Sturgeon’s Law School

Or, Why do people with good taste create bad art?


Theodore Sturgeon is the sort of unfortunate author who is far better known for a single pithy aphorism than for all his books and stories combined. His brilliant science fiction is seldom reprinted nowadays, as it requires a certain sensibility and flexibility from the reader, and this is an investment that the big reading public just doesn’t want to make. (It doesn’t help that the publishing industry in general is doggedly averse to reprinting old books, but that’s another rant.) The average sf reader today has never read ‘Microcosmic God’ or More Than Human. If he knows Sturgeon at all, it’s likely to be in the context of Sturgeon’s Law:

Ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then ninety percent of everything is crud.

Many people nowadays say that Sturgeon was being charitable. And that 90 percent figure leaves out all the vast mountains of unpublished fiction, the stuff that is simply too cruddy for anyone to print. But the crud gets written, and some of it gets published, and hardly any of the perpetrators are aware that the stuff they’re trying to inflict on the world is crud.

Crud happens. Why can’t the crudsters tell?

In a rather animated discussion of this very question a while back, Mary Catelli suggested that the people who write crud simply haven’t got the skills to tell it from the good stuff:

What do you need to recognize horrible writing? You need to be able to recognize cliches, bad grammar, flat-footed prose, plot holes, bad characterization, etc., etc. If someone is incompetent at producing good writing, he probably lacks the skills to recognize it when he sees it.

Mary is an astute person and a pretty good writer, but I think she’s missing at least half the answer here. It’s well known that stupid people tend to overrate their own intelligence, that socially inept people tend to overrate their own social skills, and that everybody thinks he’s a better driver than the moron he just crashed into. In the oft-cited article, ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments’, Kruger and Dunning do a creditable job of analysing the phenomenon. But when questions of artistic value arise, I think something more insidious is at work.

So here’s the 64-bit question:

Why do people with good taste create bad art?

Taste vs. Skill

It’s unquestionable that they do. There are people who admire the Old Masters, who can talk intelligently about Rembrandt’s shadows and Turner’s lights and Michelangelo’s muscle fetish, but if they try to draw anything themselves, they produce something a kindergarten child’s mother would be ashamed to post on the refrigerator door. Some people are connoisseurs of classical music, up on theory, familiar with the great composers, hip to the raging faction-fight between the devotees of von Karajan and the laid-back Viennese school of conducting, but cannot play a musical instrument or carry a tune in a bucket. There are those who know in their very bones that Olivier could act and Tom Green can’t, but whose own gifts in that line are rather to be compared with Mr. Green’s than Sir Laurence’s, though strictly speaking they take a back seat to either of those worthies. And so it is through all the arts. As Kruger and Dunning freely acknowledge, there are many abilities that you need not actually possess yourself in order to tell whether someone else has them.

If this were a sufficient answer to the big question, it would hardly be worth powder and shot. But another issue is involved. For some of these same people, those with well-developed critical tastes in their chosen artistic genres, are the very ones who blithely produce the most appalling crud on the world under the delusion that they too are intimate with their chosen Muse.

Being the most readily available corpus vile for this study, and the only one whose permission to be pilloried I can easily procure, I shall offer myself as a bad example. Like most writers, I started off by writing a lot of wretched juvenilia: the sort of stuff that earns plaudits in grade-school English classes, but is strictly speaking not worth its weight in fishwrap. One must start somewhere; and I knew perfectly well that my achievements were far short of my ambitions. For one thing, my taste was horribly undeveloped; I was still at the age when one can mistake Piers Anthony for literature. I had read good books, but not enough of them to figure out what it was that made them good; I had read clichéd third-hand hackwork, but not enough to appreciate the full tedium of a thousand-times-told tale.

So while my peers were coming to terms with puberty, I was scribbling in notebooks, or grinding out on a pathetically antique Underwood, pastiches of imitations of sendups of hand-me-down Golden Age tropes, and fondly imagined that the stuff I was writing was science fiction. I learned very early how to turn a decent sentence, and I always had a knack for visual description and ‘atmosphere’. But my characters were something less than cardboard, and the art of drawing out a story to a dramatically appropriate length was a dark mystery. I wrote plot-summaries rather than narratives, vignettes rather than scenes, and all based upon the vapid conceits and recycled TV shinola that I mistook for ideas. In other words, I was a fairly typical twelve-year-old writer. I knew others like me then, and have met more since.

Now, I soon observed a thing that inspired me with melancholy, and would have led on to outright despair if I had not had the bumptiousness to ignore it. While I was writing my vile stuff, I thought it was pretty good, that the creative juices were flowing well, and that I was a talent that would be heard from at no distant date. Upon rereading my output in cold blood, weeks or months later, I could see it was the most appalling rubbish. And though my technique rapidly improved, this schizophrenic discontinuity between the act of creation and the brutal reality of self-criticism carried on undiminished right into my twenties. I had been writing with malice aforethought for ten years or more before I wrote anything that I could stand to read after an interval. How did this happen? My taste at 22 was vastly better than it was at 12, yet I seemed as far away from writing good fiction as ever. I can think of three processes at work, which, taken together, seem sufficient to cover the facts.

First, any creative activity, however badly done, is likely to be fun. The rush of inspiration, the pleasure of working at your craft, the feeling of doing something you have only watched before—these things bring you joy, even though the finished product cannot possibly bring joy to anyone else. Frederik Pohl hits it off perfectly in describing his APA days. To this day, as he says in The Way the Future Was, he vividly remembers the feel of his apazine in his hands, the crinkle of the paper, the smell of the ink, the heady sense of being an auteur; but he cannot for the life of him remember anything about the actual contents. In a way, it hardly matters. For art, any art, is first and foremost a toy, whether or not the artist is any good.

Second, most people develop early in life, and carry to their graves, certain habits of self-regard, all but unalterable by later experience. In my case, it was a habit of unrelenting self-abomination. When I was a child, the taunts of other children (those paragons of veracity and objectivity) quickly convinced me that I was ugly, smelly, badly dressed, ill-spoken, etc., etc.—and not only unpopular, but somehow intrinsically unpopular. Teachers and other authority figures reinforced this—most memorably, the one who informed me at full volume in class (this in a school built on the ‘open area’ plan of the Sixties, and therefore in full hearing of at least 120 kids) that I was a complete waste of space, would never amount to anything whatever—‘and it’s about time you realized it!’

One takes these things to heart, however unjust the accusations may be. I became thoroughly convinced that anything I did must be wrong, useless, utterly without value—simply because it was I who did it. I was not experienced enough to see that they were merely expressing their affection or hatred for particular persons, and disguising it in a thin veneer of critical commentary to give their emotional venting a bogus sense of objectivity. Instead, I came away with a profound belief that in some way the very same deed, done in the very same way, for the very same reasons and at the same time and place, might be a Good Thing if done by someone else, but was invariably Completely Wrong if done by me; and furthermore, that I was too stupid to understand the logic of it. For logic there must be; the people who rubbed these notions into me always took care to speak with the utmost air of disinterested rationality.

Other people, of course, arrive at different pictures of themselves. I know some who cannot see the slightest flaw in their persons or their actions, and laugh off any criticism, however merited, as evidence of pure, petty, personal spite. The cult of ‘self-esteem’ is as damaging to the critical faculties as the emotional firestorm I endured.

The point here is that young people tend to have an unrealistic idea of themselves as Good at some things and Bad at others, or as Good or Bad in all things equally, which, having never been based on facts in the first place, can hardly be contradicted by facts in the second place. By the time I began to develop as a writer, I was becoming aware of this tendency in myself. I knew that at least some of the horrible nausea that overcame me on reading my own prose was the product of my general self-despite. (I really did become physically ill when I read my work, and the sound of someone else reading it aloud was enough to give me panic-attacks and blind vertigo.) So I had a well-defined critical scale, but no way of calibrating it, or indeed of measuring anything between the extremes. It was just conceivable that my stuff was as good as it seemed to be while I was in the joyous throes of composition; equally conceivable that it was as horrible as my agonizing self-consciousness made it seem upon rereading. And I had no audience with the capacity to judge my work.

My first inkling of how to develop the skill of self-criticism came from an article by some well-known author, I have long since forgotten who it was, who said approximately: ‘If I fall in love with a piece of my own writing, or if I hate it, I know that it stinks. It is only the stuff that I feel neutral about that turns out to be any good.’ Eureka!

So I cultivated apathy and ataraxia, distancing myself from myself, until I found a sort of existential dizziness that worked as a substitute for objectivity. At that point, I had something to work with, a way of taking readings off my scale between the points labelled ‘brilliant’ and ‘worthless’. I could, for instance, tell whether I was improving at characterization, or whether my plots were hanging together without requiring all the personages of the story to be blazingly stupid. But I was still missing one important thing: a range-finder.

This is the third reason why people show off their bad art in public. A beginning violinist knows she can’t play like Stern or Heifetz. She can hear the difference clearly for herself—it doesn’t take a trained musical ear. As her ear develops, she begins to understand how far she falls short of her models. But this understanding leaves unanswered two vital questions: How much more difficult is it to play like Stern or Heifetz than to do what I do? And can I improve enough to make up the difference? There are no obvious answers. Heifetz made it look so easy! But Heifetz had decades of painstaking practice and study behind him, and what’s more, he was supremely gifted with that strange, indefinable, unquantifiable thing that some people call ‘talent’. The distance between the young violinist and Heifetz is very great; it is almost certainly much further than she supposes, and she may well travel a lifetime without ever completing the journey.

‘The Eye of Argon’: An apology

It is the easiest thing in the world to dash off a story and send it to a magazine; far easier than joining a critique group, taking a course, or even applying one’s own critical skills to revising and improving it. The only other thing comparably easy is to fool oneself (remembering the joy of creation, and knowing that one’s critical self-perception is weak at best, and full of emotional baloney) into thinking that one is further along the learning curve than one actually is. When I first submitted a story to a prozine, I knew quite well that I was not about to put Heinlein out of business. But I had the idea that the progress I had made was much greater than it was. That story was something worse than worthless, and hardly deserved the form rejection it got. My second story, marginally less awful, got a personal rejection letter from the infinitely gracious and patient George Scithers, explaining in gentle terms why it sucked vacuum and how badly. After that, I gave myself exclusively to novels, with utterly indifferent success. I was only eighteen at the time; but on the other hand, I had spent six years working on my craft with the sole and specific intention of one day becoming a published sf author. I had made great strides since the days of my lost, unlamented juvenilia. But I still had no idea how long the journey would be. More than fifteen years later, I still don’t know for sure. But if I had known how long and tedious and painful it would be, I would never have set out at all.

Take a look at ‘The Eye Of Argon’, and please try not to laugh. Bad as it is—and it is infamously bad, hilariously bad, with the delicious awfulness of an Ed Wood movie or a William Shatner album—it nevertheless shows evidence of skills learned at great cost. It begins in medias res, with a creditable attempt at scene-setting. The plot, such as it is, bears a sort of phantom resemblance to the standard ‘plot skeleton’ taught in how-to-write books: the same kind of resemblance that a five-year-old’s Hallowe’en drawing bears to an actual human skeleton. It is recognizably made up of bones, or a plausible imitation of bones, though they are not connected together in any generally accepted way. The physical description of setting and action are actually fairly good; at least, they are not vague. Vagueness would have helped, perhaps. A good thick layer of muddy prose would have artfully concealed the silliness of Grignr’s exploits with his fifty-pound broadsword, or the sheer primaeval stupidity of the ‘scarlet emerald’.

In fact, ‘The Eye Of Argon’ is not utterly incompetent; it is haunted by a sort of sad ghost of competence. If it were not so good at reminding us of the effect it is trying to achieve, it would not be so killingly funny to see how it fails. It is a thoroughly bad story, but a readable one—even an entertaining one, if you approach it in the right spirit, like a paying customer at the World’s Worst Film Festival. In fact, it is very like a thoroughly bad but watchable film. Plan Nine From Outer Space is one of the silliest and most incompetent films ever made, but one can see just why it fails, and what it is failing at. Contrast this with some of John Lennon’s infamous ‘art’ films, such as the excruciating slow-motion picture taken by a camera flying through a cloud, or the extended close-up of his tumescing and detumescing penis. Those films are not only bad, they are unwatchable: even the poseurs who haunt the back rows at Cannes walked out of the cinema. Not even Lennon’s most uncritical admirers professed to find them entertaining or instructive, and nobody but the filmmaker and Yoko Ono thought them artistic. It is the difference between a director who has some idea what a watchable film ought to be like, or at least could be like, and one who doesn’t know and hardly cares.

If ‘The Eye Of Argon’ were fixed—if you cleaned up the execrable dialogue, and fixed the descriptions, and holystoned the prose till it contained no more scarlet emeralds or lithe noses, and gave the characters motivations and personalities, and made the action scenes physically plausible, and replaced the pointless tomato-surprise ending with something that would actually resolve the plot, and generally attached some sense of importance and tension to the whole story, so that the reader could care whether Grignr achieved his quest or not, and was not fatally attracted to the alternative idea of how pleasant it would be to see him get run over by a bus—oh, yes, and if one applied some real skill to replacing names like Grignr and Norgolia with something a human being could read aloud and not be choked with superior laughter—why, then, one would have, not a good story as such, but a good bad story; a serviceable fourth-rate sword & sorcery story, the sort of thing that could have been published in any respectable pulp fantasy magazine of the 1940s, at least in an off issue, when the editor had to choose between printing substandard work and leaving a sheaf of pages blank. Good journeyman half-a-cent-per-word stuff, in other words, and better than a lot that was actually published in those days. And there are still fanzines where such a thing would be publishable.

It would be a colossal waste of time to try to fix ‘The Eye Of Argon’, of course, but it could be done. And that would not be possible if Jim Theis did not have at least a rough visceral notion of what constitutes a good story, and enough of the rudiments of writing skill to bring off a recognizable imitation of one. No doubt poor Mr. Theis composed his parvum opus in a white-hot fever of creative euphoria, and printed it in his apazine with maximum haste, giving him the best possible opportunity to repent at leisure. And no doubt he knew it was not prozine-quality work, or he would most likely have sent it off to Fantastic or F&SF or Weird Bloody Mighty-Thewed Pulp Stories, and it would have vanished into the night with only the bare cenotaph of a rejection slip in the author’s bottom drawer to remind us that it had ever existed at all. He just didn’t know how far his work fell short of publishable quality, and so—he published it. It took a rare and fortuitous combination of lunacy and recklessness to give the world that tale, and fandom one of its most cherished legends.


  1. Another reason why violinists perform when they aren’t any good is that public performance is itself a specific skill, one that you can only practice by performing publicly. As a child, I used to play the piano quite well, but was spectacularly bad at public performance: on one occasion, I made a complete botch of a rather simple piece that I knew reasonably well — with the composer in the audience. Words cannot express what I felt that day, but I remember it well. Nevertheless, if I had wanted to become a professional or even a decent amateur, I would have needed that experience of performing badly.

Speak Your Mind