

soren_lorensen said: "This also kind of gets into the difference between transformative fandom vs. curative/affirmational fandom, no?" Yeah, I thought so -- under the jump in the post, I linked to obsession_inc's articulation of that distinction.

stillnocturnal, you're making me reflect on what reads to me as plot holes and psychological implausibility, and what leaps of logic make me say "sure, ok" and pass over the handwavey bit without tripping on it.
posted by brainwane at 1:10 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


> It's not wrong to point a finger at Holmes fans, but I think JRR Tolkein really set the template.

I'd point towards fans of Lewis Carroll, whose two Alice books involve a lot of math play and wordplay which made it attractive to people who like puzzling things out and, subsequently, reading intensely enough between the lines to make even more games out of coincidences and accidents in the prose. And of course there was Alice fanfic too.

Or maybe Cervantes' fans. He wrote Part Two of Don Quixote because the open-endedness of the first book had prompted an eager market for Don Quixote knockoffs by pseudonymous third parties, one particularly popular writer of which Cervantes singled out for a savaging in Book Two.

Or maybe Dante's fans, since The Divine Comedy, as vast as it is, wasn't complete enough to prevent people from publishing their own riffs.

Basically, I think this has always been happening (and the results have also frequently been about as turgid as run-of-the-mill modern fanfic). In the past few centuries the threshold for propagating stories "in the manner of" or "the further adventures of" has gone from being able to operate a lead type printing press to having the right connections to a publisher to having access to a photocopier to, basically, having access to a cheap computer and basic literacy skills. That's not a bad thing and I'm not meaning to put fanfic down by referring to it in its lowest common denominator forms; it's that there's a temptation to believe people weren't as bad at fandom as they are now, and the available evidence isn't really supporting that hypothesis.
posted by ardgedee at 1:47 PM on June 14 [4 favorites]


Oh this is what has turned me off to practically every major work of fiction since they ruined Star Wars. When a story inspires me, I want to continue it, free range, in the fields of my own imagination. I detest the use of the word "Canon" not in the least because of its overtones of religion, but also because it implies that someone else is able to put a lock down on a story that used to belong to anyone who wanted to continue it in the privacy of their own thoughts. The vast numbers of sheeple who want everything locked down, every detail explained,and every ending non ambiguiously nailed down enrage me.

I guess its a good thing I'm mostly a reclusive introvert these days.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 1:48 PM on June 14


I've been thinking a lot about the issues here, mostly the side issues, and the first thing that popped in my mind before I clicked the link was...oh wait, the first thing in the thread.

We need a name for a thing I'm about to describe. *I* need a name for it at least. I'm sure there's a name for it.

This "what's the name for" thing, which you see a lot on MF, is part of that. Something I find very odd, and I don't know if it's generational or just current. It seems everything must have a name and a category. "What's it called when you forget something at the grocery store and have to decide whether to go back or not?"

You're not taking a course in magic wells in forests that you need to be prepared to encounter. I hate it when people do this.

Like the people who skip to the end of a book or movie, why the hell would I care about the end if I haven't seen the rest?

It's not just that the reader doesn't have all the clues — the clues don't exist, there is no "real" answer, and that position is difficult for people to accept. It's alien to our experience of life in the real world, where only one thing happens and time's arrow only flies in one direction.

My experience as I get older is that that is in fact exactly life in the real world, and that is difficult, maybe the most difficult thing, for people to accept. I don't believe the world is rational and trying to impose that makes for frustration.

i think one of the appeals of fiction, especially genre fiction, is that it can allow the reader to understand the action as a clear causative chain, where the bad guy is bad for some intuitively understandable reason, and the good guy's plan to foil them, even if it has some hitches in the execution, proceeds stepwise toward resolution

Subverting the tropes of heroism and rightness has been going on for decades: the rise of morally ambiguous heroes and antiheroes and grimdark settings starting in the 80's, that's still going strong. That hasn't seemed to have brought deeper ethical consideration or a more nuanced view of right and wrong so much as just resulting in people idolizing crappy heroes and terrible people.

Part of the problem is in too many people demanding stories that have to have a battle of good versus evil, heroes and villains. That desire to see the world that way is more telling of our current situation than stories that don't feature heroes or villains, but people caught in trying, or unusual circumstance they find want or need to navigate. Trump is a comic book villain, or hero for those who follow him. That simplified world view is a problem in itself and the constant desire for it is harmful to the arts.


I've thought a lot about this lately, can people not tell what's good or bad anymore unless there is a white or black hat? Can't tell who the bad guy is in the real world unless he says "I'm the bad guy"? Is that reflected in media or because of it?

My pet peeves are a little different than described in the article though, because what I hate is when people act in ways that don't make sense. I find this a lot, and I'm sitting there going "why did he do that?! That makes no sense" and my husband is like "this is a world with ghosts and unicorns, why are you questioning this" and I'm annoyed because I accept that premise, and even in this premise, this dudes behaviour is nonsensical!


Consistency yes. That's the problem with too many facts and detail in fiction, when they don't make sense it's annoying and takes me out of it, better to not explain things than have explanations that are stupid.

I'm deeply, profoundly uninterested in and bored by affirmational/curative fandom, and always have been. I understand that some people derive joy from it, but the moment someone starts going on about worldbuilding details or that kind of puzzle box narrative, I just check out,


I'm deeply, profoundly uninterested in and bored by world building details the first time around, in the story. Lists and descriptions are to fiction as instrument solos are to pop music.
posted by bongo_x at 2:15 PM on June 14 [3 favorites]


Oh yeah, this reminds me of one of my favorite works, "Umineko no naku koro ni", which challenges this kind of "puzzle box" fandom in an interesting way. Each episode centers around a different murder mystery where the narrator claims to be a witch who killed all the victims with magic, while the main character acts in the detective role and tries to prove that all the murders were possible by humans. Naturally, this attracted fans on the internet to try to solve the mysteries themselves, but most of them failed because they missed the clues to the killer's psychology hidden in the unreliable narration about magic that they disregarded as "not real". Moreover, the story itself criticizes this obsessive focus on The Truth above all else as completely missing the point of why we read and write fiction in the first place, namely that there are things that are real and important to us even if they can't be proven or didn't exist in the physical world. Ultimately, rather than reaching a single definitive answer and stopping there, the story encourages people to come up with their own theories and fan fiction, as this is what keeps the world and its characters alive.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 2:57 PM on June 14 [4 favorites]


I have a bit before I need to leave for the doctor (CW: Fucking Fuck MeTa) so I'm going to blather a little more about Shadowrun despite it being questionably on-topic at this point. (Listen the original link was by a game designer about responses to his game, leave me alone, I just want to eat grubs. Which is an Invader Zim quote, which I can't believe I can't find on YouTube or I'd link it.)

Shadowrun has always been a hot mess. I've owned every SR core rulebook except for 1e and the new one (Catalyst Game Labs I hope you die in a fire, you franchise ruiner), and I think it's fair to say each edition has started out confusing and kinda broken and gotten moreso every time they released a rules expansion splatbook. There've been so many iterations of the Matrix rules that fans keep writing their own versions.

And like I said above, it's not really a great game setting, either, because it's so complex and impenetrable to anyone who isn't already pretty into it. But if everyone at the table is pretty into it, familiar with the setting and knows how it works, then the game can be amazing; a lot of the best TTRPG stories I've heard over the years were Shadowrun stories, told by and for other Shadowrun fans (frequently about ridiculous stuff that happened because of the ways the rules work). (Of course, that's if you can handle the ruleset; I've never been able to handle running any version for more than 6 months before burning out).

Because there's just so much, though, I think Shadowrun is a pretty good shared fictional setting for people who are into that sort of gonzo ridiculous science-fantasy. There were in fact a lot of Shadowrun tie in novels, which range in quality from okay to so bad one I read as a teenager put me off the whole line for many years, despite the in-fiction bits of Shadowrun rulebooks, particular the bits with Matrix users just talking to each other about running the Shadows, were largely my favorite parts of the Shadowrun rulebooks. If they'd had a Dan Abnett or R.A. Salvatore they coulda, well, at the very least had larger lines of bad tie in fiction, just like GW and WotC do!

We need more non-Super-extra-corporate IP shared fiction universes. Is Wild Cards any good? It doesn't sound super appealing to me, but I'm more of an urban fantasy sort of guy. I would love make my own writing project's universe into a shared fiction universe someday, since my target audience is pretty much the sorts of folk who write fanfic anyway.

Also, I'm not super big on story games for the most part, but the major exception is Blades in the Dark, and I think a Forged in the Dark version of Shadowrun where everyone at the table knows the Shadowrun setting well could be amazing.
posted by Caduceus at 3:17 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


I think people misunderstand the purpose of why things happen in fiction and it annoys me really bad. Things happen to tell us things about the characters so we can think about the things the author is saying indirectly.

completely missing the point of why we read and write fiction in the first place

I think it's pretty silly to claim there is "a point" that is the one reason (or even the main reason) people read and write fiction. That's obviously not true.
posted by straight at 4:50 PM on June 14 [3 favorites]


Being raised Jewish, I could also speculate that the Talmudic tradition is also an attempt to put together "wiki and lore and clues" about the Torah, no?
Midrash is my go-to example for explaining the difference between canon and fanon.

In fact, I just looked up Wikipedia's definition just now, and if you think in terms of a creator instead of The Creator, you have a pretty good description of fanfic:
"a type of literature, oral or written, which stands in direct relationship to a fixed, canonical text, considered to be the authoritative and revealed word of God by the midrashist and his audience, and in which this canonical text is explicitly cited or clearly alluded to"
Also, the Aeneid is totally a Gary Stu.
posted by cheshyre at 4:56 PM on June 14 [5 favorites]


I think it's pretty silly to claim there is "a point" that is the one reason (or even the main reason) people read and write fiction. That's obviously not true.

I think we're talking about different kinds of "reason". There are of course many different motivations for reading fiction, but if fictional things were not important, then by definition we would have no reason to care about them enough to read about them. It's like the difference between "we eat food because our bodies require energy and nutrients" and "we eat food because it smells good, or we feel hungry, or we want to be polite to our hosts, etc."
posted by J.K. Seazer at 5:50 PM on June 14


I just think the attempt to create or apprehend a work of fiction as a coherent whole in which every detail fits together in a way that doesn't happen in real life can be a thing of beauty, a beauty that is orthogonal to or even a mutually-exclusive alternative to the ambiguity or theme or allegory that some people seem to be holding up as the "real" point of fiction.

Some of the reactions here seem to be as reductive as the "puzzle-box" approach to fiction that they are reacting against. Authors, readers, and fiction have much more diverse purposes than that.
posted by straight at 6:14 PM on June 14 [10 favorites]


I think different genres bring different demands?

In SF/fantasy, you're setting things in a counterfactual world and there is a necessary amount of world-building to do. People might reasonably want to know more. And... the authors probably ought to know more than they tell so that there is a sense of "reality around the corner." If the authors have done their jobs well you would want to peer around the corner.

In mystery/detective novels there should (I think) be enough background that the reveal is, in retrospect, inevitable. Otherwise it's just one damned thing after another.

In realist genres, there is less need for world-building, since things are referenced to our (somewhat) shared experience, but often there is a need for world-questioning: Is this social system really just? Was this outcome really inevitable? What is the role of stupid luck in our outcomes? How have we differently experienced the same things? I think that in these genres, exploration of the vagaries of the background reality is somewhat the point of things, so you need to explore it obliquely by interrogating experience through events and consequence.

(Check out the series High Maintenance if you want a good example of this latter approach.)
posted by sjswitzer at 6:15 PM on June 14 [4 favorites]


Serial. Experiments. Lain.
posted by symbioid at 7:14 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


Yeah man Evagelion just came out on Netflix, these sorts of people wont care for that one much.
posted by Caduceus at 8:06 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


My point was that the narrative procedures, the cognitive operations that affirmational, obsessive fandom undertake to make a fictional world conform to its fantasies and expectations are the same as how conspiracy theorists approach the world. They are based on the same narcissistic desire to remake the world according to an individual/group subjective ideal.

Everything old is new again.
Now philosophical ideas grew up around art and forced it to cling closely to the trunk of dialectic. The Apollonian attitude metamorphosed into logical systematizing, just as we noticed something similar with Euripides and, in addition, the Dionysian was transformed into naturalistic emotions. Socrates, the dialectical hero in Platonic drama, reminds us of the changed nature of the Euripidean hero, who has to defend his actions with reasons and counter-reasons and thus often runs the risk of losing our tragic sympathy. For who can fail to recognize the optimistic element in the heart of dialectic, which celebrates a jubilee with every conclusion and can breathe only in cool brightness and consciousness, that optimistic element which, once it has penetrated tragedy, must gradually overrun its Dionysian regions and necessarily drive them to self-destruction—right to their death leap into middle-class drama. Let people merely recall the consequences of the Socratic sayings “Virtue is knowledge; sin arises only from ignorance; the virtuous person is the happy person”: in these three basic forms of optimism lies the death of tragedy. For now the virtuous hero must be a dialectician; now there must be a necessarily perceptible link between virtue and knowledge, belief and morality; now the transcendental resolution of justice in Aeschylus is lowered to the flat and impertinent principle of “poetic justice” with its customary deus ex machina.

- The Birth of Tragedy
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:41 AM on June 15 [4 favorites]


It's fascinating and it's one of my favorite things to talk about (get me drunk at some point and I'll talk about Marvel Comics vs. Arthurian legends as depictions of societal concerns), but it's not really something that lends itself to affirmational fandom by its own nature.

Mark Gruenwald would like a word with you.

Superhero comics is such an affirmational fandom you had entire generations of writers entering the genre as professionals to put things right.

(Mark Gruenwald ofc was the seventies fanboy who started writing and editing for Marvel sometime later and created The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe, the ultimate example of codifying and disambiguing the continuity of a particular storyverse.)
posted by MartinWisse at 5:19 AM on June 15 [2 favorites]


There needs to be some pushback on the idea that it's only transformative fandom that's creative and affirmative fandom is just mindlessly gathering facts. The boundaries between the two aren't all that sharp and there's plenty of creativity in creating or "discovering" the lore of a given story to be had.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:21 AM on June 15 [4 favorites]


> The boundaries between the two aren't all that sharp and there's plenty of creativity in creating or "discovering" the lore of a given story to be had.

Thanks for articulating that, because it's always seemed to me that fanfic has been about filling in the gaps of an original work as much as it was about elaborating the original work. Some random's Mary Sue/Gary Stu pairing themself off with Picard might not seem like anything more than a gratuitous self-insertion into the Star Trek universe, but it is, for the fan author, adding a missing piece.
posted by ardgedee at 6:36 AM on June 15


Have a theory about what's behind this. Short version: things change. It's not especially about capitalism.

Once upon a time, and not so very long ago, science fiction and fantasy were not respectable. "That's science fiction: could mean "That's nonsense". Science fiction fans said "fans are slans" because sf fans were generally despised. If you find that hard to believe, you're probably a good bit younger than I am. I'm 65 and I remember. And I remember being 40 and being amazed at how the world could change.

People would say, "I don't read science fiction, I read literature".

Respectable fiction was realistic. This seems to have two roots, one that there was an obligation to depict the real world, and later that there was an obligation to depict the troubles of the real world.

However, it's normal for people to love fiction with fantastic elements, as shown in both folklore and the older classics.

Then three things happened. Star Wars proved that that there was a lot of money to be made from science fiction movies. The rise of IT proved there was a lot of money to be made by being the kind of person who was likely to like science fiction and fantasy. Tolkien proved there was a lot of money to be made from fantasy with a lot of world-building.

Fairly quickly, the desire for fiction in unrealistic settings wasn't repressed any more. And the desire for exegesis turned out to be a basic human thing. (Talmud has been mentioned. Christians do exegesis too, though not quite as elaborately. I know much less about other religions, but I believe that any religion with holy texts will develop exegesis with a little time.)

It wouldn't surprise me if the Flynn effect is in play, too. It's an increase in the ability to do IQ tests and it went up for about a century though I believed it's stalled out lately. Whether it shows an increase in practical intelligence or not, it's probably increased skill at handling abstractions.

Anyway, I don't think this change is about capitalism, nor do I think it's horrible for people to get access to things they like.

This doesn't mean I think the sort of analysis we're talking about is the only or best way to read fiction, and there are probably some losses.

This is all leading me to a notion that different eras favor different personality aspects, though I don't have any other examples yet.

One more thing-- social media happened. It's certainly still possible to consume art as a private pleasure, but there's much more reading as an informal group project than there used to be, and it's with much larger numbers of people.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:43 AM on June 15 [5 favorites]


I've written about this on the blue before, but I think a lot of this obsession with details is a natural outgrowth of serial storytelling.

One of the pleasures of serial storytelling is when an author picks up a thread or detail from a previous story and uses it as a hook for a new story, but does it so well that it seems like it could have been intended from the start. Or maybe takes something unsatisfactory in a previous story and puts it in a new light that retroactively makes the earlier part seem better.

So in serial fiction, there can never be a detail that is definitely unimportant. A good writer will try to be accessible to people who aren't familiar with earlier stories, but clearly fans who know the details will get the most satisfaction from seeing them pay off in later stories. So to get the maximum enjoyment of this particular feature of serial storytelling, you need to pay attention and consider all the details, to think about gaps or questions that might lead to the next chapter of the story.

So I think it's misguided to complain about people engaging with one of the strengths of serial fiction in this way, whether they are studying and compiling details to better appreciate the next chapter or writing new chapters themselves. Good serial fiction usually has other virtues if that part doesn't appeal to you, and although it is popular right now, there are still lots of stand-alone stories that don't encourage this kind of thing so much.
posted by straight at 9:48 AM on June 15 [5 favorites]


I can't tell you how satisfying it was to see Benson articulate the problem with this tendency towards wikification of fiction, this hyperliteralism, as well as its... existence (I completely get his trouble with putting a name to it, it's fairly nebulous).

I love this.

Edit: my phone keyboard is glitching so I’m editing this post and will comment later.
posted by mountainherder at 10:31 AM on June 15


Some of the reactions here seem to be as reductive as the "puzzle-box" approach to fiction that they are reacting against. Authors, readers, and fiction have much more diverse purposes than that.

I have been rather bemused to think that this thread is basically doing the exact same curative fandom that it condemns. Every aspect of this fan phenomenon must be analyzed, dissected, labeled and put in a box. Any ambiguity or overlapping of lines must be discarded (Obviously Vonda McInryre's Trek Novels mean she can't actually make any creative additions! Harrumph!)

And of course, like curators so often do, they put their own hobbyhorses smack down on the material. "Obviously this must be the fault of Capitalism" says the first post, with the same assurance of a Yoruba villager pointing to his collapsed porch and saying "Witchcraft". "This is why we have two dimensional back hats and white hats" says another, ignoring the masses of material out there that served to complexify and gray out relatively simple antagonists. Selective quoting of source materials is de rigueur in these arguments.

This discussion even has its own Black Hats and White Hats, featuring the beleagured transformative writers vs. the anti-creative curative/affirmational fandom's attempts to ossify all writing into a predigested mass. It'll be interesting to see what sort of rigidly defined characteristics will be assigned to these roles as the thread continues...
posted by happyroach at 11:10 AM on June 15 [2 favorites]


happyroach, I didn't frame the post well -- I should have taken care to also find articulations of the joy of wiki-making, and of making and solving narrative puzzles, and of how we bond by talking with other fans about clues and mysteries and solutions (I'm thinking about some of the joking-around we've done on FanFare about Sybok or Steven Universe). The links I used and the quotes I chose rather set this up in a way that invites condemnation; my mistake.
posted by brainwane at 12:17 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


Superhero comics is such an affirmational fandom you had entire generations of writers entering the genre as professionals to put things right.

Right, that comment wasn't about whether the fandom was affirmational, it was about whether the serial format made it more likely to be affirmational - which seems weird, because superhero comics are never even going to have a timeline. Despite people's attempts, Tony Stark is never going to have a canonical birth year that's less vague than 'thirty to fifty years ago'. Sharon Carter and Peggy Carter might be related, but how they're related has changed over the years, and characters age at different rates. And that's even before we get to the 'that shitty storyline was actually done by a clone' explanation and soft reboots that happen as control of the characters changes over time. There simply aren't that many stable facts in the Marvel universe.

The boundaries between the two aren't all that sharp and there's plenty of creativity in creating or "discovering" the lore of a given story to be had.

You see, I'd consider creating lore transformational as long as you are answering that as a fan, and not as an authoritative figure. Even the conversation about who would win in a fight could be transformational, depending how the argument goes. If you're referencing a specific text, that's affirmational - if you're answering the question by setting the stage and telling a story, that's transformational.

The split between transformational and affirmational has a lot to do with the ownership of the story - transformational fandom has a fluid idea of ownership and has a 'pick and choose' sense of canon, affirmational tends to have a 'word of God' view of the story - anything that the author says counts, anything the author did not say is not worth discussion. It's the difference between making a petition because you hated something about a fan thing and angrily writing fanfiction to 'fix it'.

This isn't to say that one way of interacting with the texts is better or worse - fanfic writers reference wikis all the time for good reason. And most criticism is affirmational - having a discussion about a body of work isn't going to be very productive if you can't decide what counts as canon (fanfic can act as criticism on a work, too, but most criticism isn't fanfic).
posted by dinty_moore at 12:20 PM on June 15 [2 favorites]


Is there an intersection between transformational fandom and cultural appropriation when the thing you are making fanart of is from a different culture? How does appropriation work when the power balance is inverted?
posted by I-Write-Essays at 2:00 PM on June 15


Is there an intersection between transformational fandom and cultural appropriation when the thing you are making fanart of is from a different culture? How does appropriation work when the power balance is inverted?

I guess weeaboos and American kpop stans might be what you're looking for? Parts of the fun about being part of the dominant cultural force is that you have to work to experience anything that's outside of it, so it's not very common for large fandoms to be popular with people outside of their cultural hegemony. That being said, usually the complaints are about ignorant Americans misunderstanding things in fandom are coming from other sections of fandom, not from the creators.
posted by dinty_moore at 4:41 PM on June 15


I should mention that I'm a very detail-absorbing nerd when I get fannish about something -- I pored over the Star Trek Encyclopedia for ages as a kid, and you can witness my wiki-type context/clue-gathering comments in our thread on 17776, and my similar "look at all these useful interesting details!" fannish posts on Jon Bois and Sarah Taber.

When I look back at those examples, I see that those are instances of me reading or making one-to-many curations of detail, encyclopedic or bibliographic, and that some of the frustration discussed above is about different dynamics: fans having conversations with media creators or with other fans.

And I feel frustration in some conversations, whether with fellow fans of something or just with other people who experienced a piece of media that we're talking about, where I locate part of that friction in the kinds of cross purposes we've been talking about in this thread.

There is a particular kind of bleh that I have recently run into when trying to talk about The Good Place or Steven Universe with a few friends I know -- all men, in case it's relevant -- who also like those shows. I want to ask: how did it make you feel? I empathize with ___ because of ____, do you feel that way too? and admire how the show creators do exposition, and play around speculating about what might happen next and what would be fun/cool ..... and the guy I'm talking with is trying to Solve the worldbuilding stuff.

Also, I particularly learned from comments in this thread by straight, sjswitzer, Nancy Lebovitz, Caduceus, Teegeeack AV Club Secretary, and praemunire, so shout-out to y'all!
posted by brainwane at 6:57 AM on June 21 [2 favorites]


I mean, we stan Lovecraft here, so.

I don't think this is a very fair characterization of anyone I've seen discussing Lovecraft on Metafilter.
posted by Caduceus at 7:43 PM on June 21 [1 favorite]


So in the new Tales of the City series there's a dinner scene where gay white men say racist and transphobic things, and the one black character on screen makes a criticism that they don't take well. Given the last line in the clip, where the one black character onscreen compares what's just happened to Get Out -- to me, this scene is not tilted towards sympathizing with the older white characters. But replies on Twitter include many commenters who view the scene as primarily sympathetic to those characters' argument, or they're unhappy that the one character who's on their side leaves the room instead of pursuing the argument.

Which raises questions sort of like Pham's article about "Cat Person" does. How can you tell which character a show sympathizes with? Do some viewers think that we should avoid realistically portraying the oppressive dynamic that this scene illustrates? And if not, how ought it look when we do portray it?

I also think that for some viewers this kind of portrayal is "unproductively painful," to quote Ada Palmer on a related conflict... the kind of scene that shows one kind of viewer "this is what it's like" in a way that makes them go "yes! that IS what it's like!" or gives another viewer the "oh crap, I never knew that that's what it's like" experience is the same kind of scene that makes another kind of viewer hurt. And without seeing the rest of the show, I don't know whether the injustice in this one scene is ever rectified, whether that character gets a strong voice, and so on -- what gets tied up in a bow and what doesn't.
posted by brainwane at 10:04 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]


Something that I was thinking about the other day is how this style of analysis leads to ever grimmer story telling, because many of the things that make for successful, titillating stories (Murder!! Ghosts! Revenge!!) are inherently pretty grim, and once you start to flesh out the world, sooner or later you need to confront that. To put it another way, the more “real” that you (as a fan or as a creator) make the fictional world, the more you have to consider the consequences of actions in that world.

The Adam West version of Batman had the same origin story - parents gunned down by criminals - but the show was fun and silly and suitable for kids. Nowadays that would be seen as something akin to a plot-hole. As we’ve moved towards an extremely literal reading of stories, it no longer really “works” to have a fun and light-hearted story featuring a protagonist whose parents were violently killed in front of him as a child, and so rather than abandoning that story, it gets re-told as a horrible depressing story in which criminals are violently and realistically beaten up, with nary a POW or WAP in sight.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 4:41 PM on June 22


The Adam West version of Batman had the same origin story - parents gunned down by criminals

Did he, though? I'm not trying to be flip, I understand that's the original "canonical" origin of Batman, but does any actor or narrator on that show actually give that reason, or were audiences just supposed to take that for granted by -- relevant to the discussion -- importing that idea from another work in a different medium?
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 5:06 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]


Good question!

I don’t have any way of proving it short of rewatching the series, so let’s take a different example, because the line stuck in my head: in the movie that arose from the 60s TV show, the Pentagon inadvertently sells The Penguin a nuclear submarine armed with Polaris missiles. (“You sold a nuclear submarine... to a man named P. N. Guin??”) The villains’ plot is to launch a nuke and start World War Three. I don’t think there’s nothing inherently funny about the threat of nuclear apocalypse? (I suppose Kubrick might disagree.)

The threat of a nuclear attack on a city is also the climax of The Dark Knight Rises, and in the later film it’s not at all humorous - Batman appears to sacrifice his life in an attempt to prevent the death of millions. And that’s a much more realistic, consistent treatment of the hypothetical situation. But it’s kind of bleak, like the whole film (the whole series, in fact).

My argument is that the phenomenon of the “gritty reboot” is driven by a more literal approach to storytelling, and that this in turn is partly driven by fans engaging with - and going beyond - the logic of what they’re presented with in entertainment products.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 5:29 PM on June 22


thingswithwings wrote a detailed post about the Adam West Batman series, campiness, queerness, joy, storytelling, and embodiment (influenced by Andy Medhurst's "Batman, Deviance, and Camp") that says:
One of the most interesting things about the TV show to me is how completely it refuses almost all origin stories. Think about this: there were 120 episodes of Batman made. At no point does anyone ever mention Bruce Wayne's parents. NEVER.
If you're interested in understanding the contrast between light-and-fun Batman stories and dark-and-gritty Batman stories, I do recommend you check out thingswithwings's essay:
...Batman as a cultural icon represents a tug of war over the meanings of masculinity that has been going on for over sixty years....

A big part of what the 60s Batman TV show did is it took what was literally represented in comics and put it into live action, and the change in medium makes a huge change in the message. .... It's colourful, and silly, and funny, and it refuses to take seriously a man dressed in a bat costume who shows up to fight crime..... part of what it's doing is making fun of the entire genre of superhero/vigilante comics.
posted by brainwane at 6:18 PM on June 22 [3 favorites]


Lots (most?) of 60's TV and movies were like that, The Avengers (the real one, not Marvel)?

A while back I became very much a Sherlock Holmes fan and was excited to reread the collections with the annotations until I realized what was going on. WTF? I have trouble expressing or explaining how much I despise that thing, certainly more than I should.
posted by bongo_x at 1:12 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]


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