We've all read, or tried to read, or at least started to read and put aside, badly written books. Not all of us review them or rate them, but most of us admit that yes, out there in digital book land (and even dead tree book land!) there are badly written books. The degree of badness ranges from the mildly annoying to the raging wallbanger.
During my years in Romance Writers of America, I was privileged to read a lot of bad books. As a contest judge and in various critique situations, both group and individual, I saw some pretty poor writing. A few instances stand out as memorable for the laughter they induced. The usual culprits were misplaced modifiers, homophone misusage, and what are affectionately referred to as "wandering body parts." ("Her eyes raced across the room at the sound of that well-remembered voice.")
RWA, of course, offered writers many opportunities to learn how to write, and because of the keen competition to get published prior to the advent of digital self-publishing, most writers took criticism seriously and made a sincere effort to fix their mistakes and improve. Even those who disagreed with their critics and judges still knew that only the best of the best (or something approximating it) would end up in print.
But the worst of the worst, when it came to bad writing, probably didn't come from RWA or the romance writing community at all. No, the worst of the worst was. . . . .
Though operating on different principles, Science Fiction Writers of America also offered fans of the genre the opportunity to try their hand at writing. Long before RWA, which welcomed the unpublished writers as full members, SFWA (now Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) sponsored various cons; and local groups published fanzines that often contained, you guessed it, fan fiction.
Somewhere in my files I have a photocopy of what might be the "original" retyped manuscript of The Eye of Argon. I haven't yet gone looking for it, but I'm sure it's around here somewhere. It is more than just the occasional misused word or independent anatomical segment. The whole thing is a veritable scream.
The brief history is that it was written in 1969 by the then sixteen year old Jim Theis, and "published" in a local Missouri fanzine in 1970. From the Amazon description that accompanies the above cover:
This is not a hoax. Jim Theis was a real person, who wrote The Eye of Argon in all seriousness as a teenager, and published it in a fanzine, Osfan in 1970. But the story did not pass into the oblivion that awaits most amateur fiction. Instead, a miracle happened, and transcribed and photocopied texts began to circulate in science fiction circles, gaining a wide and incredulous audience among both professionals and fans. It became the ultimate samizdat, an underground classic, and for more than thirty years it has been the subject of midnight readings at conventions, as thousands have come to appreciate the negative genius of this amazing Ed Wood of prose.
No copyright was registered, so the text passed into public domain. But it did so with a little bit of help, if you will. Rather than recount the entire process, I'll just refer you to the Wikipedia article here. It's well worth reading all the way through.
There was, of course, no Internet in 1970, so Jim Theis had no opportunity to confront the people who were mocking his effort. Had any one of the established SFWA members who contributed to the distribution of the story stopped and thought about Theis -- even if they didn't know his name or anything about him, they had to know there was an author behind the story somewhere -- they might have helped him protect his ownership of the text via copyright. They didn't. Not one of them.
Theis never wrote any more fiction. The Wikipedia article claims that he was so hurt by the mockery that he never tried again. When interviewed in 1994, again from the Wikipedia article:
Theis was quoted as saying, "How many professional writers have written a complete story at so early an age? Even so, 'Eye of Argon' isn't great. I basically don't know much about structure or composition." The interviewer praised him for showing good sportsmanship, and Theis replied, "I mean, it was easier than showing bad character and inviting trouble." (emphasis mine)
Jim Theis was never bullied; for the most part, he wasn't even accorded the respect of recognition. And he had virtually no opportunity to respond to those who were making fun of his writing. When finally given that opportunity, he chose "good sportsmanship" over "bad character."
Now, it would be easy for those of us who are old enough to have considered Theis our contemporary -- he was born in 1953 -- to blame the current crop of badly behaving authors on the times, on the "participation trophy" mentality that came along later with its emphasis on self-esteem and so on. But we also have to keep in mind that authors who are "publishing" via Kindle Direct Publishing, CreateSpace, PublishAmerica, Smashwords, and any of the other available forms also have plenty of opportunities for feedback that Theis never had.
The Eye of Argon is fan fiction in its purest form. This is a story written by someone who, however poor his grasp of the English language might be, still loved the sword and sorcery genre. There is, in all its unintentional hilarity, an honest and innocent enthusiasm in Theis' writing. That honesty, that enthusiasm, and certainly that innocence are what's so painfully obvious in their absence in the writing of today's BBAs.
If you can read The Eye of Argon with a more sensitive eye, you'll see that there is more to it than the fractured syntax, made-up words, and bizarre imagery. Theis understood the fundamental concepts of fiction, of sword and sorcery, of characterization, and yes, even of English composition and grammar. He didn't have the fine details down, and the story might have needed one helluva lot of work before it could have been "publishable" by the standards of the 1970s.
But it was his sincerity that made the work so hilarious, in a way that the literary catastrophes of Victor Bertolaccini, Sharon Desruisseaux, and now Hazel Cartwright are just painful. Where Theis was innocent, they come across as malicious; where he was enthusiastic, they seem greedy. And where he was honest. . . .
Maybe Theis would have behaved differently had he thrown The Eye of Argon up on Kindle and met with instant criticism. Maybe he would have raged and called his detractors trolls and meanies and jealous flailed arthurs. We'll never know for sure, because he passed away in 2002, never having written any more fiction. Did we lose a literary giant in the making? Again, we'll never know.
Should the pros like Chelsea Quinn Yarbro have taken a different attitude toward The Eye of Argon and its creator, nurtured his genius and polished his skills? There's a part of me that says yes, they should have done something, or at least not done all the mocking. But given the circumstances of the times, what could have they done? Theis had put the work out there, knowing it would be read. That was, after all, the whole point of it. Then again, he was only 16.
Wait a minute. I was sending my manuscripts to publishers when I was 15, in 1963-64; I knew the rules then, too.
But what obligation did the critics have? Was it their responsibility to fix Theis' syntax and punctuation and all the other errors? Or was that his?
Regardless. The writing and publishing experience is now very different from what it was in 1969, when Theis was writing The Eye of Argon. There are not only many more opportunities for writers to publish, but there are more opportunities for them to learn how to write before they do publish. They have to start, however, from the same point that Theis did, and that's having an honest and sincere love for the writing. Not for the money, not for the fame, but for the sheer glorious thrill of giving the imagination its head and letting it run.
Readers know the difference. Readers can even be forgiving. But readers don't like to be duped or suckered or deceived. Readers don't like to be told they failed to understand what the author wrote or meant or was trying to say. Readers just want to read. And if The Eye of Argon was hysterically badly written, at least it was entertaining, and continues to be so to this day. There is no malice in its malapropisms, no evil in its error-filled prose, no greed in its gore, no ulterior motives in its unpretentious and unrelenting action.
Today, instead of sportsmanship we get whines and excuses and threats and flounces. There is a lot today's BBAs could learn from The Eye of Argon.