Long, complicated intersections of conversations and renegade trains of thought yesterday resulted in the singularly obvious observation that simpler, more accessible stories are always going to be more popular (and possibly more ephemeral) than the more complex, less accessible stories will be. While your mind is busy comprehending the sheer obviousness of that statement, I’m going to spend a wee bit more time with it in relation to the greater concept of fandom (maybe).
Fandom is, essentially, a social activity. One can be a “fan” of something without necessarily being social, but “fandom” exists in the social sphere and is the social function of being a fan of something. The word “fandom” provides the perception of a monolithic entity even as we recognize that fandom consists of people with wildly differing temperaments, personalities, tastes, and extra-fandom interests. When we speak of fans, we refer to the general monolith of fandom; when we speak of a fan, we refer to a specific person within the fandom. In other words, “fans” can be abuzz with social gossip and conversation that any single given member of fandom might not care about, lending apathy, confusion, or anger to the fan whose concerns lie outside whatever the latest gossip is. We see the effect in a giant robot fan isolated in a sea of “omg did you see that pantyflash?!”, and we see it in the cute girl fan isolated in a sea of “omg did you see that rocket punch?!”; this effect is, of course, multiplied when you’re both talking about the same series.
In light of this, it’s important to remember that there are two directions that works tend to lean: one reaches out, towards the social environment; another reaches in, towards the text itself. Northrop Frye refers to these as the “centrifugal” and “centripetal” motions of literature respectively; in a move that will either please or displease my English degree-holding overlords, for this purpose let’s assume that the “centrifugal” or outward-movement is directed towards fandom, and the “centripetal” or inward-movement is directed towards a fan. Both of these exist simultaneously in any given work, especially considering that to have any centrifugal effect, a work generally must have some sort of centripetal effect.
It should come as no surprise, then, that there are some works that are more amenable to all the multitudes of fan activities that fandom is comprised of. Regardless of the relative quality or popularity of works that possess this trait, they tend to be simpler and broader in their appeal. They are the works that are easy to like and, conversely, easy to dislike; they are our SHIN MAZINGER SHOUGEKI! Z-HEN on TELEVISIONs, our K-ON!s, our Maria-sama ga Miterus, our Code Geass-s. For whatever reason, the centrifugal response that manifests in fandom comes naturally, and so they tend to dominate most public discourse simply because it’s easier to.
On the other hand, there are some works that are more amenable to the vagaries of an individual fan than fandom at large. Again, regardless of the relative quality or popularity of works that possess this trait, they tend to be complex and focused in their appeal. They are the works that are difficult to like or dislike, and more likely to leave a strong, positive impression on the viewer; they are our Serial Experiments: Lains, our Kaibas, our Sky Crawlers-s, our The Girl Who Leapt Through Times. For whatever reason, the centripetal response that manifests as a personal response to the work comes naturally, leaving them to be more subdued when discussed in a social context.
We have, of course, temporarily ignored the giant Day-Glo elephant in the room, which is that every work has some degree of leaning in either direction. Some works will actually lend themselves well to both ways, able to draw in and maintain a broad audience while still providing the complexity needed to provoke more personal and analytical reactions. These tend to be the major landmark successes: they are the Neon Genesis Evangelions, the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiyas, the Mobile Suit Gundams, the Tengen Toppa Gurren-Laganns. They tend to provoke controversy and leave lasting impacts in both fan and fandom, occasionally in society itself.
The two directions, also, entail different types of social interaction, it seems: the centrifugal direction finds its home making simple subjective judgments, i.e. “this character > that character”, “this episode > that episode”, “this show > that show”, etc.; the centripetal direction tends to provoke more analytical responses than simple subjective judgments, and finds its expression more an “appreciation” than an “enjoyment,” although certainly enjoyment is a major factor for it as well. This also accounts for some amount of weirdness when a work we consider to be directed in one direction is treated in the other; we all scratch our heads over the “Sky Crawlers sucks I give it negative eleventeen stars” as much as we have the “The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Maria+Holic: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes.”
What does this all get us, besides an inadvertent preliminary draft of Northrop Frye (With Creative Embellishments) for Anime Fans? I’m not entirely for certain, unfortunately, but I can hardly think it disadvantageous to take a step back and realize that sometimes there’s a reason a woefully ignored, brilliant masterpiece isn’t getting discussed as much as the flavor-of-the-week: it’s harder to discuss, especially on a place like the Internet, the primary function of which seems to be demonstrating that inane prattle is exactly as common as it is, rather than the fervently-hoped-for less so.
A quick bibliography:
This Ask John article sparked the conversation that sparked the process that ended up as this post.
Also read cuchlann’s excellent postulate of where fandom comes from, as applied to Maria-sama ga Miteru but also generally applicable as well.
If you somehow develop the urge to read Northrop Frye and you haven’t already, The Anatomy of Criticism is a good place to start. Or, at least, it’s the one I recently read. It also happened to make sense but that’s likely just me.