Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Here's to you, Mr. Sturgeon

I had a thought recently, probably not a terribly original thought, but it’s taken hold in my mind and this is traditionally where I hash such things out.

You may or may not be familiar with Sturgeon’s Law (though just the fact that you’re here reading this makes it pretty likely you are) but for those of you who don’t recognize the expression and also don’t like following links, the upshot is: ninety percent of everything is crud. It originated as a kind of defense of sci-fi as a genre, pointing out that there may be a lot of awful sci-fi out there, but if you think about it there’s a lot of bad music and bad tv and bad movies and bad books of all stripes, and genuine quality and artfulness is rare, and if you’re going to be dismissive of sci-fi because some or even most of it is trash, then you should be equally dismissive of every other genre in every other medium. And in fact, in the Epoch of Snark, there are plenty of people who embrace this philosophy wholeheartedly and are only too happy to point out the various ways in which 90(+)% of mass entertainment proves that human civilization is overdue for a mass extinction event.

There is something fatalistic yet oddly comforting about believing that “ninety percent of everything is crud” if you allow that to somehow justify an attitude of passive resignation. If you get in the car in the morning and drive half an hour to work, listening to the radio and wondering how the kids these days can call that noise music while waiting for the one song in ten that speaks meaningfully to you, then “ninety percent of everything is crud” places your aesthetic suffering in context. Ditto if your daily routine involves collapsing onto the couch during the part of the day between getting everything accomplished that needs accomplishing and going to bed. On certain nights you know exactly which channel to turn to at exactly which time for a show you enjoy watching, but the vast majority of the time you pass hour after hour flipping around looking for anything at all that crests above the tolerable threshold. It’s not ideal, but it makes sense, since the tube is only going to be broadcasting something non-cruddy ten percent of the time.

The thing is, that kind of passivity is kind of a relic, rooted in the idea that there are only two choices: schlock expressly designed with lowest-common-denominator pandering in mind, or nothing. But the availability of alternatives has exploded in every direction. We have a music industry that sells one song at a time from a near-infinite virtual inventory. We have DVRs, box sets of DVDs, and streaming video from the internet. There is very little reason to settle for what’s being offered via the distribution methods of least resistance when the overall time, effort and money required to dig a little deeper doesn’t register a significant difference.

And on top of that, we have more tools than ever before for gathering responses and building consensus and spreading the word about what’s crud and what isn’t. Of course everything tries to sell itself as worth your time, and everyone who tries to speak to that notion has their own agenda, whether they’ll profit directly from something being consumed or not. But with enough time and enough voices, something resembling objectivity emerges, a canon of classics which is utterly simple to look up in one form or facet or another. Information is all around us and it’s human nature to (attempt to) organize it.

Here’s the so-what: classics come along every once in a while, and forgettable dross pours out in a steady, constant stream. The 9:1 ratio is probably pretty immutable, but I’m starting to believe that’s somewhat irrelevant. Ninety percent of everything is crud, it’s true, but at this stage in the game, the early 21st century where all new releases instantly become part of the permanent archive, ten percent of everything is good AND it adds up; ten percent of everything ever is more than enough to fill every idle moment of the average person’s life. This is what has occurred to me recently. I could spend the rest of my life actively avoiding cruddy entertainment without really breaking a sweat, and I would never be bored, and I would never run out of things to consume.

In a way this is kind of a delayed revelation that I’ve been building toward for a while now, longer than the time I’ve been blogging. I’ve touched on it here and there; the 1001 Film Club is obviously one manifestation, as was last year’s pop-resolution attempt at reading 12 stone-cold classics of western lit. It’s the underlying impetus behind my slow transition away from buying comics off the stands every month, knowing full well that a big chunk would be intrinsically disposable, and over to the compilations and collections instead. It’s the reason I’m planning on re-reading George R.R. Martin, so that I can fully appreciate watching Game of Thrones on Blu-ray, which was pretty clearly in the top 10% of televised entertainment last year. And so on.

The trade-off, of course, is that if you work your way backwards through the ten percent good stuff of years (or decades)past, and always wait for the collective pop-culture society to deem things worthwhile before even checking them out, then obviously you’re living in the past. You miss out on the current conversation (assuming there is one), at least sometimes – in theory you can come in late on something awesome that’s going to continue to be an ongoing thing in the future, and you can track it in real time once you’re up to speed and be part of the water cooler discussions and so on. You also lose the possibility of discovering something that everyone else has overlooked but you personally think is phenomenal. I was plenty into that when I was younger, buying books literally based on their cover or albums solely because they were filed in the right part of the record store and the band name sounded cool, with no other advance knowledge going into the experience. Ninety percent of which turned out to be crud. But ten percent was at least interesting.

And of course, there are arguments to be made in favor of crud. To hyper-condense another thousand or so words, anything widely praised is likely to be inherently challenging in one dimension or another, which is an appropriate and important definition of “good” but not always exactly what one wants or even needs. I could go through life as a locavore vegetarian, too, and that would be easier and (arguably) pleasanter than ever, but I’m not about to give up pepperoni pizza or bacon double cheeseburgers no matter how bad for me I know they are. Sometimes after a long hard day of work and/or parenting my brain does not crave dazzling consciousness-expanding entertainment, it craves simple-to-digest pabulum.

So I’m not saying that I’m definitely going to forswear mediocre tv or flash-in-the-pan Cineplex blockbusters or dumb and pulpy fantasy trilogies and focus exclusively on modern legends and Oscar and Pulitzer winners. But it’s fascinating to me to think that I could, and sometimes just knowing that the option feasibly exists is worth holding in mind.

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