Sturgeon’s “Law” is Crap

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

You may not know it had a name, but if you’ve spent any time talking about the arts, you’ve surely come across Sturgeon’s Law, coined by science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” The original quote appeared in a 50s pulp magazine:

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.

Venture Science Fiction

In other words, Sturgeon was originally defending science fiction from the snobs. OK, I can totally get behind that. I can agree that science fiction “conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.” I wish he would’ve left it at that. But in his haste to defend science fiction from those who refused to take it seriously, Sturgeon instead, in an ironic twist, supplied generations of culture snobs with a cliché to justify their close-mindedness; that is, the blanket dismissal of 90% of all art.

Theodore Sturgeon

Sturgeon is judging you for not being sufficiently judgmental.

But doesn’t Sturgeon get the 90% almost exactly backwards? Assuming art follows a bell curve (and why shouldn’t it?), you’re looking at, let’s say, 5% genius, 5% garbage, and 90% falling somewhere in the middle. In other words, 95% of an artform doesn’t suck, but is in fact excellent to OK. Hey culture snobs, I just outscienced you with science.

Bell Curve

I have no idea what these variables mean. Probably something about “standard deviations,” whatever the hell those are.

So can we please be a little more forgiving and receptive, please? Of course, all bets are off if we’re talking about a genre I hate. In those cases, Sturgeon is a visionary who is directly on point.

About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
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15 Responses to Sturgeon’s “Law” is Crap

  1. LemmusLemmus says:

    But that doesn’t follow at all. The quality of art may well be represented by a bell curve, but you might still think all but the best 10% is crap, which is, after all, a subjective assessment. Just because something is at the mean of a distribution doesn’t mean it must be considered o.k.

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    • >>The quality of art may well be represented by a bell curve, but you might still think all but the best 10% is crap, which is, after all, a subjective assessment. Just because something is at the mean of a distribution doesn’t mean it must be considered o.k.

      I agree these assessments are ultimately subjective and people should be free to do whatever they want. If someone wishes to persist in the belief that only Joyce’s novels, Picasso’s paintings, and Bach’s Passions are worth anything, said strawman should go right ahead.

      But, assuming the quality of art is indeed represented by a bell curve — as opposed to Sturgeon’s black-and-white categories — gee, why would someone wanna dismiss so much stuff that’s good to pretty good? Why not make the assumption that art encompasses a more nuanced spectrum of quality?

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      • LemmusLemmus says:

        Now your point seems to be that quality is continuous rather than binary. I certainly agree with that, but of course, people simplify that continuous distribution by using categories (e.g., crap, poor, o.k., good, very good).

        But my more general point was that just because something’s average, it doesn’t mean it’s o.k., and just because something’s above average, it doesn’t mean it’s “good to pretty good”. The conclusion just doesn’t follow from the premise.

        On a different note, I’m not so sure the “law” promotes closed-mindedness. Taken literally, it implies that 10% of any art-form – including twelve-tone music, feminist dance theatre and lolcats – is noncrap. That seems pretty open-minded to me.

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  2. LemmusLemmus says:

    That should be “… all but the best 10%”, of course.

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  3. I’ve often wondered by some people make so much of Sturgeon’s law. Do they simply not want to be bothered with most art/entertainment? Does something about the notion that much of it is (at least) pretty good bug them? Is it just an easy excuse to dismiss a lot of stuff?

    I used to be idiotically critical and dismissive of too much of what I encountered. (I blame it on college — profs do like to emphasize the importance of being critical, after all. As though “being critical” ever led to much of worth …) I woke up, with some pain, to the fact that I was being a dick, and learned a whole new way of relating to the arts. I go to a play (look at a picture, listen to a song, read an article, whatever) and ask myself, “How would I react to this thing if a friend made it?” Instantly puts me in a much more positive, appreciative frame of mind. And you know what? Much of what I encounter strikes me as not-half-bad.

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  4. >>Do they simply not want to be bothered with most art/entertainment? Does something about the notion that much of it is (at least) pretty good bug them? Is it just an easy excuse to dismiss a lot of stuff?

    For Sturgeonites, I’m guessing the answers are yes, yes, and yes. Their 10/90 belief (Lordy, so smug to call it a “law”) conveniently inoculates them from having to think.

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  5. mark kingsley says:

    Tibor Kalman, the notorious graphic designer/agent provocateur, noted that computers, tools, and training now allowed pretty much anyone to produce a competent piece of design. And that competent piece of design, which might have been considered quite good in a previous time, was now so common as to actually be mediocre.

    This doesn’t just apply to graphic design. I constantly see good art, hear good music, eat good food, etc. But still, there’s a sameness of competence which becomes tiresome after a while. And that’s what Sturgeon might be provocatively calling “crud.”

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  6. dearieme says:

    A “bell curve” makes sense if the enjoyability of the art is the result of many small, independent features. But if enjoyability depends on just a few (e.g. can this tunesmith produce an attractive melody, impart an attractive rhythm and construct good harmonies?) there’s no reason to assume a bell curve.

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  7. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    I think the problem is that many people are fixated on art as this thing that always needs to be revolutionary and deeply meaningful and important. Art as mere pleasure or entertainment or just as cultural background music? Well, that’s not art at all. It’s just stuff, and it’s probably for rubes anyway, so it’s “crap.” I watch a lot of movies, and while not all of them are great, most of them are far from being utterly crappy. People REALLY tend to approach architecture in this way. If it’s not a big, flashy, modernist bauble, they don’t notice it. It’s just in the background. No one pays attention to the little things that make life tolerable, so they fixate on the showy stuff.

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  8. agnostic says:

    Greatness would be a “normal” distribution if many things went into it, each of them having a small effect, and most importantly if their effects are added together rather than multiplied / compounded / amplified by each other. Once the effects are multiplied, you get a “log-normal” distribution, which is very asymmetric, most of it being in the low / mediocre region, and only a tiny bit off in the right tail.

    “Power law” distributions look similar and also reflect the fact that the elements are reinforcing one another. (In this case, they’re “auto-catalytic” — once it gets going off to the right tail, it tends to keep on going and going and going, whereas the “normal” curve tends to die off fast as you get out into the tails.)

    To give a numerical example, say that there are just 3 traits that determine greatness, and for convenience model them like a 6-sided die, only going from 0 to 5, so we can capture the fact that some people don’t do well on the trait at all (0). Roll each of those dice, and add the numbers together. Do this a bunch of times. You’ll get a symmetric “normal”-ish curve, with few 0’s and few 15’s (the lowest and highest possible), and the bulk around 7 or 8. In this case, getting a low number on one die can be made up for by a high number on another — 0, 0, 5 adds up to 5, and so does 1, 1, 3.

    However, instead of adding the numbers, multiply them. Now you get a whole lot of 0’s because even one 0 sinks the whole product into 0. Indeed most of the distribution is very low, and only a tiny few make it out into the right tail.

    And now the outcome of 0, 0, 5 — which wasn’t so bad in the additive case — produces a big fat zilch. It flopped on two of three traits, and that couldn’t be made up for by the perfect score on the last one because they all compound, amplify, and reinforce each other. Whereas the outcome of 1, 1, 3 is at least positive at 3 — not astounding, but not too shabby. Also notice that the extremes are a lot wider — ranging from 0 (all 0’s) to 125 (all 5’s). This is the unforgiving “log-normal” distribution.

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  9. agnostic says:

    Empirically, the log-normal distribution has been found wherever people look at greatness. Dean Simonton is the main guy here, and he’s looked at number of citations received by academics (most don’t get cited, very few become legends), mentions of historical figures (most leaders = boring, a handful = fascinating), and so on. Log-normal. Charles Murray took the approach to measuring how much space is devoted to various figures in the arts and sciences, across a range of subject-specific encyclopedias. Log-normal. And Art De Vany found a power law distribution when looking at box office revenues for movies.

    So whether it’s the vulgar audience voting with their dollars, or the encyclopedia elite meting out precious column inches, a large fraction of everything is crap. “Crappy” enough not to hold onto after your first encounter, anyway.

    But that’s not to say the level of crappiness is constant over time or space. Murray’s book Human Accomplishment documents a good deal of variation across geographical regions, as well as recurring highs and lows over time. Like if you look at painting from 1780 to 1830, it blows your mind more than the painting of 1840 to 1890. Same with elite music from each time period, or literature too for that matter. The Romantic-Gothic period as a whole was a true peak of creativity compared to the Victorian era.

    So just looking at “painting” or whatever medium as a whole, and finding that 90% or whatever high percent is crap, is obscuring a lot of the wild swings over time. Like, only 20% of heavily played music from the ’80s is crap, while it’s close to 100% being boring forgettable junk in the 21st century.

    I think nostalgic conservatives strike the right balance between snobbery (most time periods were crap), and humble generosity (how did the ’20s and the ’80s produce so much greatness?!). But then I would think that…

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  10. chucho says:

    If you have a great love for a certain artistic sub-genre (say, Italian horror films, 19th century piano music, 1930’s British detective novels), then you’re going to be much more forgiving of any obvious faults you may encounter. Those faults may even become charming in their own way. But to the non-obsessive this will not be the case.

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  11. Sir Barken Hyena says:

    I wouldn’t say I agree with Sturgeon’s Law, although I think he looks like a right-on dude from that picture! But I am only interested in the absolute very very best in those areas that matter most to me: music for example. I will not listen to “ok” music for any length of time, it has to be really great. Mile’s way or the highway if you like. Doesn’t mean I think everything else is crap though.

    And I’ve had the same experience as Paleo Retiree; for example I used to poo-poo Frank Zappa’s music on very snobbish grounds: that his popular music was jokey because he was afraid to present it as serious, and his classical music just played along with the vogue of the avant-garde & serialism. In other words, that he was an artistic pussy. I now see it as he just did what ever the hell he felt like doing, which I admire immensely.

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  12. Steve Sailer says:

    Off-topic question for Blowhard, Esq.: A few weeks ago you pointed out how William Pereira’s architecture for the UC Irvine campus worked better as a futuristic dystopia in a Planet of the Apes movie than as a campus. What do you think of the work of another LA futuristic architect, John Lautner? Lautner seemed to appeal to the masses (he kind of invented the Googie-style coffee shop beloved of Quentin Tarantino movies) and rich people (Bob Hope’s daughter has put Lautner’s Hope House in Palm Springs on sale for $50 million) and the upcoming Iron Man 3 movie features the bad guy blowing up Tony Stark’s Lautneresque Iron Mansion in Malibu, whereas Pereira was more academically and bureaucratically respected.

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