Bad writing, like shit, happens. It’s a fact of life. For every Hemingway there are a million Nick Paciones. In our “see something say something” society, encouraged by sites like Amazon, every Tom, Dick, and Harry feels impelled to fart out their opinion. And, let’s face it, things can get brutal. Writers, however, are more sensitive, right? They might gag at wretched prose just like everyone else, but they know what goes into writing, they know what it’s like to have a dream, and many of them also know what it’s like to have someone mock that dream. They’re more empathetic.
In 1970, a sixteen-year-old literary hopeful and SF/F fan from Arkansas named Jim Theis published a fantasy novelette in OSFAN (the journal of the Ozark SF Society). Titled The Eye of Argon and following the adventures of the Ecordian barbarian Grignr, the novelette was, admittedly, very poorly written; SF critic David Langford said that Theis was a “Malaprop genius, a McGonagall of prose with an eerie gift for choosing the wrong word and then misapplying it.”
A poorly written fan story in the 1970s had little chance of doing anything but dying a quiet, undignified death.
But with The Eye of Argon, fate intervened in the form of science fiction author Thomas N. Scortia, who, having gotten hold of a copy, sent it to his friend, science fiction writer Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. From David Langford’s website http://ansible.uk/writing/argon-timeline.html:
SF author Thomas N. Scortia loves the rich badness of “Argon” so much that he sends a copy for amusement to fellow-writer Chelsea Quinn Yarbro: “Dear Quinn, Here is an example of FINE writing that we might all enjoy. This must be a nom de plume of L.S. de Camp. – Tom.” (Annotation preserved on Darrell Schweitzer’s photocopy.) Yarbro is not only entertained but shows the story around and loans it out on request. The last page has gone astray, though, and since the Yarbro Codex is the source of all later recopyings and retypings in fandom prior to 2005, the ending has “always” been missing. Does Grignr the barbarian survive his death struggle with the blob monster whose first devilish move is to “slooze up his leg” and begin sucking, with many a “hiss of hideous pucker”? It is a mystery. Nevertheless, Tom Whitmore and Stephen Goldin work assiduously to spread the story’s fame. It becomes a fannish institution. At some stage Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s then husband Don Simpson makes a particularly careful transcription of the text, checked against the original to ensure all typos and mispunctuation are preserved. The “Transcriber’s note” describes his high-minded purpose:
But as a labor of love for those whose 3rd-generation copies have now suscummed to the bitter vicissitudes of time and entropy, worn away by the ravages of countelss re-readings before entralled audiances, yet who have found that the the heady flavor of its stylistic paragraphs has seeped into their soul and still grips it with a fervid grasp, I dedicate this readable version of the inimitable The Eye of Argon.
(The pathetic spelling in the passage above is straight from Langford’s site).
Tom Scortia sent me the fanzine pages as a kind of shared amusement, since both of us tended to look for poor use of language in stories. Don Simpson and I were still married then, and one of our entertainments was reading aloud to each other. This work was such a mish-mash that we took turns reading it to each other until we could stand no more…
About two weeks after the story arrived, we had a dinner party, mainly for MWA (Mystery Writers of America) and book dealer friends, and Joe Gores got to talking about some of the really hideous language misuse he had seen in recent anthology submissions and had brought along a few of the most egregious. I mentioned I had something that put his examples in the shade, and brought out “The Eye of Argon.” It was a huge hit. [Locus reviewer] Tom Whitmore asked if he could make a copy of it, and I loaned it to him, and readings of it started to become a hideous entertainment. I never typed out a copy of it, but I am afraid I did start the ball rolling
Yarbro passed the story around. Before long, fans and authors at SF conventions had turned reading The Eye of Argon aloud into a party game of sorts: A copy would be passed around a group, with each member taking a turn. When they laughed, their turn was over.
Interviewed on the radio in 1984, Theis was understandably upset, claiming that he was “hurt” and would never write again. Eighteen years later, he died at the age of 48, having kept his vow.
In a nutshell: A 16-year-old boy with a dream of writing fantasy fiction (but admittedly lacking the skill) wrote a novelette. Some asshole got ahold of it, thought “Hey, my friends, who are just as terrible at this whole humanity thing as I am, would love to make fun of this.” He sent it to Yarbro. Yarbro and her dick-head buddies, who regularly gathered to mock work that writers had submitted to their projects, loved it so much that they ran screaming to fandom as a whole. “Hey, look at this!” The fans thought it was tops, too, so they turned reading this kid’s story into a fucking party game.
As a writer, that whole scenario disturbs me. See, I expect at least a modicum of professionalism during the whole submission process. Read my story, don’t like it, don’t accept it (alternately, like it, accept it). I’m not sending it so you and your snotty elitist friends can sit around and mock it while you sip wine and eat little finger sandwiches; I’m sending it because I believe in your project and your capabilities (including your professionalism) as an editor. I think what you’re doing is tops and I’d like to be a part of it.
Anytime any writer anywhere submits anything, it’s an act of trust. Yarbro and co. violated the trust of countless writers by making sport of their work. “I say, Cunningham, have you seen this Eye of Argon business? Simply dreadful!” How many writers wound up on the menu at chez Yarbro? How many “meetings” did this cabal of sadists hold wherein they happily supped upon the shattered dreams of bad writers? I can see reading a work so terrible that you chuckle, but calling all your piece of shit friends over to take turns wiping your asses with it? Come on. That’s fucked up. Imagine it’s your work that’s being laughed at. Imagine you, all bright-eyed and hopeful, sending a short story off to a publisher only to have it not only rejected but passed around the bull-pen for everyone’s “amusement.” Not that you’d know. But that, the not knowing you’re a complete laughingstock would be worse, in my opinion, than if the editors had simply mocked you in the rejection letter.
Look, I know there are those who’d say I don’t know what it’s like, I’m a writer not an editor, so I’m biased.
Well, I am an editor. See, in 2012, I edited an anthology for a crappy Podunk little publishing house. I had, like, twelve submissions total. Of those twelve, maybe two or three were worth anything. The rest blew. Because I had to deliver a product to the publisher, however, I was forced to accept all of it.
With the exception of one story.
I can’t remember the title or the name of the author, but suffice it to say, the story was bad. Mainly on a mechanical level. I mean, I honestly think that this author knew nothing about punctuation, formatting, etc. I tried to make it presentable, but it was like lifting a thousand pound weight after breaking both your arms in a freak masturbation accident. I finally said screw it and rejected it.
And that was that.
I don’t whip this story out when I’m feeling down and poke fun at it. Why would I? I consider myself a professional, if not in stature than at least in bearing. I’m also a fairly compassionate guy. I’ve wanted nothing more than to be a writer for years. I had a dream, you see, and I know how I would have felt as a sixteen-year-old if a bunch of so-called “professionals” turned my story into a side-splitting party game. I would have been hurt. I would have been angry. I would have been devastated.
I just don’t have the heart to do that to someone else. I’m a lot of things, but soulless isn’t one of them.
As for the fans…well, I suppose I can give you a pass: Playing Dungeons and Dragons and whacking off to Star Trek slash-fic, one tends to develop abnormally, so mocking a kid for being bad at something seems natural for you. Just remember poor Jim Theis the next time you start pissing and moaning about the jocks who used to give you swirlies in high school. You’re a hypocrite and no better than they are. In fact, you’re worse, because you should know better.