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TheOtherDave comments on Three Worlds Collide (0/8) - Less Wrong

48 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 January 2009 12:07PM

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Comment author: TheOtherDave 16 April 2013 04:30:54PM 6 points [-]

fanfiction has certain constraints on it (including inability to publish) which hurt it

I would be surprised if fanfiction for a popular piece of media didn't get far more eyes looking at it than equally-good (or equally-poor) original work, even taking into account the larger number of eyes drawn to published work.

So if my goal is to maximize number of eyes looking at my words, the constraints of fanfiction might hurt it less (in terms of what I value) than the constraints of original work.

Comment author: TitaniumDragon 16 April 2013 08:05:22PM 3 points [-]

Fanfiction inherently limits the number of people who will ever look at it; an independent work stands on its own merits, but a fanfiction stands on both its own merits and the merits of the continuity to which it is attached. Write the best fanfic ever about Harry Potter, and most people still will never read it because your audience is restricted to Harry Potter fans who read fanfiction - a doubly restricted group.

While it is undeniable that it can act to promote your material, you are forever constrained in audience size by the above factors, as well as the composition of said audience by said people who consume fanfiction of fandom X.

Comment author: ygert 16 April 2013 08:34:58PM *  7 points [-]

Write an original work, and unless you are both very lucky and very good, the number of people who see it is more or less zero.

If you write an original work, then I am very sorry, but I probably will not read it. There is a barrier to diving into a new world, a trivial inconvenience, but nonetheless, a cost to high for the expected return, which by Sturgeon's Law is near zero. On the other hand, in fanfiction I already know the world, and that makes it easier to jump in.

Yes, for fanfiction there is an upper bound to the readership numbers, but in practice, that isn't what you should be worrying about when trying to get people to read your work. The hard part is separating yourself out from the Sturgeon's Law chaff surrounding you, and that is an easier task if your work is a work of fanfiction.

Comment author: Vaniver 16 April 2013 08:34:59PM 5 points [-]

Fanfiction inherently limits the number of people who will ever look at it; ... it is undeniable that it can act to promote your material

The second factor is much more important for most authors for most stories. I read a lot of fanfiction by people whose original works I never would have found, because their original works aren't stored in a fanfiction repository. It's like how you could go to DeviantArt and look at people's original works, but you're much more likely to come across drawings they've done of things you're both fans of.

Worrying that you are forever constrained in audience size seems odd; most people never read most stories. The question is how many you can get to read it, and when.

Comment author: wedrifid 16 April 2013 10:59:43PM 3 points [-]

Worrying that you are forever constrained in audience size seems odd; most people never read most stories.

Using another rationalist fanfic as an illustration I've read Luminosity, but never twilight.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 17 April 2013 02:21:06AM 7 points [-]

I agree that fanfic has a lower ceiling than original work. But it isn't necessarily better to raise my ceiling than to raise my average.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 17 April 2013 03:30:49AM 6 points [-]

There's quite a number of HPMOR readers who've never read HP. Admittedly this may be a special case, and it's not HPMOR's original intended optimal use-case either (reading Philosopher's Stone first is a good idea if you can).

Comment author: shminux 17 April 2013 05:25:23AM *  2 points [-]

I tried the original after HPMOR, and it reads like mediocre fanfic :) Harry is just all wrong...

Comment author: MugaSofer 17 April 2013 01:44:47PM -1 points [-]

I was a lifelong HP fan before reading HPMOR - and I would almost certainly never have read it if it wasn't HP fanfiction. (Or popular on TVtropes, but that's another matter.)

Comment author: MugaSofer 17 April 2013 01:45:53PM 0 points [-]

Write the best fanfic ever about Harry Potter, and most people still will never read it because your audience is restricted to Harry Potter fans who read fanfiction - a doubly restricted group.

Woah, I never though of it like that before.

We should be writing crossovers!

Comment author: TitaniumDragon 17 April 2013 11:25:51PM 3 points [-]

What have I done? ; ;

Comment author: MugaSofer 19 April 2013 01:09:28PM 0 points [-]
Comment author: gwern 18 April 2013 04:12:00AM 1 point [-]

We should be writing crossovers!

I thought crossovers only appeal to fans of both works, and hence that works the opposite of the way you thought it would?

Comment author: MugaSofer 19 April 2013 12:51:42PM -1 points [-]

Huh. Now that you mention it, maybe they do. I've certainly read crossovers of series I don't read, but...

Comment author: [deleted] 01 July 2013 03:06:41AM 7 points [-]

I like fanfic.

I don't, in general, post even constructive criticism on fanfic unless I'm specifically asked to (as a beta reader or something) and even then I will sandwich the con-crit between the most heaping helpings of praise that I can come up with for the work as a whole. The reason for this is that most fanfic writers are motivated by praise. They're not getting paid, after all: the praise is all the reward they get, so the praise had better be good. If I like a piece of fanfic, if I want more of it, I try to provide praise, and the more effusive the better.

I think most fanfic readers intuitively do this, and I worry that EY is taking comments like "HPMOR is the best thing I ever read!!!" literally, when a lot of that sort of stuff is just characteristically enthusiastic fan-feedback. (I'm willing to accept that JohnWittle means it literally, although, seriously? You'd trade Shakespeare and James Joyce--Neil Gaiman and Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin--for HPMOR? It's pretty hard for me to wrap my head around that.)

But in general, the reasons that I don't think HPMOR is as good as TWC have to do not with sentence-level construction but with plot momentum, tightness of theme, efficiency/consistency of characterization etc. It's obviously not really "fair" to critique HPMOR on these grounds since we're mostly seeing stuff that EY is posting as he completes, rather than a revised and polished final version, and because HPMOR is huge and rambling while TWC is a short story. But I was impressed that TWC had such focus, consistency, and drive because it's something that I've felt lacking in HPMOR.

I'm speaking generally but that's as critical as I want to get. I really don't want to trash HPMOR--it's just the "best thing in all of literature" comments that make me boggle a little. What I actually wanted to do was praise TWC, which I think is a truly excellent story.

Comment author: wedrifid 01 July 2013 03:58:11AM *  1 point [-]

'm willing to accept that JohnWittle means it literally, although, seriously? You'd trade Shakespeare and James Joyce--Neil Gaiman and Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin--for HPMOR? It's pretty hard for me to wrap my head around that.

  • Shakespeare I would trade for those weeks of my highschool life back, to spend on learning something more valuable.
  • James Joyce is an author I have heard of and have an intuition that I would experience social pressure against me if I did not assign him high status. From the reviews I read of Ulysses I would pay money to not have to read it. I don't object to other people reading it or enjoying the sophistication.
  • Tolkien's stories I would trade for MoR. His stories are rather dull. I wouldn't trade his world or, especially, the overwhelming influence he had on fantasy fiction in general and elves in particular.
  • Neil Gaiman's work I would trade, but reluctantly. I enjoyed Stardust. But Gaiman's work is more typical and substitutes more easily found. Extreme Rational characters and worlds are overwhelmingly rare.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin? Haven't read. Is her work closer in style and significance to Joyce, Shakespeare, Gaiman or MoR? If one of the last two I'd add her to my to read list.

I'm not sure "You'd trade?" is the right comparison to make. Perhaps "you would assign higher status to" or "you believe is more sophisticated and polished artwork" would give you the answer desired.

Comment author: [deleted] 01 July 2013 04:15:29AM 1 point [-]

Le Guin is a genre writer, like Tolkien and Gaiman. For the most part she's not stylistically difficult as Shakespeare or Joyce can be, although Always Coming Home is experimental in form.

I think she's wonderful. Her Earthsea books (A Wizard of Earthsea is the first) are a good accessible jumping-on point if you're interested in checking her out. Or The Dispossessed if you prefer science fiction. Or one of her short story collections, maybe The Wind's Twelve Quarters or The Compass Rose.

I would only advise you to stay away from The Left Hand of Darkness--that one won both the Hugo and the Nebula and is the book of hers most likely to be taught in college courses, but she regards it as something of a failed experiment and personally I tend to agree.

Comment author: [deleted] 01 July 2013 04:41:33AM 1 point [-]

Le Guin is a death worshipper. The major theme of the Earthsea is the folly of the quest for immortality or even survival, and the naturalness of death.

Comment author: Prismattic 01 July 2013 04:50:03AM 0 points [-]

Are you making an argument for aesthetic Stalinism?

Whether a work of art or literature is good is not necessarily related to whether it conveys lessons one agrees with.

Comment author: wedrifid 01 July 2013 05:22:00AM *  1 point [-]

Are you making an argument for aesthetic Stalinism?

No, quite clearly not. That being the case it is disingenuous to ask for rhetorical purposes.

Whether a work of art or literature is good is not necessarily related to whether it conveys lessons one agrees with.

Not necessarily, but it is a particularly strong reason. If a piece of fiction has the inferred purpose of conveying a lesson and that lesson is a bad lesson then the value of the piece of fiction could easily be negative. This is different to a non-fiction work that accurately conveys reality. Reality isn't something that we get to choose, lessons and values are.

Comment author: Prismattic 02 July 2013 04:52:35AM *  0 points [-]

I was asking it ingenuously and straightforwardly, actually.

If a piece of fiction has the inferred purpose of conveying a lesson

HPMOR is clearly didactic in this way; it's not at all clear to me that Le Guin's writing is (with the exception of Omelas).

Comment author: wedrifid 01 July 2013 05:19:39AM 2 points [-]

Le Guin is a death worshipper. The major theme of the Earthsea is the folly of the quest for immortality or even survival, and the naturalness of death.

Thankyou. That is the kind of attitude that at times makes me abandon a book in disgust. If I don't identify with the goals or decisions of the protagonist I tend to be either disinterested in or repulsed by the work. I'll avoid the author.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 01 July 2013 08:21:23AM *  0 points [-]

I agree about the deathism of Earthsea. And it has other faults, such as the fourth volume (Tehanu) being her turning against (although not entirely) the misogyny of the whole setup of the first three, and with the zeal of the newly enlightened retconning "men evil, women good" onto it. Always Coming Home is full of fluffy woo.

But she also wrote the short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, which is worth finding, because it's about a standard utilitarian problem. I'm sure some philosopher posed it in exactly the form in which her story presents it, but I've not been able to track that down. Imagine a utopia — whatever utopia you like — except that it must be sustained by the suffering of a little girl confined in a cell and tortured for ever. It is part of the thought experiment that the utopia and the suffering are necessarily connected: the little girl can only be freed at the cost of ending the utopia. It is alluded to in HPMOR.

Comment author: [deleted] 01 July 2013 05:41:48AM 0 points [-]

I don't agree with your characterization. I would say that the major theme of the first book is attaining self-knowledge, while the major theme of the second and fourth books is overcoming abuse.

The major theme of the third book is confronting mortality. In that book the land of the dead is portrayed as a terrible place, and the heroes of the book struggle with everything they have and are to escape it. But it's true that there's a villain whose quest for immortality is portrayed as selfish and dangerous.

The major theme of the fifth and final book is looking outside the self and understanding others. There's some business with the land of the dead involved in this one too, but there's an answer given that I don't think boils down to death-worship.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 01 July 2013 06:00:42AM 0 points [-]

As I recall, the especially miserable but obligatory afterlife in the first three books got revised in the last (fifth?) book. The initial state turned out to be a magical working which seemed like a good idea at the time. Anyone remember the details?

Comment author: Vaniver 02 July 2013 08:59:01PM 1 point [-]

Ursula K. Le Guin? Haven't read. Is her work closer in style and significance to Joyce, Shakespeare, Gaiman or MoR? If one of the last two I'd add her to my to read list.

I thought that A Wizard of Earthsea was a good counterpoint to a lot of the other fantasy books that I read as a child; I think that MoR!Harry would have made a few less mistakes if he had read and grokked it.

Comment author: Prismattic 01 July 2013 04:47:51AM 0 points [-]

Interesting choices to represent better literature.

Personally, I think James Joyce's work is the Sokal hoax of highbrow literature, but YMMV. (I'm not kidding.)

Comment author: [deleted] 07 August 2013 10:55:14PM *  2 points [-]

I don't think you're kidding, but my response to this will vary depending on whether you have made an honest effort to read Joyce. Have you actually sat down with any of his books? Which ones, and how long did you give it?

Personally, I feel that Ulysses delivered one of the single most transporting experiences I've ever had as a reader. However, the book is deliberately hard in places. It's kind of like "The Neverending Story" -- Joyce is writing about The Hero's Journey but he aims to make you, the reader, experience that journey on a visceral level along with the protagonist of the book. So when things are hardest for the protagonist, the book also becomes difficult to decode and to read.

My opinion is that this trick pays off in the end, when I as a reader experienced a sense of relief and homecoming just as the protagonist did. The last line of Ulysses can be endlessly quoted ("yes I said yes I will Yes") but the sweetness and the power of it is something that has to be experienced, by going on the journey.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 01 July 2013 01:48:09PM *  0 points [-]

I have absolutely no idea why this is a response to my comment; it seems entirely unrelated.
Just to be clear, I am not defending the quality of HPMoR, and I'm fairly certain I've never done so, though I've recommended it to several friends to whom I think it would appeal... not for the adequacy of its writing, but for the rarity and audience-appropriateness of its themes.

Comment author: [deleted] 06 July 2013 05:02:19AM 0 points [-]

Misclick on my part. I meant to reply to JohnWittle (the grandparent of your comment). Sorry for the confusion!

Comment author: Nornagest 01 July 2013 05:32:23AM 1 point [-]

I think I'd expect an S-shaped curve for fanfic, with a term for the popularity of the original work, and a more exponential-looking curve for original fiction. People who read fanfic tend to read a lot of fanfic, and that gets a certain number of eyes on your work that wouldn't be there if you were publishing original fiction, but it's exceptionally rare for a fanfic to attract readers that aren't either part of the (still relatively small) fanfic community or fans of the original work and usually both.

HPMoR is unusual in that it has managed to attract an audience independent of those considerations, but that audience is, as best I can tell, quite small compared to the numbers a bestselling original fantasy novel can be looking at.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 01 July 2013 01:40:42PM *  1 point [-]

Oh, without question. A bestselling original fantasy novel has many more readers than a popular fanfiction. Agreed.

So now, if I want to do an expected value calculation, I should consider the likelihood of my work becoming a bestselling original fantasy novel vs the likelihood of my work becoming popular fanfiction, and the effort involved in pursuing those paths, and cash those out in terms of expected readers gained per unit of work. Agreed?

Assuming we agree on that: what would you estimate the ratio of those numbers to be for EY, while preserving the various ideological/educational purposes he had for his work?

Comment author: Nornagest 01 July 2013 08:26:53PM *  0 points [-]

Yeah, I think we agree on the problem statement. As to the solution, that's an interesting question. Let's do some Fermi analysis.

We first need to know what popular fanfic is actually looking at in terms of readers. ff.net doesn't expose that information, unfortunately, but AO3 does. If a comment on AO3 is roughly equivalent to a review on ff.net, then each review is worth about a thousand hits. Assume that five or ten percent of those hits, for a long work, are unique readers (logged-in users aren't double-counted, but I assume anonymice on dynamic IPs are when their IP changes), and it looks like Methods has seen one to two million readers.

Now, a popular fantasy novel series can be expected to sell somewhere around twenty million copies (there are few single-volume fantasy books that make that list). Assume five books per series and that half of all readers don't get all the way through, and we're looking at somewhere around eight million unique readers.

If EY is risk-neutral, if he mainly cares about maximizing his readership, and if non-bestselling books usually sell relatively few copies, he would have been correct in writing an original series if there was more than a 12% - 20% percent chance of making it into bestseller territory. That sounds high to me, so I'm going to say that the fanfic approach was probably a good one -- although it's worth mentioning that Methods is arguably as much an outlier in fanfic terms as your average bestseller is in publishing, and retroactively extrapolating from its performance might not accurately model the kind of forward prediction that Eliezer would actually have been doing when he was making these choices. Also, if he happens to have any contacts in the publishing industry, that'd skew things somewhat towards original fic -- not all the barriers to entry are based on dumb luck.

Comment author: gwern 01 July 2013 09:58:33PM 0 points [-]

although it's worth mentioning that Methods is arguably as much an outlier in fanfic terms as your average bestseller is in publishing, and retroactively extrapolating from its performance might not accurately model the kind of forward prediction that Eliezer would actually have been doing when he was making these choices.

I think it pretty obviously does not accurately represent the choice Eliezer faced at the time. Aside from the inherent advantages of fanfiction (no barriers to entry for him or readers, close interaction with readers so he can debug chapters), there are who knows how many thousands of high-quality fanfics he was competing with? It's worth noting that Eliezer has done a fair bit of original and fanfiction before (http://yudkowsky.net/other/fiction) and AFAIK none of them have been wildly successful even when you consider them being short stories etc.