We all pick up bad habits from being constantly online. The way we talk about fiction is no exception. Our feelings about media are personal and often vague, but we want to sound like we know what we’re talking about. We want those snappy one-liners that makes us sound smart and confident. I’ve been guilty of it myself, and don’t think I’m above being silly and wrong. But after years of thinking about fiction and writing about it, I feel like I have at least a few things that are worth saying. So today, I want to talk about one of my pet peeves: the word ‘overrated’.
‘Overrated’ is a term that’s thrown around a lot in conversations about fiction. When you say something is overrated, you’re usually saying that it’s not as good as other people say it is. In a lot of cases, it can go so far as to mean “not only is this thing not good, but other people are wrong to say otherwise”. It says that your dislike is strong enough that you wish other people would stop talking about how much they like it.
And that’s… not helpful. For starters, it makes you sound like a jerk. It stops being about the work itself and comes off as an attack on others for feeling differently. Moreover, it’s a vague concept. By what standard is the ‘overrated’ thing being ‘rated’? By what standard do those ‘ratings’ carry any kind of authority or meaning?
If you’re looking for an accepted standard for objectively good or bad media, you’re not going to find much of worth. But even if you could, it really wouldn’t matter if someone enjoys something more than they’ve been told they’re allowed to. It’s a corny line these days, but let people enjoy things. There are far worse crimes than someone being excited for something that you think is mediocre or bad. On the flipside, I would also say that ‘underrated’ is an iffy term. I don’t think it’s anywhere near as bad, but I think we need to detach ourselves from the idea that our feelings about fiction need to be validated by the wider public.
Maybe we just don’t want to accept how fragile our opinions are. Maybe fiction is something that we want to have power and certainty over, to compensate for feeling powerless in other parts of our lives. To some extent, I think video games have changed the way we talk about media. We obsess over visual fidelity and mechanics. We use length and difficulty as a mark of a game’s worth, and see the completion of long and difficult games as a mark of our own worth. The complex and personal parts of media no longer matter as much to many of us. Technical functions and competition have taken their place. So maybe it’s not a surprise that we’re so combative about fiction.
Broadly speaking, social media rewards that competitive spirit. Twitter posts asking for ‘unpopular opinions’ do big numbers, and inspire heated arguments on an almost daily basis. And on the production side, algorithms and committees have more power than ever. Metacritic scores, top ten lists, sales figures and view counts are routinely brought up when we talk about fiction. Art has become a competition driven space where numbers have a lot of influence. When you buy into that competition, you start to believe that the things you like and dislike need to be validated by these arbitrary figures.
But in the end, art isn’t a process of numbers. It’s far more abstract and personal than that (or at least it should be). Popularity and success have nothing to do with quality one way or the other, and the success of one thing doesn’t happen in spite of other things. Things get big because they strike a chord with a wider public. Even if you genuinely think most popular things are trash, there’s an infinite number of genuinely held reasons that people adore them. People will continue to like them, and that’s fine. For our own sanity, we need to learn to accept that.
I don’t think my little thinkpiece is gonna stop people from throwing around the term ‘overrated’. But like I said, fiction is abstract and personal – and it should be celebrated for that. It’s fun to talk passionately about the things we love and the things we hate and everything in between. However, I think those conversations are more rewarding when they’re not made into a competitive spectacle. Art is so much more than a verbal battlefield where things are ‘overrated’ or ‘underrated’. If we can put those ideas to bed one day, I think the internet would be a slightly better place (or not).
Did you like this? Is there something you want me to write about? You can find me on Twitter @BristleBris. TV shows, films, anime, western cartoons, whatever you want (within reason)! Prices start at $3 per 100 words. You can find more details here.