Embrace mediocre tastes, true happiness

The plain fact is that there are no obvious moral consequences to how people entertain themselves in their leisure time. The conviction that artists and connoisseurs are morally advanced is a cognitive illusion, arising from the fact that our circuitry for morality is cross-wired for with our circuitry for status.

Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate

Mediocrity is kind of the best. Trying to be the best is a prison. Living in fear of mediocrity is like being ceaselessly chased by the monster from your nightmares. You will always be running and never be able to rest in your nature. It’s just not possible to be true to yourself without being middling or worse in some areas. And being true to yourself is what actually satisfies you– the best outcome.

One of the biggest wastes of life– miles and miles of running in circles trying to escape the mediocrity monster– is trying to have “good taste.” It’s worth exploring lots of things and investing effort into food, entertainment, decor, etc. that offer delayed gratification. That effort is ultimately grounded in your desirable experience. It is not worth giving a damn what is erudite or impressive to like. Just take the C in the court of public opinion and get back to actually enjoying yourself.

One of my 2020 resolutions was:

Embrace whatever makes my heart sing, even though loving and delighting in something makes me feel vulnerable. These are my genuine and beautiful feelings, and it’s always okay to be me.

In other words, if what I truly like is lame and the level of effort I’m comfortable with/skill I’m capable of when I’m happy is mediocre, then call me Mrs. Mediocrity!

Incidentally, I fucking love The Simpsons. And I LOVE quoting it and other comedies out of context in a fit of giggles no matter how much it confuses the people around me. I do it for me. Video clip.

Boy, has my intention manifested! Since I defended my dissertation and the lockdown started, I’ve been free to simply like what I like and do what I do. Not only have I had time, but, crucially, I’ve been free of the constant reminders of everyone else’s accomplishments and erudition. Which is necessary, because the things I really like don’t tend to be very highbrow or impressive.

I opened with the general point, but I do have a specific example in mind: I LOVE fan fiction. Fan fiction was always a guilty pleasure in high school and college. Writing a different ending than the original author… is this even allowed?! But until I defended I was too embarrassed as a grown-up graduate student (not to mention felt too guilty about doing anything besides writing my dissertation) to engage with fan fiction even in the privacy of my own home. I felt the eyes of more moral people who enjoyed quality things like wine and talking about diversity in STEM on me all of the time. The vulnerability of loving something public and being part of a community that shared their humble, sincere creative efforts was too much for me when I was worried about being good enough at Harvard. When I feel insecure, I am a snob about originality, and I sort of viewed people who loved someone else’s creation and let it capture their imagination as losers. What a sad, zero-sum way to view people enjoying the enthusiasm, creativity, and connection I so desperately needed.

It wasn’t just that it’s fan fiction or high art vs. low art. It was also that fan fiction is so unapologetically feminine in it’s preoccupations. The feminine themes are what I love, but that love makes me feel very bashful. Romance novel-style smut (but about characters that have been well-established in a non-romance novel plot canon!– truly the greatest form of free porn), angst, slow burn, being utterly adored by men because of who you are (while you are, of course, also beautiful to the rest of the world), men who are redeemed by the purity of their love for you, soul intimacy, negotiating unplanned pregnancy and young family life despite adversity, cavity-inducing moments of domestic cuteness, etc. Smart, empowered women are supposed to consider most of these regressive tropes. Being in male- and feminist-dominated professional and ideological spaces since college, and finding that unfemme psychology mostly agreeable in addition to being much higher status, I had lost touch with these more feminine primal themes that really enliven me. Just as I feel like I’m getting away with something when I fantasize positively about being pregnant, it seems too-good-to-be-true that I can just participate in comment discussions on Archive of Our Own about what if Rey and Kylo Ren had a baby? like I’m Sara Crew, unafraid to imagine the things that would make me happy.

Writing fan fiction is the purest artistic endeavor I have undertaken since my sister and I stopped playing our doll epic, Babytown. And that’s precisely because no one I know considers it real art. I write under a pseudonym, elaborating on the backstories and emotional lives of characters from an old videogame, for an audience of pseudonyms who simply want to read stories about their favorite characters and otps. There’s a kind of status in getting kudos and comments, but the real reward is writing it. For so many years I’ve felt that I had to validate my creativity by getting some kind of external approval. Tragically, being creative became a chore at best and a high-stakes test at worst. Fan fiction, though, is just for me. I needed something like this to feel safe letting loose creatively. Even in this no-stakes scenario– writing about a niche ship with few readers in a way that can never be traced to me– I’ve had to work through a lot of fear of expressing myself. I’m still mediocre even for a fan fiction writer (some of them are really talented). It’s humbling to put in a lot of time at writing, something I’m generally told I’m great at, and still see so much room for improvement. But it’s also awesome to want to improve for the sake of making something better instead of just seeing faults as a liability, like I did in my dissertation. More than skill of execution, though, it’s vulnerable to put out there what I really like, think is cool, find sexy, find romantic, and consider a happily ever after. Writing fan fiction showed me how afraid I was to look at these more feminine desires and gave me the means to reconnect with my chick lit side. I wouldn’t have pushed through all these fears to get to this awesome play space if I hadn’t been doing something so intrisically fun and rewarding.

I feel really creative again for the first time since high school. And I owe it all to this most popular of popular art forms, the kind you make as a fan of someone else’s intellectual property. I owe it to embracing the truth of my humanity– what actually, really elicits joy from me apart from external validation– and letting myself be mediocre. Mediocre and happy 😃


6 thoughts on “Embrace mediocre tastes, true happiness

  1. Nice! What fandoms are you reading? Fic subgenres? I’ve probably read more than a few tens of millions of words of fanfic this last decade+ and might be able to give recommendations (though few ever listen to them lol — I’ve gotten students & Kate to read some fics though, at least). Sturgeon’s law applies more than ever, but there are certainly a few gems, and the lower barrier to entry allows a much easier exploration of novel ideas than traditional publishing. If you can substitute headcanon for the “official thing” and kill the author more thoroughly than usual it helps to circumvent unsatisfactory resolutions, too.

    Original (usually serial) webfiction is another area to look into. Maybe also consider dropping by https://www.reddit.com/r/rational/ — I’ve been regularly posting there since its start and have found it to be a solid community! To the extent that broader fanfiction skews feminine I’d say /r/rational definitely skews masculine with it’s preoccupation with nerdy competence porn, but there might be stuff to like there, too.


    1. Hey Nik!

      Right now I’m exclusively writing a niche ship in the Star Wars EU that I’m afraid would be too traceable if I said it here. I became weirdly obsessed with this ship through the original media and the need to explore it is what got me back in fan fiction.

      >If you can substitute headcanon for the “official thing” and kill the author more thoroughly than usual it helps to circumvent unsatisfactory resolutions, too.

      This is what makes me feel like A Little Princess! What a superpower, just to allow yourself to imagine the thing you want. This is the antidote to so much fanboy rage.

      Interestingly, ratfic is the only thing I wasn’t embarrassed to read in grad school since it’s so highly regarded in EA and rationalism. But other than HPMOR, I don’t really like it. My favorite fan fiction is exploring the emotional/romantic/sexual world of a sci-fi or fantasy canon that is more preoccupied with epic themes like survival or war. Competence porn makes me angry. I like the community, though.


      1. Ah I can see that (curiously, I feel the status of “rational fanfiction” is inverted in more mainstream fanfiction communities, where it’s seen as pretentious wankery). There are some fics in the subgenre that deal with interpersonal relationships, e.g. the ongoing Worth the Candle and the finished Luminosity / Radiance, but the central thrust is often that those distract from more important matters, like looming existential threats and the accrual of personal power. If you’re willing to share your current project privately I’d be up to read it :] (my only engagement with written Star Wars has been the Darth & Droids comic + a novelization of The Phantom Menace, depending on how much background knowledge it assumes).

        Otherwise, hope you are well! Congrats on graduating!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Love the blog and this theme, Holly, though “mediocre” has never been an adjective I would apply to anything you do! You’ve piqued my interest and inspired me to seek out a little fan fiction on my own. Follow your bliss!


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