Apr 28 2009 5:40pm

The Buffet Effect

Y’all know Sturgeon’s Law, right? 90% of everything is crud. But what doesn't get as much attention is Sturgeon’s Corollary: 10% of everything is not crud. And you know what? That can get to be a bit of a problem.

This is the golden age of entertainment, and it’s getting goldener every day. Today’s SF readers have their pick of half a century of backlist classics, and I'm not just talking Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and Le Guin: between ebooks and the Espresso Book Machine, the whole notion of “out of print” is out of date, and even the most obscure of golden oldies will soon be only a button-push away. Meanwhile, so many new SF books are published every year that even the mighty James Nicoll, who reads almost one a day, wonders if he can call himself well informed within the field.

We're drowning in a deluge of distractions, so many that even when you filter out Sturgeon’s Law’s 90%, there is still far too much good stuff out there for anyone to read and watch. Books compete with DVDs of Lost and Heroes and BSG, and with William Shatner singing Rocket Man on YouTube.

Meanwhile, the death-grip that gatekeepers like publishers and Hollywood studios once held is slipping. A straight-to-video release was once the kiss of death: nowadays, movies like JT Petty's terrific horror-western The Burrowers are discovered by devoted audiences via Netflix—or BitTorrent—rather than the multiplex. Self-published books like Lisa Genova’s Still Alice and Scott Stigler’s Infected have gone on to be bestsellers, and are certainly better than many books anointed by a major publisher's imprimatur.

So how do you decide how to spend your attention, when there's so much out there? Never mind the message: just choosing your medium can be a dilemma. Should you order a book from your Amazon wishlist, download a novel to your Kindle, browse the free ebooks on Feedbooks, log on to World of Warcraft, download a new video game from Steam, get a DVD at Blockbuster, download a new movie from Netflix, see if the Pirate Bay is still up, or stream some classic TV from Hulu or YouTube? Heck, you could even go wander through a bookstore, or see a movie in a theatre. Call me twentieth century.

And God forbid you also like non-SF: if so, then you've just added Jane Austen and Cormac McCarthy and The Wire and the Coen Brothers and The Deadliest Catch, plus all those relatively obscure masterpieces like Kieslowski’s Decalogue, to the list of competitors clamouring endlessly for your attention. Wait, you like sports, too? Congratulations, you are now officially doomed.

I’ve written about the post-scarcity society here before, but it’s only just occurred to me that as far as entertainment is concerned, we will live in such a world very soon, if we don’t already.

So what do we do?

In my highly anecdotal experience, people tend to react to this overwhelming cornucopia in one of two ways: either they swear allegiance to one particular subfragment of genre, and deliberately steer clear of all else, or they try to sample a little bit of everything1. I call this the buffet effect2.

I used to be a specialist. Now I’m a sampler. Fifteen years ago, I felt like I had read most, if not all, of the good SF that had ever been published. Nowadays, I’m not sure that's even possible; specialists have to focus on smaller subgenres, such as horror, or cyberpunk, or military SF.

As a sampler, I find myself reading one or two of an author’s books—and then moving on. I have read and really liked two Charles Stross novels, for instance, which once upon a time would have meant devouring everything he's ever written. Instead I'll have to overcome a certain reluctance to buy another book of his. I want to read them all, don't get me wrong; but at the same time, I find myself subconsciously thinking of the "Charles Stross" box as already ticked, and wanting instead to try a brand-new dish from the endless buffet.

I find myself no longer willing to waste time reading mediocre crap. It’s like eating a bad meal in Paris; there's really no excuse. Another emergent property is the slow fragmentation of canon. It’s harder to talk about books with other people, because there are so many good books out there that fewer and fewer have been read by a majority. Specialists can at least talk to one another. But what’s in store for us samplers?

The problem (and it is a problem, although admittedly a very nice one to have) is only going to get much worse. I’m awfully curious what its other repercussions might be—so, naturally I turn to SF to look for hints. But there aren't many books that deal with the buffet effect. Or, at least, not many that I've read.

Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and Vinge's Rainbows End both portray groups of passionate specialists—Disney fans, or Pratchett fans—becoming major social forces. (Neither seems to mention samplers, though I still hold that our cross-pollination is important.) But offhand I can't think of anyone else out there writing about the ramifications of Sturgeon’s Corollary and the buffet effect. Do such authors exist?

Let me know, and I'll be sure to sample them forthwith.

1This isn't just true of entertainment, incidentally. You see the same thing in the travel sphere. The world is far more accessible than it ever was, thanks to cheap airfares, Internet everywhere, and ubiquitous English skills; but you can’t go everywhere, and you probably shouldn’t try. (People who say “it’s a small world” generally haven't seen much of it.) So travellers tend to either imprint on the first exotic/faraway place they visit, and return again and again, or spread their travels thinly and skim the surface of as many nations and continents as possible.

2A couple of other psychological analogies spring to mind, too: analysis paralysis, where “the sheer quantity of analysis overwhelms the decision making process, thus preventing a decision”, and the bystander effect, which states that the more people there are in the vicinity of an emergency, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.

Dr Fidelius
1. Dr Fidelius
Tor.com contributors have a way of saying exactly what I think better than I ever could. This is the best example yet.

I love that I love lots of things, but my heart breaks when I think of all that stuff I'm meant to know about but will never have the time for. It doesn't help that SF fans are a tribe unusually dedicated to the memory of their ancestors. That's not a criticism, it's just a bit intimidating when you want to participate in the discussion. I'd have been a regular at BSFA meets years ago if it wasn't for the spectre of all those unread classics. Daft, I know.
Justin Adair
2. Hobbyns
I have to agree that it's an excellent time to be a geek.

I've gone down the road of choosing my sub-genre's and then sticking to them, but even this demonstrates Sturgeons law further (90 percent of Steampunk is crud... etc etc.)

Pretty much any good endorsement of fiction (on sites such as this one, for example) will prompt me to check out some title or other. It's why online communities can be a priceless resource for finding more of your particular addiction of choice.

It's also why threads like Jo Walton's are priceless to the discerning reader.
Richard Fife
3. R.Fife
I know this delimma very well, especially since I'm a fairly slow reader. I have heard of people that finish five books a day, I finish a book in two weeks between all the other stuff I have to do.

For myself, I just wait until enough people have raved about a book that I feel like I cannot talk to my friends anymore until I read the book. And even then, it is usually put on the backlist of other things I have to read. I still haven't read most of the classics, and I feel kinda dirty because of it.

Oh, on your list of problems we have, what about reading about reading SF? IE, tor.com. That eats alot of time if you try to digest it all (Thank you Pablo et al for the great site and all you bloggers for good blogs). Then, keeping up with the comments? Oi! I watched an io9 panel with PNH on it, and I remember him commenting about how the way they handled comments on the website was their biggest concern because they wanted that community feeling to be so rich.

So yeah, meta-reading is a big suck-up of time too. Glad I don't like sports!
John Massey
4. subwoofer
I like sports(watching and playing) so I really have to micro manage my time. Luckily I do not sleep much. Pop culture abounds with too much at once. I remember back in the day when a block buster was a block buster. When T2 came out, it was the biggest hit of the summer, people would like up around the block for it(hence the term) and that and a couple of other movies were the must sees of the summer/season. Now, must sees are coming out every week. Sometimes two in one week and the amount of good movies that make their way to the video shelf that would normally be big hits except for crappy marketing are huge.

Books are the same way. I read everything and keeping track of multiple authors and new reads is like of of the 12 tasks of Hercules. There have been times where, in the span of two weeks, multiple authors release good books and I have to think- who gets my dollars- who do I rent from the library? I can't swing a cat for the amount of books I miss because I am catching up with others.

Not to mention things like work and paying attention to my wife...
Stephen W
5. Xelgaex
Jon Evans is inside of my brain!

Seriously though, I have just this dilemma all the time. Do I catch up on my reading or catch up on shows on hulu or see whats on right now or play an RPG or see something in theater or surf the web? And if catching up with reading do I read classics I've missed or hot new releases or try to find stuff that's off the beaten track?
Dr Fidelius
6. Dylan N
The problem with sturgeon's law is that though 90% of everything is crap, nobody agrees on which 90%.

It's like what they say about The White Album by The Beatles - almost everyone agrees that half is filler, but nobody agrees on what half!

Our cultural influences define that 90% by default, but I think it's important that we still sample that which is deemed crap by the majority of our social group and try to appreciate what others cultural influences have lead them to believe is great.
Dan Sparks
7. RedHanded
Like everything in life whether you think something is good or not is based on the standards you set for yourself, whether they are self made standards or standards you pick up from one group of people or another. For some maybe 90% of stuff is crap, for others maybe they think 90% of stuff is great. To each their own.

I'd say I succumb to the buffet effect but that can lead to sticking with a series or tv show. I'm always down for trying out a new book/movie/tv show but if I find that it's a good series or what have you then I definitely want to see how it turns out. I think I'd be ok as the guy who is the last man left on earth to be able to have all the time to read anything I could possibly want.

Dr Fidelius
8. biff3000
Oh, heck yes. My personal survival equipment:

1. Awards' shortlists
2. Sites like this :)
3. Friends' recommendations

Without these filtering services, I would drown! (What a nice problem to have!)
Dr Fidelius
9. Tom Marcinko
Everything Jon says here seems to apply to music as well.

Between eMusic, Amazon MP3, and easily available promo MP3s, it's easy to find good new artists.

It's also easy to fill up your hard drive or iPod with weeks' worth of listening that you'll hardly ever get to.

Yet certain artists have a stickiness effect, for want of a better term. I must have listened to a half-dozen MP3s by the Decemberists before I decided I like them enough to get one of their CDs. Got 'em all now.
Sandi Kallas
10. Sandikal
Jon, you've made me feel so much better. I've only been reading 1-2 books per author over the last couple of years. In the past, if I liked a book by an author, I would read everything by him or her. Now, I want to sample everything. I'm avoiding series because I don't want to read 10 books in a row with the same characters and same settings.

I find I have the same approach to vacationing. I can't understand the people who go to Hawaii or Las Vegas every year. America is a big country and there's so much to see. If I get a chance to travel, I want to see and do something new.
David Lev
11. davidlev
I'm a sampler who can't help gorging himself on stuff he likes. I now have a huge bookcase of double parked books plus a fair sized crate also full of books, all to read. It's dangerous to let me into a bookstore, and even more dangerous to let me into a library. I'm also addicted to watching TV on Surf the CHannel, am trying to keep current with about 20 webcomics, read Tor and am an addict of TV Tropes (which, if there are any other tropers out there, eats away your time like no other website). Plus I've got school and a girlfriend and I should probably at least attempt to have some sort of social life. I just try to consume SOME media, and hope I won't be too behind by the time I die.
Kelly Jensen
12. sisimka
Well said!

I'm a sampler. In any given day I'll sample from one of the three 'reads' (book, kindle or audio)I have going, catch up on at least one episode of the TV shows I'm following via Netflix or Hulu, read the paper with breakfast, a magazine with lunch, browse online news sites before email (and you know I'm listening to a radio webcast or some CDs while I'm doing this), catch up with blogs and finally in the evening digest another few episodes or a movie before retiring to bed with one of my books.

I do reach saturation point now and again, however, and then I'll 'unplug' for a day or two and go hiking, fishing, camping whatever - and not take a single form of media with me. Of course I always return hungry for more.

My greatest lament is that I know I'll never read everything I want to before I die. But I sure am going to try!
Dr Fidelius
13. SteveC
For me the problem is much the opposite. I still enjoy reading work in the style I enjoyed 40 years ago - but less and less such material is still being published. So, for me, it's a problem to find any modern sf that I can enjoy.

Dr Fidelius
14. Jonathan Liu
I'm late to this conversation, but I just got pointed to this article after I wrote a similar piece for GeekDad.com: http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2009/05/the-other-omnivores-dilemma/
While I don't think I suffer from analysis paralysis (I generally AM doing something), I do find myself often wishing I could put the world on "pause" for a while so I could get a little more caught up.
Thanks for the article--it was thoughtful and well-written.

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