Is 90% of everything really crap?

Whenever you talk in speculative fiction circles about quality writing you will inevitably hear someone cite Sturgeon’s Law.

Theodore Sturgeon, a science fiction writer, defended science fiction against critics of the genre who said that 90% of science fiction was crap by saying that 90% of everything–film, literature, consumer goods, etc.–was crap. Therefore, pointing out 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. So neener neener neener.

The problem with this “law” is that it isn’t a law. It’s not something discovered through rigorous testing and careful evaluation of data. In fact, no testing was performed. It’s an opinion, but “Sturgeon’s Opinion” lacks the authoritative power needed to silence the critics. 

Unfortunately, while citing the law may be a good way to give the literati what for, it’s a terrible way to think about books. I say this because we often mistake “poor quality” with “it wasn’t to my taste.” By doing so we mislabel diamonds as dirt.

How can this be? The answer is in the true nature of quality.

The business world has spent many years and much treasure trying to understand what quality is. I think writers and readers can benefit from the paths they’ve blazed. I found a great summary of quality on Wikipedia.

Business has tried to define quality in a producer-consumer context, with the following variations:

  1. ISO 9000: “Degree to which a set of inherent characteristic fulfills requirements.”[2] The standard defines requirement as need or expectation.
  2. Six Sigma: “Number of defects per million opportunities.”[3] The metric is tied in with a methodology and a management system.
  3. Philip B. Crosby: “Conformance to requirements.”[4][5] The difficulty with this is that the requirements may not fully represent customer expectations; Crosby treats this as a separate problem.
  4. Joseph M. Juran: “Fitness for use.”[5] Fitness is defined by the customer.
  5. Noriaki Kano and others, presenting a two-dimensional model of quality: “must-be quality” and “attractive quality.”[6] The former is near to the “fitness for use” and the latter is what the customer would love, but has not yet thought about. Supporters characterize this model more succinctly as: “Products and services that meet or exceed customers’ expectations.”
  6. Robert Pirsig: “The result of care.”[7]
  7. Genichi Taguchi, with two definitions:
    a. “Uniformity around a target value.”[8] The idea is to lower the standard deviation in outcomes, and to keep the range of outcomes to a certain number of standard deviations, with rare exceptions.
    b. “The loss a product imposes on society after it is shipped.”[9] This definition of quality is based on a more comprehensive view of the production system.
  8. American Society for Quality: “a subjective term for which each person has his or her own definition. In technical usage, quality can have two meanings:
    a. the characteristics of a product or service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs;
    b. a product or service free of deficiencies.”[5]
  9. Peter Drucker: “Quality in a product or service is not what the supplier puts in. It is what the customer gets out and is willing to pay for.”[10]

The common element of the business definitions is that the quality of a product or service refers to the perception of the degree to which the product or service meets the customer’s expectations. Quality has no specific meaning unless related to a specific function and/or object. Quality is a perceptual, conditional and somewhat subjective attribute.

What does this mean for writers and readers?

It means that your audience defines quality. But your audience is never all of those that read. It’s only the narrow segment that reads for the type of experience you’re offering.

It means that a story can be of the highest quality, but you still may not like it. You might even hate it.

It means that Sturgeon’s Law is, no disrespect intended, crap.

All writers should consider NY Times best-seller Tess Gerritsen’s experience writing for two different audiences.

I’ve had too many smart and well-read friends like stories I do not. I’ve loved too many stories that others could not. I’ve seen too many stories I couldn’t read more than two pages of picked up by editors and find audiences. And the tales of editors passing up on stories that some other editor picked up and which became mega-sellers are legion. 

Quality has never been an absolute. The truth is that while I enjoy many stories in a variety of genres, a lot of what’s published is not to my taste, but it’s still very good.  

A more accurate statement of Sturgeon’s Law would be something like “90% of what’s out there isn’t to my taste.”

For readers this means we need to be careful to distingush between something that doesn’t work for the audience it’s intended for and something that simply doesn’t work for us. For writers this means we need to write the best story we can and then avoid pressing it onto the wrong audience. And when we do get a bad review, we need to figure out if it’s the quality of the story or just a matter of taste.

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4 Responses to Is 90% of everything really crap?

  1. asiakee says:

    One of the best definitons of quality I’ve ever read is contained in the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Rober Pirsig (who was sited in your list on the post). The whole book is an explanation of quality, what it is, and how it plays out in most peoples lives.
    Also, the book is an excellent read.

  2. John Brown says:

    My wife read that and loved it. I’m going to have to put it in my queue.

  3. David-J-West says:

    I expierenced this last saturday. At a writers conference (not the one you did) I won first place for my story in the general fiction category. I had 5 anonymous judges, winning it on the strength of 4 of them because those four liked the story that much. They all said it was extremely compelling and they couldn’t put it down. ZING BABY. They had only the slightest of suggestions that I will heed. Seems like 3 of the 4 thought there was a little too much info dump right at the end. So I will space that out a bit. Thats about it with them.
    The last judge had some of the craziest theories I could have imagined at what I was trying to write and I had to come away from it thinking, this person doesn’t have a clue and practically hated the story because it just wasn’t their cup of tea, nuff said.
    So just like your latest post, sometimes you got to go your own way regardless.