Pick Your Poison: Sturgeon's Law and Why We Love Bad Fiction
Sturgeon’s Law defends genre fiction from the assertion that 90% of it is crap by turning the attack’s strength against itself, a veritable verbal Akido move, by simply pointing out that the argument is irrelevant since 90% of anything is crap. The key to happiness, whether in spare time or employment, is to embrace this fact, to realize that 90% of anything is going to fall into this trap. Like the 10% of quality? Congratulations, everyone likes the brilliant stuff. That’s the stuff that crosses all boundaries and appeals to absolutely everyone. Appreciating the ten percent is like appreciating a perfectly cooked steak. You’re not a gourmand if you do, it’s just that you’re hopeless if you don’t.
Liking Tolkien doesn’t mean that you should read fantasy though, any more than being enraptured by the ninth inning of a tied game seven means that you’re a baseball fan. They can’t all be Tolkien, and they can’t all be game seven. Most are still going to be the sixth Shannara trilogy or July games between bottom feeders who can’t afford the free agent lottery. Anyone can appreciate greatness, but the key to happiness is being able to identify the mediocrity that you love, the category which delights you for all its flaws and not just its best works.
I have read fantastic mystery novels, yet never ventured down that yawning aisle of whodunnits in the bookstore or library. I can understand that while I liked great stories that were also mysteries, it wasn’t the mystery that captivated me. Science fiction, though? Fantasy? I will devour the worst of them, the most contrived, the most repetitive. I have read over a hundred Star Trek paperbacks, and they were magnificent. I used to insist that I had an objective reason for this, that even the crappiest science fiction novel has some redeeming quality, has a single scene, a single paragraph of originality that justifies the rest of the words. I argued to myself and others who I pretended were listening, that it was this that made science fiction superior. Now, I think it’s more accurate to say that any genre is like that, but that each of us is attuned to the peculiarities of a particular subset of genres. Those are our homes, our places of comfort.
That leaves the popular assertion that we should stick to the ten percent. It’s the sort of elitist assertion made by people who also insist that they don’t own a television and look down on genre. They’re too busy reading very important books to waste time on anything but wedging their head more firmly up their own ass. What they are missing is that you have to appreciate the lower tiers of a category in order to really get that top ten percent, to really feel the pulse under the flesh. There’s a reason why there are exceedingly few mainstream authors who manage to publish a science fiction or fantasy novel that’s worth a damn. They like to make these occasional forays, as much because they are convinced that a shitty little genre should be easy to dip into, show the amateurs over there how a real writer does things. The results are rarely memorable except for their failure.
See, to write a great genre novel, you have to understand what makes the entire genre good, not just what makes the good books good. You have to love the bad books too. Too many people are dismissive about their genres, even the ones they secretly adore. They will admit to their piles of science fiction or fantasy or mysteries, but often bracket the love with a justification. It’s just that I like to turn my mind off sometimes … or I know that they’re stupid … I don’t always read bad books, I read serious ones too. There’s almost a shame associated with it, as if reading is good in the abstract but embarassing in the specifics. When you put on a rock album, do you feel a need to explain yourself, to insist that you do listen to Beethoven as well? Most don’t, because we’re comfortable allowing music to be itself in a way that we won’t let books.
It’s not about shutting your mind off, or any other excuse, it’s about opening your mind, to the brilliant little sparks of joy embedded in even the worst told stories. See, individual books might be bad, but as long as you pull some piece of love out of them, fit it into the gestalt of the hundreds of other books you’ve read, it’s still making you think, still making your world bigger. Disparate stories from different genres might be brilliant on their own, but they can’t contribute to your internal world in the same way. That would be like trying to assemble a puzzle from only corner pieces.
The endless piles of genre fiction are the key to happiness. They’re the key to picking out the things that actually make you happy in this world instead of the things that you’re told are good for you. Ninety percent of everything you read is going to be crap one way or the other, so make sure it’s the crap that makes you smile, and don’t apologize for it.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.