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Sturgeon's Law in Action

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 22, 2003 3:45 am    Post subject: Sturgeon's Law in Action Reply with quote

AN: This was originally published on April 2, 2002, as far as I can recall. Part II would have gone up on April 9th or so, but I received the "seek-locate-exterminate" letter that evening. Thanks to all who betad in the effort to make this less incomprehensible, and especially to Una, for affirming this arithmaphobe's statistical analysis process!

Also, a bit of good news is that footnotes (i.e., HREF targets in HTML) work in Henneth Annun.




STURGEON'S LAW IN ACTION, PART I
by the Philosopher at Large


First, the numbers:

283 Stories scanned - representing exactly 5% of ffnet's LOTR stories as of a couple of days ago.

Samples chosen by the random means of selecting two latest days' offerings in strict chronological order, 2 days in the precise middle of the listings, and 2 days chosen in between (in case there had been a recent rush of uncharacteristic stories.) No preselection to slant for bad or good work was done - I simply went through each story listed, one after the other, and read enough to determine what kind it was. (Range of error plus/minus 1-2 on larger categories. Percentages are rounded.)

Breakdown:

101 humor/parody fics, some of which are actually funny - 36%

63 undeniable Mary-Sues (though 3 do try, & 2 are Gary Stus) - 22%

5 Mary-Sue Devilles (1 is a Gary Stu Deville) - 2%

1 avowed Mary-Sue - .5%

1 clear Mary-Sue ("Jeagol") who gets points for being Gollum's Girl - .5%

3 borderline Mary-Sues (1 canon possession of Pearl Took) - 1%

10 Real People Fics, most of which are also Mary-Sues - 3.5%

1 RPS - Real People Slash - .5%

39 Slash stories - 14% [circa 2% at all canonical]
which break down to
5 PWP including a Luthien-Galadriel (points for originality)
16 avowed AUs
2 Hobbit-BDSM stories
1 Aragorn ignorant of elves, with EvilLegolas, and a Mary-Sue (2 for 1 special!)
1 Aragorn willing to defy Elrond's wrath at jilting his daughter
1 P/S with EvilFrodo, unappreciated Sam, and appreciative Pippin at pre-Fellowship Bag End
2 F/G unaware that G is not human (1 also a FF8 song-fic in which half the story is song, purported to be sung by Elf at Iml.)
2 Legolas the weepy codependent
1 non-AU EvilAragorn
and 5 possibly-in-character-for-movieverse stories, (3 of which are simply angst-maunderings of one page or less)

3 Movieverse canon stories, all A/A PWPs - 1%

1 Movieverse canon poetry - .5%

9 post-LOTR "New Shadow" angstfics of varying degrees of canonical accuracy - 3%

15 Canon stories (all very short, 1 - 3 page range) - 5%

10 Canon poems (character soliloquies) - 3.5%

15 UUs (Unclassified Unclassifiables) - 5%
(includes the serious BTVS crossover, the Eowyn-sells-Arwen-out-to-Sauron-story, a very short list of Elvish websites, Arwen Lune's cool plot suggestion list, and several AUs that weren't slash)

And finally, 6 OCs that weren't Mary-Sues - 2%
(includes 1 so uncanonical in its depiction of a Middle-earth filled with fairies & sprites (including Puk and Ambrose!) that it hardly matters)



--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

STURGEON'S LAW IN ACTION, PART II
The Square of Opposition


A =/= E
| \ / |
| =/= |
v / \ v
I --?-- O


where
A = All
E = None
I = Some
O = Not All

With grateful acknowledgments to Aristotle, towards whom I simultaneously bow and spit, I give you the Square of Opposition. (Sadly, this section is going to come off as extremely patronizing, especially to people who are already familiar with Formal Logic, but even more so to people who aren't. Can't help it, sorry - just bear with me and hopefully this will help abridge some unnecessary arguing further on.)

The Square of Opposition, or SoO for short, is a way of describing certain inevitable relationships between states of being in a handy-dandy graph format. It isn't the only way of describing relations of being - but only an idiot would claim that it was. It's a useful tool, the way Euclidean Geometry is a useful tool, one in an arsenal of mental tools, and it's helpful for sorting out some really confusing discussions.

What it says is this: given that a certain statement is true, then certain other statements will necessarily be either also true, false, or possible. It doesn't say anything about whether the statement itself is true, just IF it's true, what will follow from that.

The SoO demonstrates in shorthand that

If All Somethings are Somehow, Then Some Somethings also must be Somehow.

But If Some Somethings are Somehow, Then All Somethings might or might not be Somehow. You Just Can't Tell from that fact alone.
If No Somethings are Somehow, Then Not All Somethings are Somehow is also true.

But If Not All Somethings are Somehow, Then No Somethings are Somehow might or might not be true. You Just Can't Tell from that fact alone.

If All Somethings are Somehow, Then No Somethings are Somehow cannot simultaneously be true. And Vice Versa.

If No Somethings are Somehow, Then Some Somethings are Somehow cannot simultaneously be true. And Vice Versa.

If Not All Somethings are Somehow, Then All Somethings are Somehow cannot simultaneously be true. And Vice Versa.

If Some Somethings are Somehow, Then Not All Somethings are Somehow, might or might not be true. You Just Can't Tell.

These relationships can be restated in any number of ways, but they all come out to the same thing. (You can make circle graphs, or use symbols like ~ to mean "not" and so on.) What does this have to do with fanfiction? Very simply this - there's some straw-man arguing going on, which would be obviated if everyone a) understood that I use words rather specifically, (specifically words like "most" and "some") and b) understood what inevitable consequences are both indicated and meant by the use of those words.

I said that Most OCs are Mary-Sues. "Most" means "more than half" or "a majority" of something - in other words, it's a more-specific form of Some. It doesn't mean All. It doesn't imply All. All includes Some; Some doesn't necessarily include All. If I had meant to say that All OCs are MS, I would have said: All OCs are MS. I didn't.

Now, is it a true statement? Given the working definition of Mary-Sues as found in the fandom-wide Litmus Tests and other essays, and which I will shortly distill into one brief paragraph, and given the statistical accuracy of my sample, then Yes, it is true to say that Most OCs are Sues. (90% (70 minimum MSs out of 78 sampled OCs) = "Most" by any working definition I can find.)

I also said that Most LOTR Slash is Implausible.

(Again, Most =/= All. Get it? Got it? Good.)

Now plausible, in Aristotelian Lit Crit terminology, has nothing to do with whether a story is a fantasy or not. It has everything to do with whether in the context of the story and characters as established, something makes sense. "Better a plausible impossibility than an implausible possibility," is Aristotle's defense of good fantasy vs. bad 'realistic' fiction.

Given in addition to the above definition of plausible, the premises that

in Real Life,
a) sex complicates relationships,
b) power complicates relationships,
c) relationships complicate work (for good or ill)

and

ME as described by JRRT is far closer to RL in terms of interpersonal relations than, say, your average daytime series,

Then a story which ignores a, b, and c above is going to be as implausible in ME as in RL. [1]

The fact that out of 40 LOTR slash stories, 16 (40%!) are admittedly AU indicates that these authors are at least marginally aware that they can't make it work in ME. They're dumping everything except the names and some bits of storyline and pasting those onto an entirely new subcreation. It might be a very good subcreation; the only way to tell would be to take off the Middle-earth masks and view it as a freestanding fantasy work. However, it's implausible as LOTR fanfic.

The fact that another 10 are de facto AU, with radical changes or omissions of basic elements of Middle-earth's history, indicates that these authors are also unable to Make It Work, only they're less self-aware than the first group. This brings it to 65% AU, which is by definition 65% Implausible In Light of Canon, which is More Than Half, which means - Most.

Then there are 5 short PWPs, (12.5 %) in which there's simply not enough character, action or world-building to make the question of Canon Fidelity answerable.

A maximum 12.5% of studied LOTR slash was even borderline plausible. Do I think that it's impossible to write plausible LOTR Slash? No. Do I think that it's unlikely that any given LOTR slash story is going to be plausible? Statistically, yes.

I seriously recommend that every would-be slash writer go and watch, and also read, all of Brideshead Revisited. Not only is it superbly acted in the film, and IMO [2] the finest book-to-film conversion ever made, but it's filled with sumptuous imagery of Oxford Town and all of the contemporary scenery in which the genesis of LOTR took place. And although they manage to get nearly all of the book into the series, there are still surprises in the pages.

If you want dark plausible slash, go and read Mary Renault. You will have to go very far to find creepier, squickier, well-written, plausible slash (in the commonly-used sense of slash as homosexual love stories, as opposed to non-canonical pairings). Renault, in addition to being a popularizer of the Classical world, was also a student of JRRT's, [3] and he liked her famous novel The King Must Die. (He also enjoyed the original Conan books.) So to say that JRRT the Greek Lit expert couldn't have appreciated slashy stories because he was a Victorian Englishman, is simply not borne out by the evidence. Rosemary Sutcliff's adult fiction runs a close second to Renault, IMO, though she's less famous.

And before you start screaming "Hey!!! What's wrong with AUs???" and bringing out your flamethrowers - the question under discussion is, Is it plausible in light of canon? If you're changing the fundamental premises of ME to make your story work, then No, it isn't plausible in light of canon. Rather like the alternate Xena stories ("it's a X/G story only it's AU and they're both talking squirrels"), the further AU it goes, the more the question intrudes itself: In what way is this still a work of __ (fill-in-the-blank) fanfiction? There's a big difference between "What if Frodo hadn't given up the Ring, and Gollum hadn't saved him from himself?" - a valid field of in-canon exploration - and "What if Aragorn was older than Legolas and a rapist?" Just change the names and make it an Original Fiction, or if you're unwilling, put it in a more congenial canon for your themes. Go write Highlander fanfic, or Forgotten Realms, or Elric stories.

By the way, I haven't flamed anyone. This is all only mildly-caustic constructive criticism. If I had, you would think Glaurung the Golden was back from the dead. [4]


Coming soon: Older Than Some Hills: the 5000-year history of fanfiction; a Case History of at least one Non-'Sue OFC; and a MASSIVE listing of LOTR canon stories on ffnet. (WIP, this will take a few weeks to accomplish.)



--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

[1] I don't think that premises a, b, and c are arguable, and I don't think that refusing to address them, or acting as though they don't exist, will allow creation of a plausible story of any kind. Is it necessary to go into detail why? Hasn't anyone here ever broken up before? Been involved with someone senior/junior to them in some sort of hierarchy? Either romantically, or as friends? Had to keep working with them after the breakup? As Gaspode would say, "I 'ope I don't need to draw you a picture!"

[2] In case you haven't noticed, I'm not humble about my opinions. About the breadth of my knowledge, yes; but I call 'em like I see 'em. If I'm wrong, and the evidence is clear, I'll correct my opinions. But I won't apologize for having them.

[3] JRRT tutored Somerville students (from the women's college at Oxford) even though it was a distinctly uncool thing to do, and he put lots more work into it than the meager cash return would indicate. He said that her thank-you card to him was the probably most rewarding piece of fanmail he'd ever gotten or would get, and found her books among the very few modern novels (along with Asimov's!) that engaged him. (Letters, p. 377.)

[4] Silmarillion. The original flame-throwing war machine (aka 'dragon.') This prototype was flightless, but still damn fast and nobody to mess with. First unleashed in the Dagor Bragollach (Battle of Sudden Flame), along with a fighter-cohort of Balrogs. JRRT used beta-readers, by-the-by, and sometimes followed their recommendations, speaking happily of having received "good criticism."


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