Where Are All the Bad Books?

According to Sturgeon’s Law, for every good movie, there are nine bad ones. The same holds for books, music, and humorous YouTube videos. Bad art used to bother me, but it no longer does, and I have a theory for this. A person’s involvement with bad art is inversely proportional to one’s age. Call it Jamie’s Law. Put another way, we see a lot more bad art when we are younger than when we are older. At least, that has been my experience.

I will sometimes catch a trailer for what looks to be a terrible movie. Watching the trailer, I’ll roll my eyes and wonder how anyone could have gotten away with making such a bad film. When I was younger, I’d go to see the film just to reassure myself that my judgement was correct. It really was bad. I was rarely disappointed.

These days, when I see a trailer for a bad movie, a shrug and think, “What do I care?, I’m not going to go see it anyway.” Browsing books leads to similar results. The bestseller lists are often crowded with what I think of as bad books, but why should it matter to me? I’m not going to read them. If someone reads what I think of is a bad book, and enjoys it, it doesn’t hurt me and it provides some enjoyment to them, so what does it matter?

It took me a while to get to this place. What convinced me that there was something to Jamie’s Law was a look through my reading list. I’ve kept a list of books that I’ve read for more than twenty years. There are more than 650 books on the list. I don’t rate the books, but I do flag books that I would recommend to others–books that I particularly enjoyed. In recent years, I found myself tagging a book like this with increasing frequency. I began to feel guilty about it. Every book I read can’t be so great as to deserve a recommendation, can it? I’m being to easy. If Sturgeon’s Law says that for every good book I read, nine should be bad, where are all the bad books?

Well, ninety percent of everything might be crap, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown wiser in my selection of books. I choose books based on my experience of what I have enjoyed in the past. I read things that I think I will enjoy, and my radar for this has gotten better with age. In other words, my age and experience are stacking the deck against Sturgeon. The number of bad books, movies, music, and other art grows at that 9-to-1 ratio, but the pool from which I consume art, in all its forms, is a rich source of good art because my experience has made it so. A good fisherman knows where the fish will be biting, but only because of a lot of trial and error over the years.

I do occasionally come across some form of art that I think I will like, and by which I am disappointed, but that is happening with less and less frequency. The big thing today is for everyone to get out of their social media echo chambers and experience other viewpoints. Well, I’m quite content to stay within the art echo chamber that I have cultivated so carefully over the last forty-five years. It is serving me well.


  1. You’re really not “stacking the deck against Sturgeon,” because you’re still acknowledging that a high proportion of crap is being produced that you simply choose not to experience or patronize. The crap is still out there, whether in the form of bad books or bad movies or bad whatever.

    If you ever doubt that, take a look through a slush pile sometime at the crap that DOESN’T make it through to production! With respect to that, Sturgeon’s Law is a few shades too optimistic.


  2. as I wrote on my book-listing page,

    For the most part I don’t bother finishing a bad book — I figure that if the first two chapters are junk its not getting any better. Life is too short to read junk. So if I’ve finished it, I consider it to be at least “good.”


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