Theory on Fandom Phenomena

While reading a review of “1001 Books To Read Before You Die” I noticed that the reviewer questioned the absence of any books which have been hugely popular recently- Harry Potter being one example. While I agree that the author seemed to hold a grudge against popular literature, I also question the value of many books with huge fan followings. I mean, Harry Potter was alright and a few years from now I’ll probably be able to say the same about Twilight, although I’m currently to hot and bothered over the popularity they’ve gained to give them their due.

So why are they #1 best sellers and all that jazz? Here’s what I replied to the post with:

While I agree to some extent with your notion that what is popular among most people has merit, I probably land a little closer to the author in the agree/disagree spectrum (once things were simple; black and white, you either agreed or disagreed with a statement- then they invented grayscale).

My theory about popular books such as Harry Potter or Twilight is that their wide appeal adds a multiplying (or perhaps exponential) factor. If everyone lived in an isolated bubble with no contact between themselves and other readers, the majority would like these books, and a select few might love them. But start connecting the dots (bubbles) and you see each individual’s reaction increase as they discover they are not alone. This is the phenomenon which causes huge segments of the population to wish they had glittery boyfriends or Golden Snitch keychains.

Yet despite mass appeal, it is quite possible for such books to not be incredibly good. Let’s visit bubble world again and use that sample pool to create a graph in two variables. On the X-axis we have the people who read a book. Not the number of people, mind you, but the people. On the Y-axis we have how much each one liked it. For the sake of organization we’ll put all the people who liked the book the most closest to the Y-axis itself (working only in the 1st quadrant). Thus for a book such as Harry Potter which has a wide fan base we will see, well, what looks like a low, squat building stretching almost all the way across the graph with a smoke stack or two on the leftmost side. Now, take a niche book, or a classic such as Moby Dick. You’ll find yourself with a skyscraper on the Y-axis with a sudden drop off which goes below the height of Harry Potter’s low, squat building.

Then of course there is the out of bubble world graph of a book like Harry Potter’s popularity.

Now, because I don’t want to get into negative ratings, assume that anything over fifteen means that they like the book, are willing to buy the book, maybe tell their friends about it, etc. All those things that make a book sell. Even if Moby Dick has a few people who are far more wildly enthused over it than anyone is over Harry Potter (in bubble world), it doesn’t matter because Harry Potter has, over all, more people who are above that magical threshold of fifteen. Now transfer into the real world.

Harry Potter has sold enough copies to make it a bestseller, and everyone knows it. Magical Multiplier Effect (TM) occurs and makes everyone adore it. By no means is it a bad book, but it’s not really excellent either. Just broad.


Harry Potter, Twilight, and Moby Dick are all just examples representing certain types of book. When possible, please believe that commentary is about the class of book, not specific books.

Also, a few notes on the graphs. They do not reflect any real data. At all. They may be violently misleading. I can only hope that they will mislead you in the right direction.

Now just to convince WordPress to add 3000 to my word count for the pictures.


5 thoughts on “Theory on Fandom Phenomena

  1. I am to guilty, and do hold a grudge against popular literature. For some strange reason, I feel a lot of times popularity spoils the charm of a book. What is popularity, it is generated when something you like and treasure is ruined by media with its superficial analysis and commentary.

  2. i agree with chirax, i hate it when i finished reading a good book and then someone has to go stick their opinion in there.

    even if i try to ignore it, it changes my perception of the book and thus ruins the whole experience.

    same deal for movies, plays, and music.

  3. Somehow I doubt that what you describe is truly the case. The only effect that mainstream pop culture has on a book is the fact that it makes the general population aware of the existence of the book. If a novel is bad, then this chain-effect of which you speak wouldn’t happen. We aren’t mindless sheep, although it may seem that way at times.

    Why criticize books that have mass appeal? I would love it if more of my friends read the books that I love, because then I could have a dialogue with them concerning the book.

    Also, comparing Harry Potter to Moby Dick isn’t playing on an even playing field. First, when Moby Dick came out, there was no “pop culture” like there is today. Second, people of all ages can relate to HP, while the average layman might become bored with Moby Dick. Related to the previous point is the fact that HP is an easier read than Moby Dick. If you want to make an argument about how pop-culture is responsible for a book’s fan-base, you should compare two books that are more alike in these respects.

    Holding a grudge against books for having mass-appeal is just being selfish. A book retains its worth regardless of how many people read it, therefore the number of people that like a book should do nothing to change whether or not you enjoy the book. If a book’s popularity makes you enjoy it less, then you should reevaluate your reasons for reading a book. Read a book for the book’s sake!

  4. I hardly criticize them, the worst I say would seem to be: “By no means is it a bad book, but it’s not really excellent either. Just broad.”

    This, to me, means that there’s nothing strictly wrong with the book, but that it isn’t about to become the next great American novel, to use an old cliche (and ignoring the fact that J.K. Rowling is a Brit). I think we should be able to agree that no one is going to bring up Harry Potter in a discussion about great use of metaphor, description, characterization, or any other such thing. This isn’t because it does a bad job of any of these, but merely because it isn’t exceptional. The way in which it is exceptional is that it appeals to so many people.

  5. Very interesting post. I’d never thought of it all like that before… not being as analytical. Makes sense though.

    Seeing as you referred to it… if you’re interested, there’s a new version of Arukiyomi’s 1001 books spreadsheet. Along with some cool new features, there are lists of both the revised 1001 books and those that were removed from the new 2008 list. That’s right, the list has changed!

    If you want a free copy of the spreadsheet, head over to Arukiyomi’s blog.

    Happy reading!

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