I Prefer My Dick Jokes to be FACTUAL, Sir.

These Product Review columns always do pretty well over at Cracked, even as comedic fiction in general nosedives into oblivion. There are obvious reasons for that: The PR columns start off with a numbered list, and Cracked scans really high in the OCD/numerically themed vampire demographics, so that’s always a plus. They also introduce real information right up front, thus giving the readers some grounding before launching into the weird prose. It makes sense that they would do well even as fiction fails.

But the surprising part is the reader response: Most people are pleasantly surprised that I tricked them into reading fiction. They say they only gave it a chance because there were real product reviews in a numbered list, but they, much to their own surprise, enjoyed the story section more. Readers intentionally avoid prose when they visit the site – you can see it in the numbers. Even true stories and humorous anecdotes are traffic death. The pure comedy, anecdotal and fiction pieces do maybe 1/5th the traffic of even the most generic numbered list.

I’m not bitter or complaining – half those generic numbered lists are from me, after all – I just find it curious that, if you can find a device to trip readers up and send them sprawling into a big stinking pile of prose, they’ll actually wallow around in there and enjoy themselves. Is this an intellectual posturing thing? Has pop culture turned some sort of literary corner? The prevailing attitude these days seems to be that reading stories is for kids, while adults read exclusively about cold, hard facts. I feel like that’s a recent trend (recent as in, last fifty years or so). Though I wonder if that’s just ignorance of past generation’s popular reading on my part. I’m really only basing that assumption on the fact that I can name a dozen classic fiction books from every decade of the last century, and yet there are maybe only two non-fiction books that survived the years.

I guess fiction has never really been big online, which is strange, because this is, without a doubt, the most literary age in history. We all carry around phones and tablets in our pockets and bags; we spend all day staring at words, words, words. Words for work, words for fun, words to communicate with friends and strangers alike. But stories are more marginalized than ever. The internet started off as a tool, then it grew to a research journal, then a media center. Somewhere along the way, it even became a stinking sex dungeon and amateur doctor. It’s just weird to me that the one thing it’s struggling to be is a library.

27 thoughts on “I Prefer My Dick Jokes to be FACTUAL, Sir.

  1. T.J.

    The only explanation I can offer, as someone who love reading fiction as well as lists, is that list of quirky facts offers many small doses of payoff with a relatively small time investment. Humorous or anecdotal stories, on the other hand, take much more time for a single big payoff. Its a risk versus reward dilemma, even when reading my favorite cracked writers.

    Its not that I don’t trust the author to deliver, but I’ll be dammed if I’m not ruthlessly, brutally efficient when I waste my time.

    Reply
      1. T.J.

        Not always, but usually that’s usually the case when I read short humorous stories.
        To offer an example, when I read Rx (very good by the way, had a very Sterling-esque feel) I became invested in the characters, the story, the setting. I care about the world and its people, and if I laugh along the way, than that’s just gravy. In this case, the payoff is the immersion. In the case of a funny anecdote, however, there’s only so much exposition I want before I hear the punch line. I find it hard to get immersed in very short, comedic stories. Unless it really makes me split my sides, then its totally worth it.

        …Or, you know, maybe I just don’t get humorous fiction.

        Reply
        1. Robert Brockway Post author

          Most humorous fiction doesn’t just have a punchline or a payoff. Think of any comedy you’ve ever seen – that shit has to be written down, you know? People write sitcoms, comedy movies, sketches, etc. That starts off as words, just the same as fiction. You don’t go to a comedy film and grimly stare at the screen for one hour and forty nine minutes and then laugh for the very last minute when they deliver the punchline. It’s a repeated process of setup/punchline, preferably with a larger point and some worthwhile writing along the way. But I digress. This wasn’t even supposed to be about comedic fiction, necessarily. That’s always been an uphill battle. Fiction in general, however, has enjoyed mainstream success forever. Only recently being marginalized on the one service that’s best set up to distribute it.

          Reply
          1. T.J.

            That’s a fair enough point. In regards to fiction on the whole, I think the cause is the immediacy of the internet. The generation which has spent its entire adolescence on the internet has been taught to skim, not read. Websites like Google arrogate extraordinary quantities of information and place it at our fingertips; but there is just too much stuff, so we learn to sweep the page with our eyes and see how relevant this information could be. Eventually, all we can do is skim, and any activity that requires us to sit and concentrate for longer than a few minutes sets off a tiny alarm in our heads that tells us to move on to something else. We become incapable of making deep connections with the things we read. Thus, stories decline.
            So while the internet makes us literate, it does not make us want to read.
            A good article on the subject:
            http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/

            Reply
            1. Robert Brockway Post author

              That article was all the more terrifying for the fact that I didn’t have enough time to read it, so I skimmed it. Even knowing what it was about, and that I shouldn’t do it.

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              1. MishMash

                If I could only choose one, I’d choose fiction over non fiction any day of the week. Despite this, I find myself reading non fiction more often. The reason for this is clear to me: I have no life. I rarely leave my house, and I only have two friends in the entire world, one of which lives hundreds of miles away. Nothing truly interesting happens in my life, and I’m very proud of that. I’ve worked hard for it. The downside is I very rarely have interesting things to talk about. Reading these non fiction articles gives me something to share with the few people I interact with and allows me to maintain these superficial relationships with ease. “The other day I read there is a type of shrimp that has sixteen color-receptive cones!” I offer nothing of myself to them, yet they still think I’m moderately interesting. This doesn’t work as well with the non fiction I read, because stories doesn’t usually condense as easily. You can’t really turn something like The Celebrated Jumping Frog into a quick snippet.

                Reply
  2. MjCat

    There seems to be a prevailing attitude of anything more than a paragraph being “too long”. There are people in the comments of Cracked articles admitting that they just read the title of each section and didn’t read the content underneath. I’ve seen people apologize for 5 sentence comments, and others refusing to read comments with two paragraphs. It’s pretty sad.

    Reply
      1. MjCat

        I feel like it’s getting worse, but maybe Im just getting old and cranky. Get off my lawn … unless you’re sitting in my lawn and reading something with more than 40 characters. Then you can stay.

        Reply
  3. Roy

    If it helps, the first Cracked piece I ever read, that completely hooked me to the site and to you as a writer was one from 2009: The Way of the Barbarian: Infusing Your Spiritual Life with Conan. I absolutely loved reading it. And now that I am not a teenager, I think I know why.

    You hooked me with the first paragraph. The “this is factual and I am doing this” aspect allowed me to just read it and love it. It took me a distance in to ‘break’ the fantasy, but I continued to read it and love it after that happened. So, you’re right, I feel, that the general Cracked demographic loves their lists. But please, keep it up. Pieces such as that (and other later ones you’ve done that aren’t just “6 Bad-asses who Bad-assed Their Way to Bad-assery”) are absolutely fantastic.

    Reply
    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      It’s interesting if you go back and explore my (and other columnists) stuff from that era, you’ll see that, compared with our overall traffic, those columns were quite competitive. Dan’s ‘my brief time as’ series, any of the ‘Cracked office’ stuff – they did about 80% of the traffic the features did. Which was great, actually. Now fiction/straight comedy/anecdotal stuff does 20% or less. And it’s not just chalked up to Cracked’s massive growth: A very solid non-list piece now will do 150k; an average non-list piece back then easily broke 180k. But now we’re delving in to Cracked specific talk, when I was really speaking in a larger sense — just using myself as an example.

      Reply
      1. Roy

        I believe that Cracked-specific does still apply. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched comedian vlogger (though I believe he would not call himself that) “A Dose of Buckley” but he sort of touches on this idea I feel in one of his videos that I can’t find for the life of me right now. Of course, I may be wrong and have heard/read this somewhere else, but I believe that I have the right source.

        If you get a chance, watch any of his videos, and everything he does, because he’s hilarious. In a nutshell, however, he ends up culminating his opinions that the Internet has become a society of finders. Finders are rewarded for finding and sharing something that they’ve found, even if they’ve never created it. While this has great benefits as well, it creates a culture where originality is equally rewarded with modification. Since the Internet is such a huge part of first-world culture now, it naturally has bled into reality.

        This could help explain why the lists do so much better. They’re simple facts. You can share them with people and get their excitement and approval as a reward without much effort on your part. Low risk, low effort, high reward. By comparison, the fiction pieces are more for personal satisfaction rather than interpersonal. It’s much harder to share a fiction piece because it requires a rather deep commitment. Even then, you may not even like it for any damn reason at all. High risk, low reward. When comparing stealing a half-eaten fish from a rabid bear for food, or just walking a block to go to free donut day at the bakery down the road, the choice is easy.

        And I cannot stress this enough, watch Buckley. A very funny man.

        Reply
  4. Theresa

    I LOVED the drinking story! Hearing other peoples stories is one of my favorite things. I have been known to ask a person to tell me a story. Just point blank. Only one person in my entire life has risen to that occasion.
    Do you think people find it more alluring to read a book over a short story? Or even a serialized book like how you did rx initially?

    Reply
    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      Well there is a fairly substantial reading audience out there still, even for short stories, but it’s not growing with the rest of the internet. It may even be shrinking.

      Reply
  5. CCC

    I think another major factor is that people tend to read Cracked when they’re at work. One of my favorite Cracked articles of all time is your classic “There was always that one kid who ruined every D&D game”. Probably not something I’d want to be caught reading at the office. But looking at today’s Greatest Hits list, the top one is “6 Harsh Truths that will Make You a Better Person”. That’s definitely one that a lot of people could read at work without having to explain themselves. So maybe it’s not just a question of understanding your audience’s tastes, it’s also a matter of catering to their reading habits, I guess?

    Reply
    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      Well, this wasn’t necessarily about Cracked. I’m just pointing to my own stuff because it might be rude to point to others and say “look at this colossal failure of a post; why did it do so bad?”

      Reply
  6. Penelope

    While I love reading fiction, I prefer it on hard copy. When I’m online I’m looking to learn things. I’m looking for growth. I appreciate humor to be mixed in, but it isn’t necessary. If I want to sit down and be entertained I find it a little straining to scroll through pages on the web. If I’m looking for news or facts, I just skim through until I find what I’m looking for. I’d much rather be on the couch or in bed for my fiction.

    Reply
    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      Which is why more and more people have smartphones, tablets, kindles, laptops, etc. Nobody’s saying you’re wrong for doing it this way, or for having a preference in the delivery of your media. Just that it’s strange there’s been such a huge surge in literacy thanks to the internet and, if anything, fiction is taking a hit from that success. I guess I can’t help but think of words as some kind of battle-hardened platoon – non-fiction should be there in the foxhole dragging literature up with it screaming “DON’T YOU DIE ON ME YOU SON OF A BITCH!”

      Reply
  7. Kyle

    I like fiction. I like your fiction. I like other people’s fiction.

    Frankly it’s a shame there isn’t more literature worth reading. Then again the literature the media flushes out of the cellars find’s it shame amongst the masses as believable truth. Conspiracy find’s it’s truth in compromise. I mean only that fiction seems weaved in our society as a whole, or maybe everyone’s society, as the hippie love triangle with truth and reality.

    I could be wrong. ???

    Reply
  8. SteveySteve

    I love the cracked format- it’s what keeps cracked fighting fit. Interesting facts with dick jokes- golden. But it’s the fiction and anecdotal style articles that stick with me most. I didn’t give much of a hoot about Soren until he started doing his ‘stalking his ex-girlfriend’ bits, and I fondly remember DOB’s ramblings about his vigilante days. And let’s not forget Brockway’s drug-fuelled adventures, which are where fiction goes when it loses its mind. Even McKinney got in the act recently with his pope article and I loved it.

    I think its very clever when writers dress up an opinion or anecdotal piece as a list-based crowd pleaser (Buchholz seems to do this all the time), but I’d happily just take a nice, fat wall of prose.

    In short, I see why the Cracked formula works so well, but at the same time I see it as a necessary scaffolding for the personality bits that I really look forward to.

    If that’s all cracked was I’d still read it everyday.

    Reply
  9. Scott W

    As an avid cracked fan I find it sad that the longer, more free form articles don’t do as well. Some of my all time favorite articles are not list based facts in the authors voice but when the author is given the freedom to go off and write about something more personal. I realize that a great deal of traffic to the site is people idling away at work, but even the longer free form stories are still bite sized consumables. The first article I ever read on Cracked was ” The worst book review ever” and from there on I was hooked. Gladstones “Tales from the internet Apocalypse” was an amazing series of short, easily digested columns that formed like Voltron to create a wonderful short story. Without these more open articles I feel like some of the authors voices and personalities would be muffled.
    P.S I loved Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity

    Reply
  10. Anne

    The anti-fiction trend is everywhere, though. The backlash against writers like JT LeRoy and James Frey, who invented or heavily embellished “memoirs” which were then sold as non-fiction, is kind of revealing. People reacted like children who had just been told that Santa Claus isn’t real. Even in a reading culture that values non-fiction over fiction, the kind of knee-jerk rage that followed the discovery of the realities behind these stories seems unwarranted. No matter how “duped” a reader felt by the deception, it amazes me that he or she didn’t also wonder at the abilities of these writers to create compelling worlds or challenge readers’ senses of their own critical thinking.

    Reply
    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      You’ve got to wonder how much of that was bad management, too.
      “So some of this is based off of personal experience, right?”
      “Yeah, some of it. I mean, everything an author writes is based off of personal experience to some degree…”
      “Right, so this is an autobiography.”
      “I wouldn’t say that…”
      “I know! You’re right. Biography is wrong. It’s a memoir!”

      Reply
  11. Redager

    Robert, I love your narrative writing, whether fiction or non, and as an avid Cracked reader, I check for the narrative writing and always read it first when it’s on the site. My most recent favorite was your, “I Was a Teenage Vigilante.” story a few months ago. I too had a The Stick and I remember the sad day when it broke in twain while I was bashing away at an oak tree, sure that The Stick could pummel that bastard to the ground.
    But back to the point, why do the narratives (fiction in particular) get so little relative traffic. Here’s what I think (I’m going to put out that I’m an English teacher and run a small literary journal by the name of Hyperbole). Narrative is story, plain and simple and stories are entertainment. Certainly we can learn from them, but most people see stories solely as a form of entertainment and we get our story fix everyday from myriad sources. Movies, TV, novels, video games, that dude at the DMV who will not shut up, even though I have headphones on, we are bombarded with stories all day long. Hell, the news is just another way to get stories. We kind of forget about it, but the news is a reality show and I think we like it because we don’t know the outcome.
    When I think about it, it seems to me that even a lot of the list based entries at Cracked are actually stories. The thing is, I think, that people do not think of non-fiction narrative writing as a story. I taught a seminar in creative writing a couple months ago and when I mentioned that autobiography was a form of creative writing and that biography should be written like one would write a fiction story (except, you know, true) it blew a lot of people’s minds. The news, reality T.V., sports, autobiography, etc . . . since it is non-fiction, it seems like it isn’t narrative and, I think, we view it in a different light.
    The best stories require the reader to invest themselves in the work, you become a part of it. You care. You cry when they die, laugh when they laugh and pee yourself when your favorite character quivers in a closet. That investment, whether conscious or not, waits under the surface and whispers to you, “Do you really want to go there?”
    Case in point, I love The Walking Dead, but I’ll talk myself out of watching it because I don’t know if I can take it. What if they freaking kill Daryl? I don’t know if I could take it. (Don’t get me started on the game. I stopped playing for a month because I knew Duck was going to die.) However, if there is a list of badass people who almost survived whatever, I’ll read it without a second thought. It is safer and, therefore, a better choice for the average reader. Cracked used to have 3 things to read a day. Now it is common for there to be 4 or 5 pieces of new material a day. If the average person has time to read 1 or 2 articles, they’ll go for the safest. The internet is about smallest amount of effort creating maximum pay off. It’s about instant, anonymous, gratification. Fiction doesn’t meet that need in most peoples’ minds. I love the pay off of fiction, so I read those articles first, but I’m not normal.
    What I find strange about this, though, is that it seems like readers often feel more connected to a fake person than they do a real one. I don’t know why this is, but I think it has something to do with the fact that the reader kind of creates this person in their mind and has ownership.

    Reply
    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      All good points, especially about the expanding content. That has occurred to me as well: Increasing the number of pieces we run a day leaves anything but the heavy hitters in the dust. When we ran a mere three, all would get essentially equal traffic. Sure, the feature did a little better, and you had your standout hits here and there. But we, as a site, could point to our stuff and say “every single piece of content we run gets an average of 800k unique visitors.” Now, though we get more traffic than ever, we can’t do that. The experimental, less popular, or more intensive pieces are lucky to break 200k, simply because people don’t read the whole site anymore. They pick and choose what they want because there’s such a glut of content. So naturally the fringe pieces suffer. No idea if that trade off is worth it, or what, but it’s interesting to think about. Thanks for the thoughtful response!

      Reply

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