Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Sturgeon’s Law and the Western


A refutation


Refutation: denial of the truth or accuracy of


In 1957 the science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon coined what he called Sturgeon’s Law, or even Sturgeon’s Revelation (which has an almost religious or mystical tone) that “ninety percent of everything is crap”.



He was responding to criticisms of the low quality of sci-fi writing, arguing that yes, a lot of sci-fi was bad but then a lot of everything was bad, and sci-fi was no more guilty than anything else.


Actually, Sturgeon’s so-called Law isn’t a law, and it certainly is not a revelation. It’s an adage. At best, it’s a hypothesis, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation”, although it seems that having thought of it, Sturgeon skipped the further investigation part and went straight to the proved fact stage.



Now, I’m no expert but I’ve read the odd bit of philosophy in my time and studied logic a little, and I suggest that Sturgeon’s Law risks being self-defeating, for if, indeed, ninety percent of everything is crap, then presumably 90% of his ‘law’ is crap.


There being 31 letters in the statement he made, that must mean that 27 of them are crap, which leaves as truth only the word crap. So only crap is not crap. It’s a logical conundrum, to be sure.


OK, I admit that my logic isn’t entirely perfect there. But still.


Furthermore, that’s not too nice a word, crap. It has often been euphemized as ‘crud’.


Anyway, all the forgoing is only by way of wondering if we should apply it to what really matters, not sci-fi but the Western.


I suppose it is possible that 90% of Westerns are crap, though it does seem to me inherently unlikely.


Webster’s defines crap, in meaning two, as “slang, sometimes vulgar: nonsense, rubbish”. Now, there were, in the year 1955, just as an example of a time when many Westerns came out, 87 feature Westerns released, according to IMDb, which means that if Sturgeon is right, at least 78 of them were nonsense or rubbish, and only 9 were worth seeing.



OK then. So the next question is, which?


Ay, there’s the rub, as Bill the Bard put it. For one person’s meat is another’s poison, your crap is my great work and my junk is your masterpiece.


Now, top of IMDb’s list of 1955, sorted by ‘popularity’, was Oklahoma! so, yes, that’s a good start for Sturgeon. Crap is already ahead at the start. And also in the top ten you have Disney’s Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, The Indian Fighter and The Tall Men. They were all pretty crappy. Says me. So QED, then? Point proved?


One up for Sturgeon


Nope. By no possible stretch of the imagination could anyone define as crap The Man from Laramie, Bad Day at Black Rock, three Randolph Scott Westerns all in the top ten, Wichita, At Gunpoint, or The Naked Dawn, just as a few examples.


Come on, Theodore


And many, way more than the mere 9 permitted as non-crap, might not have been great works of art but they clearly weren’t rubbish either. The Violent Men, Man Without a Star, Rage at Dawn, The Last Command, Fort Yuma, A Man Alone, Smoke Signal, the list goes on.


There’s no way we are going to get up to 90% crap.


And given the subjectivity I mentioned, even if you think Oklahoma! and The Tall Men to be masterpieces, and dislike Black Rock or Laramie as dross, I dare suggest that you aren’t going to get anywhere near 90% either.


So, sorry, Theodore, or may I call you Teddy, your ‘law’ may apply to sci-fi, I wouldn’t know, but I think it is unlikely that it applies to “everything”, and it sure don’t work on Westerns.




3 Responses

  1. We had this discussion a few days ago about Gene Autry westerns when Barry Lane was saying “paid admissions are the only test”. According to me, it is not because a film (actor, novel, painting etc.) is successful at the box office that it is not bad.

    1. In terms of Westerns, some of the worst of each year were the most successful at the box-office. The BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID syndrome. I agree with you that paid admissions are not the only test – though they are one of them.

    2. Jean Marie, the business is straightforward as everything is. If you do little or no business, you are done, but if otherwise, you keep staying alive in the reality of our industry. Without reality, you are either an amateur or less than that. Once people like the product, it becomes possible for so-called refinements.

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