cupidsbow (cupidsbow) wrote,

There's something about comments -- a comedy of manners

Let me tell you something about comments.

When I first started posting on LiveJournal, it was primarily to figure out whether my fiction made sense to real live readers. I loved fanfiction and admired fanfic readers because they were smart, erudite women, so of course that's the audience I wanted reading my work. And sure enough, I posted fic and started getting comments and found out pretty sharpish what was what.

Right from the start, people were very kind in their reviews. Their comments were written in fan-ese, which I'm sure you're all familiar with -- even in thinky comments there is rarely overt concrit. However there were patterns of responses on individual stories which I quickly became practiced at reading:

  • silence meant the fic hadn't hit the mark in some way (not necessarily the writing itself, but things like subject matter, pairing and fandom, theme etc. IMO, these factors are just as important as the writing, because it comes down to your ability to judge your audience; the catch, of course, is that with silence, you can't easily tell which aspect you've screwed up)

  • lots of 'Yay! Loved it!' comments meant it was a perfectly ordinary story that hit people's buttons without being offensive

  • longer and thinkier comments meant the story engaged the imagination or challenged people's assumptions in some way, and they wanted to talk about it; usually there were fewer comments on stories that triggered this

  • a theme of 'more please' meant you wrote something either a) deliberately open-ended and ambiguous, or b) fudged the ending and it left people unsatisfied

  • lots and lots and lots of comments, and of all different types meant that the story tapped into a cliché that spoke straight to the lizard brain -- it's not necessarily an indication of good writing. Quite the opposite in fact; it's often a bit thin and sketchy, but leans heavily on archetypes

  • hardly any comments, but all of them kind of gobsmacked (in a good way) -- which meant the story hit it out of the park so well and so far that people didn't know how to react

I spent a hell of a lot of time figuring out what those comments meant, and being able to take a tiny hint (like someone writing: "I wonder what Sheppard was thinking when...") and turning it into concrit: Oh, I didn't make his motivation clear there; but I kind of like the effect. I'll have to try it again on purpose.

In hindsight, I'm pretty sure you should take that list with a giant grain of salt. Hell, take a whole salt mine. It was a great resource for me at the time, and helped me become a better writer, but I think people have a more complex relationship with comments than I realised back then, and the list is far too simplistic.

Back then I also spent a hell of a lot of time feeling guilty, because when I first started posting fic I didn't have access to the internet at home. I downloaded my comments onto floppy disk and read them offline, and I never seemed to have time to answer them all when I was online. Even once I got internet connected at home, I never seemed to be able to answer everyone. I rarely managed to leave comments on other people's stories, either (which I also downloaded and read offline for years).

I still can't do it. I just can't. Even when people write brilliant, funny things and I want to get to know them better, a lot of the time I just don't know what to say, or I'm too tired, or too busy with work, or have to choose between commenting and reccing and writing, etc.

Basically, I am that sucky fan who lurks and never comments.

To cut this already long story slightly shorter, time passed, tick tick tick, and then this weird thing happened.

I mostly got over comments.

Not just the guilt (actually, I still feel that sometimes), but the burning need for comments, and the desperate habit of tracking hits.

I just kind of... stopped. I didn't even know why. I still loved hearing from readers (and still do!), and really liked to know that I'd made people happy with my stories (ditto). But, when all was said and done, I didn't need them the same way any more.

I still talk about comments with other fans, of course, because it's one of those subjects like the weather. "Hey, I saw you got three pages of comments on the latest! Go you!" Or, "I don't know why it wasn't a mega hit, honey, I love it and it's awesome. People have no taste." You all do that, right?

So, in that spirit, I'll still occasionally take a look at how many comments "Happily Ever After" has now, and boggle (they are still coming in, which defies all patterns of commenting in the fannosphere). Or I'll poke at the stats on Filefront, or the Archive of Our Own, or Delicious, or Google Analytics (you can add Google Analytics to DreamWidth just like that, and because I'm a giant nerd and it was a cool toy, I did. DW is so awesome that way -- if you would like a DW code, let me know and it is yours).

Mostly it doesn't occur to me to check. For instance, I have no idea how many comments my last story got. Probably not many, as I think it was part of my rather grim Torchwood 'Days of Love' fest that ended up being all rape and death all the time. Hahaha. <--- Torchwood, the fandom of black humour and bitterness. Oh, yes. *hearts it anyway*

When I do think to look at the stats, I find out weird shit, like my most popular story on DW is "Jungle Fever," which wasn't that popular when I posted it.

(Speaking of which, there's something kind of embarrassing about getting a lot of comments, which understandably, people don't tend to talk about. I really want to say something jokey here, like: "Just don't go and look at the number of comments on 'Jungle Fever' because you will then exclaim, What's that bitch talking about? What does she mean it wasn't popular? See, SGA was a crazy fandom and left heaps of comments on anything. Sheppard's shopping list? 200 comments. Just trust me that however many pages of comments there are on that story now, it's fewer than normal for SGA in its heyday." See how I snuck that jokeyness in there anyway? I've always felt really weird about stories that get lots of comments; it's like I did something wrong. What kind of culture have we made for ourselves that there's a cringe-factor in making something that people like? That's a question I couldn't have asked before now, because I would have worried I'd come across as a self-important blow-hard. Fortunately, I've seen the light and embraced my inner blow-hard, so I don't mind so much that someone will inevitably agree with me. But all jokes aside, it's worth asking, right? Why do we have that cultural cringe?)

Back to Google Analytics... I also find out stuff like my recs and meta are way more popular than even my most popular fic -- in terms of hits, anyway. Which, as other people have pointed out, doesn't necessarily equal readers. And readers are the key here, the magical thing we're all chasing; they are the reason we write.

That's what it really comes down to, isn't it? All this obsessive checking and counting and wondering? Popularity. Readers.

That's what I used to think. But I've changed my mind.

At the start of this post, I said I wanted to tell you something about comments, and I've now told you several somethings, but not the something I was referring to (because I'm a self-important blow-hard, remember :)

The thing is this:

I'm no longer so obsessive about comments because I don't feel insecure and apologetic for being a woman any more. I'm a woman who writes, and I'm happy being a woman who writes.

I still love to get comments from readers. But I no longer need a magic wand to appear from the sky and tap me on the forehead and magically dub me "Worthy of Holding the Sacred Pen of Authorship."

I used to need that. I didn't know that's what I needed, but I can see it as clearly as anything now. Comments and hits were as close as I could get to that magical approbation -- if only I got enough, I'd be a real writer!

I really like it better now that I feel like I own my own pen keyboard, free and clear and without apology. It's restful. It takes a lot of mental energy to fight your own ingrained isms, especially when you don't realise that's what you're doing.

Here is the final thing I want to say about comments for now:

Maybe my former obsession with comments and the general fannish obsession with comments are in fact both driven, at least in part, by the same desire for legitimacy.

It would explain a lot, don't you think?

(Although not everything, because as I said before, simplicity never offers a complete answer. Also, if it explained everything we'd have no more need of jokes about '42' and where's the fun in that?)

This entry was originally posted at
Tags: discussion, essay, fandom, feminism, meta

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