Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Fandom Classics Part 134: Would It Matter If I Was?

To read the story, click the image or follow this link

We finally got eggnog in the stores today!  Well, sort of; for some insane reason, the grocery store only has "lite" eggnog right now, and in only one brand.  Who decided that there was no market for real eggnog yet?  For that matter, who decided there was no market for real eggnog year-round?  Goodness knows, I'd guzzle that stuff straight through July if it was as easy as going to the store and buying a quart.

Speaking of things which you can (apparently) never have enough of, how about another changeling fic?  My review of GaPJaxie's Would It Matter If I Was?, below the break.

Impressions before reading:  I already know the premise ("Fluttershy asks Twilight the titular question re. being a changeling), and I'm well aware of the plethora of spin-offs, rebuttals, and fix-fics which this has spawned.  I haven't read any of them, however, nor have I (yet) read this fic itself.  Clearly it touched some sort of nerve in the fandom, as its enduring presence over the last couple of months will attest.  So whether this is good or bad, I at least expect it to be interesting.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  In the immediate aftermath of Chrysalis's attempted invasion, Fluttershy asks Twilight whether it would matter to her if she (Fluttershy) was a changeling.

Thoughts after reading:  I've read a few polemics for review before; stories which exist for the express purpose of arguing a point.  And make no mistake, that's exactly what Would It Matter is: a 2500-word case for answering it's core question in the negative.

Now, as it happens, I wrote a post not too long ago about "message fiction," and while the tone was a comical, the advice was sincere--and, I think, good.  The very first piece of advice I gave was "Write a story with a moral, not a moral with a story."  I think it's fair to say that this story fails spectacularly on that count.

Now, a story about Fluttershy and Twilight wrestling with the question would be fine, but that's not what this is.  This is a story about the question, in which Fluttershy and Twilight are dragooned into playing junior debate team.  Actually, "junior strawman" would be more appropriate in Twilight's case, as she exists solely to provide easy openings for Fluttershy to argue her point.  Twilight's story function is, essentially, to be risibly angry and unfocused, in order to emphasize Fluttershy's calmness, reasonableness, and correctitude.  Well, that and to carefully avoid making any arguments that couldn't be easily be refuted.

This extends beyond the actual arguments, and to physical descriptors.  The story is heavy on nonverbal cues, but nearly all of them exist to communicate two specific facts.  First, that Twilight is over-emotional and aggressive, and second, that Fluttershy is placating, calm and collected.  This is fine in small doses--character movement should reinforce characterization--but the heavy doses here cause problems, both because they're so endlessly repetitive in their function, and because they don't build on Twilight and Fluttershy's characterization; instead, they build on the preconceived arguing positions on which this story is built.  And more than that, the constant repetition of these cues quickly comes to feel manipulative.  Again, trying to get the reader to feel a certain way is common to most forms of storytelling, so this isn't a bad thing in and of itself--but when nearly every paragraph of a story uses loaded words and phrases to convey the same information, over and over, "manipulative" certainly feels like the right word.

What's really disappointing about this story is that it could, fairly easily, have been a fine story.  Or at least, a story, period.  Consider this exchange:
“If you’re not a changeling, why are you bringing this up now?” Twilight demanded. Her eyes stayed on Fluttershy’s back. “It’s not like you to be this assertive.” 
“Because if I wait, it will be too late.” Fluttershy started neatening the papers on the desk, using little swipes of her feathers to work the dust out of the shadows under the paper. “If you and Shining and Cadence and Celestia and Luna go off and talk about how we need to… I don’t know. Start drawing ponies’ blood or pulling out their hair to see if they’re really shapeshifters. And then it turns out somepony was a changeling all along? I mean, think about it. Think about the mindset you’re in.”
Although Fluttershy deflects the question, Twilight's right; Fluttershy wouldn't bring this up hours(? The timing isn't clear, but it's recent enough that Twilight hasn't yet had time to bathe) after the invasion, both because it's an insensitive question, and because that level of presumption doesn't fit her character.  She's usually extremely passive, and while I can certainly see her being proactive in a situation like this, I can't imagine her essentially deciding that she knows in advance how Twilight and the Princesses will reason, then Socratically walking Twilight through a series of conversation points which carefully bypass any reasonable argument in favor of one's changeling-ness mattering.  That's a level of zealous manipulation which is entirely antithetical to her character, even if her actual opinion makes sense.

I suppose it's fair to say at this juncture that I feel that, yes, it would matter if Fluttershy was a changeling, in much the same way it would matter to me if one of my friends was... let's say, a former sex offender (the equivalency here being that both of them may be perfectly harmless, or may be a threat I need to be vigilant of despite their current good intentions, and I don't have an easy way of knowing which is true).  If one of my friends was a former sex offender, I wouldn't feel betrayed if they didn't tell me that the very first time we talked, and that revelation wouldn't necessarily change our friendship... but I'd feel like I ultimately had a right to know about it, and a refusal to acknowledge it (or, as is the case in this fic, a refusal to answer the question until Twilight changes her answer to "it wouldn't matter") would be a strong indicator to me that, despite what I thought, we weren't actually friends.  So it's possible that I'm just biased against the point this story is trying to make.

I don't think that's the problem, though, because I've read plenty of stories with the premise supported by this fic--that somepony is discovered to be a changeling, and in the end, it doesn't change anything important--and have quite enjoyed some of them.  The problem here is that this fic is nothing but that premise, and it doesn't even bother to explore it in any interesting or reasonable way.  Twilight could have said something similar (though less Earth-centric, obviously) to what I did in the paragraph above.  She could have suggested that she and Fluttershy research changelings and find answers to some of Fluttershy's questions, since this story takes place in a library.  She could have made an Occam's Razor-esque argument that, since the only thing they know about changelings at the moment is what the invaders were like, they should act on those assumptions until more evidence comes to light.  Any of these would make the story stronger, since it would give Twilight agency (as opposed to her purely hostile-reactive role in the story) and give the impression that this conversation was a reasonable one to have, rather than being purely a product of Twilight's addlepated emotionality.  And moreover, none of them would have had to change the message of the story, because Fluttershy can still counter any of those!  But instead, this fic goes the "easy" way, and never seriously challenges its core assertion.

And there's the crux of the problem for this as a story: despite Would It Matter attempting to do a single thing--to make a case for "no"--it's unable to do so in a convincing manner, because it never seriously explores the argument.  This is why I ultimately label it a polemic, and not something more neutral (say, "message fiction"); it's a piece too focused on a single perspective to do more than preach to the choir, annoy anyone who's inclined to disagree, and offer nothing interesting to those without a strong opinion.  In short, it's a bit like your average political fundraising letter: full of red meat for those who already agree with it, full of glossed-over counterpoints and authorial fiat to those who don't, and transparently artificial in its purpose and intent.

Star rating:

This is an argument in place of a story, which manipulates its characters to fit the needs of said argument rather than mold the argument to its characters, and which despite (or perhaps, because of) that, is still unable to make that point convincingly.

Recommendation:  The best reason to read this is if you want to be able to discuss it.  If you have some particular interest in having your answer to the titular question vindicated, then this will provide that (as long as your answer is "no," obviously).  I wouldn't recommend it otherwise.

Next time:  Scootaloo’s Parents, by Carmine


  1. You've missed a massively important part of the recommendation: You should read this story if you want to understand some of the amazing parodies of it. Do It Mattered If I Is? in particular is hysterical, and I highly recommend it.

    1. I think in terms of parodies, the best is the "sequel," What Matters More? Interestingly, it actually provides a surprisingly plausible explanation for Fluttershy's behavior in the original story, which, as others have noted, feels rather out of character.

      As for the original story, though, yeah, it has all the problems listed in this review. That political fundraising letter analogy was rather apt.

    2. Can confirm, Do It Mattered is gold.

  2. Polemic? Dragooned? Risibly? This post is a diamond mine for words that I didn't know, but really feel like I should have, but also wouldn't have known how to find otherwise!

    Also people need to stop getting so worked up about stupid things on the internet. Is there a deeper meaning to this one I'm not getting? Some sort of... analogy, maybe? Or is it literally just a garish amphigory depicting a one-sided argument? Because if it is, then I shall be doubly disappointed. Tisk tisk, internet. Tisk tisk.

  3. Yeah, I the moment I even heard about this story I immediately thought 'yeah, of course it would; it would mean somebody was lying."

    Which is not to say that you couldn't formulate a story where it actually didn't change anything, but it would stillmatter. The question feels silly just to ask.

    I'm glad I've steered clear of this whole mess.

  4. I will never purchase egg nog from the store. I tried it once, and I did not feel good after consuming it. Homemade or nothin'!

    My one consolation in reading this review is that Yes It Matters does everything this story does, but worse. Seconding the above exhortation to read Do It Mattered If I Is? Also Would Matter Matter If Matter Mattered? Both are wonderful fingers in the eye of the original.

    Also, someone pointed me to yet another deconstruction of this story, which I'll be reading in the near future. :B

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I second the recommendation for home-made nog. Here's a good one:

      I really recommend Yes It Matters. Yes, it is just as much a polemic, but it serves as an appropriate opposite bookend for the whole flurry of stories.

    3. I think President Eisenhower's eggnog recipe is really good. It's available here:

    4. All those recipes sound suspiciously like things that require more effort than going to the store and picking up a quart. Still, until those quarts come in, it couldn't hurt to try...

  5. I only skimmed this fic after a while, but it seemed like pretty much the same thing as the rest of GaPJaxie's message fics. I wonder why it caused such a big impact in the first place...

    1. I think it's because there is a huge chunk of the fandom that is very pro-changeling, and equates negative portrayal of them as racism.

      So, drop a demonstrably biased story into a forum that includes people who don't see much reason to like parasitic insects as well as people who seem to love them, and... guaranteed impact!

    2. Part, I think, is that it's written in a way that strongly insults both the intelligence and the character of anyone who disagrees with it.

  6. Much of this goes along with my opinion that the fic would more accurately be titled "Assuming that it Wouldn't, Would it Matter if I Was?"

  7. The response to this story was just... I don't know. Disappointing? I'm not sure that's the right descriptor for it, but the argument it makes is so blatantly biased that it warps both characters. To watch that many people love the story despite the poor characterization and railroaded plot just made me shake my head. It's a large part of what frustrates me about Fimfiction, and media consumption, in general. Quality rarely pairs up with appreciation.

    I guess it caught me off guard, too. I've always heard good things about GaPJaxie, but this is the only thing of his that I've read. I was surprised to that I thought it was so poorly constructed. Not that everything I've written is a winner, either, but I was expecting more.

    1. This is really Jaxie's worst story. I'm gonna take a shot and suggest you read literally anything else he's written.

    2. Maybe not A Change in Three Parts, at least until you've read some of his other fics first. I enjoyed it well enough, but it was irksome for similar reasons. Try Regarding The Need for Sex Education or, if you're in the mood for something more serious, The Arbitrage of Moments

    3. Arbitrage of course being his RCL induction and the first thing of his I ever read.

      It's kind of odd to think that at one point, I didn't know who GaPJaxie was. c.c

    4. Yeah, Arbitrage is great. His Acting-verse fics are also worthy checking out. Finally, Siren Song is one of the best fics in the fandom. Too bad he abandoned the sequel...

    5. I think Arbitrage is the only other fic of the author's that I've read, but for anyone looking for advice on what of his to read, Cold in Gardez did an analysis of his writing a while back!

      It's missing his most recent stories, of course, but it's still a good place to look if you want an idea of what he's written.

  8. I don't know. It's more of a think-piece than a message piece. I even got involved and wrote a short for one of the writeoffs, which is headed for the Would It Matter If I Made This Group group once I get it polished and published. Deeper philosophical thoughts aside, it brings up a very important distinction: Are we what we show to others, or are we what is inside?

  9. Called it! One star! I think that this review, among others, pretty much nailed the most glaring of problems with this fic.

  10. Comparing it to being a former sex offender is disingenuous, because that suggests that they did something bad in the past.

    It would be more akin to finding out one of your friends was a devout Muslim.

    That said, I liked this story, even if it wasn't perfect.

  11. I still need to write "Would it matter were I fatter, flatter, sadder or wood matter?"
    ~Super Trampoline

  12. GaPJaxie here!

    Everything good or bad that can be said about this story has already been said, at length, so I'll keep this brief. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy the story, but I did appreciate your review! It's detailed and keeps a good tone and I do agree with some of the criticisms.

    But, the single biggest thing in this story that I feel didn't come across well?

    Fluttershy is, author canon, a changeling. That's why her behavior is, as you noted, blatantly manipulative. She is taking advantage of Twilight's emotionally imbalanced state to try to get the result she wants. The story is meant to present her as a calm, calculating manipulator who is working Twilight to a specific end.

    And when she fails to get that end, she stares deeply into Twilight's eyes, and Twilight changes her answer. Just like earlier it was established that she can control creature's minds with her stare.

    The intended read on this story is that Fluttershy is a changeling, she tried to manipulate Twilight, and when that didn't work she just rolled Dominate Other instead.

    It's a nunace that a lot of people missed, and that I think is critical to the story. I wish I'd made it clearer because I think that would really change the story's tone.