I realize my title is probably dating me.
There’s a whole couple of generations who don’t understand references to German judges. Or who think Mikhail Baryshnikov is just a cute guy on Sex and the City; they’re surprised to hear he’s a dancer and ask what kind. I swear to God I’ve had this actual conversation. I have witnesses. They didn’t understand about Political Asylum either, or why he might have claimed it.
The German judge, for those who didn’t watch the Olympics in the 70s and 80s refers to the international panel of judges scoring the various Olympic events. There was often a perception that the German judge was a) tougher and b) inclined to mark down competitors from the non-communist countries. For accuracy, we should really say the “East German judge,” but idioms aren’t about accuracy.
There’s been an interesting conversation on the Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal writers loop the last day or so, about contest judges. I’ve written before about the RWA chapter contests, so I won’t reiterate here. But the way it works is you generally get scores from two or three judges. In many contests, if the point spread exceeds a certain margin, a discrepancy judge is called in and the lowest score is dropped. The idea is to account for reader preferences, which can really affect scores. For example, on a recent contest I entered, one judge gave me a perfect score of 100 (with comments that it was so splendid she couldn’t gush enough) and another judge awarded me a 54 (with a snarky comment that beastiality is not an appropriate subject for a romance.)
One got me; one didn’t.
In the real world, this would translate to a person who would buy my book and one who would burn it. Fair enough. The common wisdom is that these kind of splits result from having a “strong voice” — readers tend to love it or hate it. All of this is lead-up to using one of my favorite examples, from country music. (Yeah, you saw that one coming, right?)
I heard this story on NPR many, many moons ago, but it’s always stuck with me. They were discussing the perception that country music radio stations had become less, well, interesting. It turns out that there had been a huge study where “they” looked at what caused people to change the radio station — anathema for advertising, of course. They found that people changed the station, shockingly enough, when a song they hated came on. So, it seemed simple: don’t play the songs people hate. BUT, what the studies showed is that the songs people rated as most hated were also rated most loved by an equal number of people. Where people converged was on the songs that they neither loved nor hated. More importantly for radio, when a song played that a person neither loved nor hated, they were likely to let the radio station play on.
Thus country music programming went to playing music that the vast majority of people neither loved nor hated, playing innocuously in the background, exciting nothing untoward.
I’ve seen this play out in writing workshops, too. Half the class will love a particular scene and half will insist it ruins the piece and must be removed. The profound emotional reaction means the writer has hit on something, but it takes courage to accept that for every person who loves what you wrote, someone else will hate it.
And it’s tempting, especially in genre, where people hope to actually make money with their books, to write the thing that will sell to the most people, innocuous and exciting no untoward responses.
Then again, it can be a little satisfying, too, to throw a little bestiality in the way of the book-burners.