This past weekend I drove down to Tennessee to visit some friends (and go to Dollywood!). It was awesome for many reasons, but the main one is that whenever I drive more than 250 miles at a stretch, I have epiphanies.
I’m not really sure why this only happens when I drive, but not when I fly, or take the bus. I think it might have something to do with not being allowed to distract myself from my own thoughts; from being forced to be alone with them for hours on end. But, usually, when that happens I start thinking very fast, and begin going over and over in thought-spirals.
When I drive, that does not happen. My thought proceeds very slowly, in fits and nibbles. Sometimes an hour passes without a single thought that I can remember. But then, slowly, something starts to form, and I am left alone with it, and can build upon it, and even though it begins to degrade the moment I leave the car, something remains behind that I can carry with me forever (or at least for awhile).
During this trip, I somehow found myself thinking about Sturgeon’s Law. For those of you who aren’t in the SF world, Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction writer (a fairly good one). His law is: “Ninety percent of everything is crud.” From Wikipedia:
The first written reference to this appears in the March 1958 issue of Venture, where Sturgeon wrote: “I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud”. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms do.
This is often used as a sort of truism in SF. I don’t know why I was thinking about it. Maybe it was because of Larry’s series of posts at the OF Blog of the Fallen on reading and being a good reader. In one of them, he said something like, “I wish people wouldn’t just quote Sturgeon’s Law. That frees them from having to think about why they don’t like the books they don’t like.”
And I was thinking and thinking, and it came to me: “Where are all these crap books? I haven’t read them. Ninety percent of the books I read are pretty good.”
I’ve always just assumed that, even though most of the books I read are good, that I am nonetheless occupying a tiny plateau of goodness surrounded by crap: that there are vast, titanic mountains of crap out to get me. But…where is the crap? I can always sort of sense it in the distance, but, somehow, it never gets to me…
I exercise only minimal discernment in choosing the books I read. I hear about it online, and then I check it out from the library. I glance through it at a bookstore, and if I like the first few pages, then I buy it. It’s not like I’m erecting some sort of super crap-proof forcefield around my bookshelves. So why do the books I read, on average, tend to be so good?
And I was thinking, and thinking, and…ninety percent of everything I use tends to be pretty good. When I flip through the radio, I can usually find a song I like. When I’m surfing channels, I can usually find something that I enjoy watching. When I go to the theater and see a movie, I usually like it. When I buy an electronic device, I’m generally satisfied by how it works.
And then, another hundred miles later, I extended it to the rest of my life. When I visit a restaurant, the service is usually pretty good. When I order take-out, I generally enjoy the food. When I get to know someone, I usually find that they’re fairly interesting.
And it’s not like I am some sort of connoisseur of the finer things. I eat at Burger King. I shop at Best Buy. I watch HBO at 4 AM, and watch USA’s silly low-rent TV shows. My water comes out of the same tap as anyone else’s, and my Coca-Cola comes from the same bottling plant. If ninety percent of everything was crap, wouldn’t it, like…find me?
I think the key here is the term, “with minimal amounts of discernment.” If I was just buying books by the boatload from the remaindering factory, then, yeah, maybe ninety percent of them would not be to my taste. If I just bashed my remote against a rock and watched whatever channel came up, then I would probably dislike it. But it doesn’t take much time or effort to not do that. It only takes one trip to a bad restaurant to be like, “Huh, not going to come here again.”
I actually cannot say whether ninety percent of everything is crap. I am not sufficiently willing to sample things at random in order to figure that out. What I am willing to say is that the statement “ninety percent of everything is crap” has, even if it is true, almost no practical implications.
It’s like saying, “The surface of the earth is mostly water.”
I mean, yeah, that’s true…but that’s no reason to worry about whether or not you’ll be able to find some land to stand on.
Even if ninety percent of everything is crap, the effort required to avoid it is so extremely minimal and almost totally unconscious that the world might as well be mostly composed of good stuff. And what if the world is composed mostly of good stuff? Wow, that would be really scary. It’s a good thing that my drive ended before I could contemplate that one.
I think Sturgeon’s Law is inverted. Perhaps he was a crotchety and unhappy person. For me, one-hundred percent of what the universe contains possesses one or more cruddy elements, but by being an open-minded, or perhaps just easy-going, or maybe genuinely mentally subpar, person it is really not difficult to shrug off the annoyingness that is the primary attribute of the world of things and so find nearly everything to have at least some shreds of value. The world is relatively full of wonder.
That said, a few months ago I tried to read a James Patterson book, to see what all the hype is about. It was the only book I in recent memory have had to stop reading.
…which is why I think, “10% of everything is total bunk” is a better law.
Yeah, I get bored and leave books half-finished* all the time*. Just last week I stopped reading Julio Cortazar’s *Hopscotch* after getting 100 pages in. I attach no stigma to giving up on a book. I always figure I’m just not mature enough for it yet.
Very profound musings.
I admit that I, too, have occasionally abandoned a book. Usually a Stephen King book, since I’ve read so many and I prefer to explore new authors. Halfway through Under the Dome, an 1,100-word behemoth of a book, I stopped, read all of Darth Bane: Dynasty of Evil (fantastic, if you’re a Star Wars fan), then went back and read the second half of UtD. Your mind takes it pretty well, I’d argue. Like watching a TV series, or stopping a DVD, then returning to watch the rest later. No big deal.
I can set down a book for months, then come back to it, and my mind pretty much remembers what was going on. It’s the tiny details that slip away — but there’s always rereading.
The best books are worth reading more than once, in my opinion.
I think that 90% Crud is lurking in a slush pile somewhere, slowly consuming weaker manuscripts and creating levels of bureaucracy to prevent themselves from being eaten, all the while preying on the souls of slush-monkeys and editors. It’s basically the banal description of Hell from The Screwtape Letters. Except instead of erudite devils, it’s manuscripts written in crayon.
I actually very briefly read a little slush for a semi-pro online magazine (Trabuco Road, and actually I didn’t read the slush, I just had the password to the slush email account, so I sampled the slush). And the majority of the slush was not really as bad as you would think. Most of it was even well-formatted and had few typos. Most of it had characters and plots and recognizable story arcs. In short, most of them were recognizable, in every way, as stories. And I’d read them to the end and just be like, “Yep…that was a story…so what?” They weren’t bad, they just didn’t have that granule of “newness” that all stories need; they were irrelevant.
Actually, though, I will say that this is the exact same problem I have with most published stories, even the ones in reputable and high-brow magazines (which is why I don’t generally read fiction magazines).