Donkeyman and publication of crap

A feature on scrabble at 538 [footnote 1] brought to my attention the fact that “Donkeyman” is valid scrabble word now. I don’t remember encountering it earlier, but if you had asked me to take a guess, I’d have said that it probably refers to an idiot. It doesn’t: The person in charge of a ship’s engine room.


What persuaded me to push out this contentless post today is Sturgeon’s law: 90% 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. is crap.

This follows partly from something a lot of writers talk about, including Kipling who was quoted at the link above: Four–fifths of everybody’s work must be bad. But the remnant is worth the trouble for its own sake.

Stephen King has written about how it is important to write a lot to get a sense of what is good.

I was watching Adam Savage’s talk on Failure from Defcon some 7 years ago, and he made the point that a craftsman is not somebody who doesn’t make mistakes, but somebody who can smell the mistakes happening before anyone else does. And thus, for him, the failures that he has had are important and have helped him develop an intuition for identifying where things might go pear shaped.

Adam Savage, in the same talk, mentioned two essays that were important in helping him understand what it means to be a person of honour in the world: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-reliance” and Raymond Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder. [Incidentally, he mentions these in the talk, because of Adam’s ideal state of being is something like what Chandler said about a world populated by the variants on the ideal detective: If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.]

Somewhere in the middle of the Chandler essay, he writes about the perception that a large volume of bad detective stories that seem to exist, and his point is an interesting extension to Sturgeon’s law. He writes:

The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average—or only slightly above average—detective story does. Not only is it published but it is sold in small quantities to rental libraries, and it is read. There are even a few optimists who buy it at the full retail price of two dollars, because it looks so fresh and new, and there is a picture of a corpse on the cover. And the strange thing is that this average, more than middling dull, pooped-out piece of utterly unreal and mechanical fiction is not terribly different from what are called the masterpieces of the art. It drags on a little more slowly, the dialogue is a little grayer, the cardboard out of which the characters are cut is a shade thinner, and the cheating is a little more obvious; but it is the same kind of book. Whereas the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel. It is about entirely different things. But the good detective story and the bad detective story are about exactly the same things, and they are about them in very much the same way. There are reasons for this too, and reasons for the reasons; there always are.

Not an emphatic defense of his art (though, about art in general he wrote: There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that.)

And, despite my enormous fondness for genre fiction, I find myself agreeing. A lot more crud is possibly published and consumed in genre fiction – though there are some pretty unreadable and bland literary works too.

So, what then is the point. Possibly that I should be free to write more often. But I shouldn’t really post everything that strikes my fancy here.

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