Quality and popularity

I have always been interested in what people think about the subjective and objective values of fiction. Most notably, in the painful paradox between the common belief that most people have bad taste, therefore the public reception of a series is  unrelated, (or even negatively related) to it’s quality, and the belief that nevertheless there is some kind of objective quality.

In spite of all the “Yeah, well that’s just like, your opinion, man” that always comes up as a useful retort when two different debaters both have a strong voice behind them, as long as we don’t have to directly deal with dissenters, we all inherently fall back to separating “good” and “bad” series, “right” and “wrong” trends from each other, revealing our desire to find objective quality.  No one would be interested in a critic who writes hesitant review statements like “I personally found Kill Me Baby‘s  sense of humor uninteresting”, or “Cowboy Bebop’s atmosphere was very appealing for my taste”. Sometimes, we just need to make it clear, that certain things are shit, and others are genius, goddamn it!

The second belief, that most people have wrong taste, can be directly inferred from the above: If a show is “clearly good”, but it didn’t sell enough discs, that’s because the DVD-buying audience has a WRONG sense of humor. Similarly, if a “clearly bad”  that’s because they are WRONG, they were just too easily manipulated by moe, or fanservice, or whatever happens to be it’s strong point.

This creates the paradoxical, and maybe even hypocritical situation, where the acknowledgement that a show gets is directly proportional to how popular it is in our own circles, so in a way we are declaring the most popular shows the best. But then we use the result of this popular vote as “proof”, that the other, larger circles producing their own, much more tangible votes (with their wallets) are wrong, therefore quality can’t be determined by popularity, because the population is stupid.

Like any good paradox, this one has no real satisfying solution. One solution would be to just give up all that objective quality nonsense, and be nihilists. There are no good and bad shows, just shows that we happen to like and dislike. The fact that more people around us happen to be fans of Madoka Magica than of Maken-ki,  is just a big coincidence, that could as well be the other way around, and likewise, the fact that Madoka sold better, is just good luck, we can be glad that the studio that we prefer got rewarded, but we have no right to say that this is the expected way of things, or that it “deserved to sell well”, because profits are distributed randomly, and not as a reflectation of quality.

The other solution would be the opposite of that: Admit it that that public opinion is really an indicator of quality, and instead of relying on vaguely detected fan attitudes, only look at the main measurable results, such as rating, or disc sales. If your opinion happens to differ from them, then “well that’s just like, your opinion, man”.

Bakuman seem to be one of the few stories, that’s characters follow that school of thought.  In that show, “becoming the best mangaka”, is treated just like becoming the fastest runner, or the strongest fighter. You can prove it, by beating everyone else in a fair competition. No one ever argues that that their manga was actually good, but the stupid audience with their stupid taste failed to appreciate it. “Manga just needs to be interesting”. If it didn’t interest people, for whatever reason, even if that reason is that “it was too complex”, it failed as a manga.

It’s a really refreshing view on the issue, given that media usually glorifies the idea of l’art pour l’art, and artists expressing themselves however they want it, while only the “evil” editors and executives would ever care about accessibility, and dumbing it down for profit. Bakuman succeeds at portraying this behavior sympathetically, showing artists and editors who really believe that pandering to popularity is just another ideal of reaching quality, through appealing to as amany people as possible.

It even made me change my views about quality. Nowadays, if I hear news that Nichijou failed, or Guilty Crown succeeded at disc sales, I’m much more interested in speculating about what could be the reasons for it, and how could the successes be replicated, and the failures avoided, than two years ago, when I would have been shaking my fist at the sky and screaming at the stupid masses for not liking the same things as I.


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