[Note: This piece appeared in an altered form on my personal blog, AuctorLanxSatura.com.]
This is difficult for a professional conrunner to admit but, given a choice between the kind of media event BoroughCon aspires to be and a gathering of 3,000 literary-minded science fiction/fantasy folk, I’ll choose the latter every time. I read more books than I watch TV or movies, so I’m a bigger fan of people like Robert J. Sawyer, Wesley Chu, Daniel Jose Elder, Tanya Huff and other people gamers and anime lovers have never heard of. (I probably never heard of your heroes either.)
But there is one aspect of literary cons that I’m glad never broke into the broader pop culture. It’s called “The Eye of Argon,” a novelette-length work that is purported to be the worst sci-fi drivel ever penned. And it is read at these cons the way the Hagaddah is read at Jewish families’ seder dinners. That is, half for laughs and half because you have to. It never appealed to me. (“The Eye of Argon.” I actually like seders.)
After a few drinks in the hotel bar, I gave in to peer pressure and curiosity and attended my first “The Eye of Argon” reading a couple years back. All the years I’ve been attending cons, first as a fan and more recently as an author, I never had the slightest interest in doing that before. And now that I have, I never will again. The experience matched my expectation.The ritual involved reading every spelling and grammatical error while acting out the awkward or physically impossible blocking. It was good for a few laughs, but bad for the essence of my being. I’m no choirboy and, aside from three youths consigned to the unkind fate of being my children, I ought not be anybody’s moral compass. Still, here’s my position on why it’s time to give up this joke.
- It’s overplayed. I get the sense that some program chairs put it on the schedule because a few individuals who enjoy performing the reading insist on it, not because it’s the highlight of the convention for many in the audience.
- It’s authenticity is debatable. We don’t know how much “TEoA” changed from mimeo to iPad. There’s a minority opinion — albeit attributed to credible people — that much of what is in the currently circulated version is the product of a prank by Clarion students. I’m inclined to believe that it was written in earnest by one author, Jim Theis, but there are gaps in the chain of evidence.
- It’s bad, but is it really the worst ever? “TEoA” will never knock Middlemarch off the list of great literary successes. Even so, I spent two years as an associate editor of online spec-fic ‘zineAbyss & Apex and, like every other slush puppy out there, I’ve seen worse, or at least just as bad. If we really feel the need to trash crappy writing, why not have an annual gatekeepers’ competition, where all first readers can contribute an entry, leaving the authors’ names out of it?
- Theis was at a distinct disadvantage. True, the author’s prose was horrendous. But much of the ridicule comes from the spelling, punctuation, grammatical, and rhetorical errors. What if Theis hadn’t succumbed to youthful haste and bothered to do a second draft, circulated that to a few friends and maybe his English teacher, gotten some feedback, written another draft, and submitted that? “TEoA” might not have seen pro-market daylight even then, but at least we wouldn’t still be mocking it forty years later. And that’s another thing: Forty years ago, all Theis had to write on was a manual typewriter. It didn’t have grammar- and spell-check software. All he had for research was a Missouri public library’s reference section, not Wikipedia. He didn’t have the Online Writers Workshop or Critters to get real-time feedback as he was working on his story. Once he felt the need to share it, he couldn’t just post it to his blog or to some dark corner of the internet where it would be ignored with the rest of the bad, self-published literature. All he could do was submit it to a local fan ‘zine. OSFAN didn’t have to print it. I guess they thought they were giving an eager newbie a favor — and I further guess they were wrong.
- The kid was 16. How good was your writing when you were that young? Were you even attempting epic fantasy, or were you inserting your own Mary Sue character into flash fan-fic, hiding behind some florid pseudonym to protect your own anonymity? At least give Theis credit for the courage to put his own name to “TEoA.” Honestly, weren’t we all new to the craft once, and didn’t someone help us all rather than call us out on our flaws at the point in our development? If a Jim Theis came to you today with a manuscript like that, you’d either brush him off or you’d take the time to point out what he most needs to work on. You wouldn’t call him out publicly, would you?
- The kid is dead. Theis went to an early grave, never writing another word of fiction. The humiliation he felt haunted him every day of his life. Could he have matured into another George R.R. Martin? No, never in a million years. But he might have gotten a book published, if only a self-pub on Amazon. He might’ve had a story or two published in a semi-pro market and been ecstatic over that. But we robbed him of any legitimacy he might have grown into with our own cruelty. Some say that Theis took his infamy as good-natured ribbing, but maybe that was just a brave face. The full measure of his mature feelings, like the full measure of his mature talent, is something we’ll never know for sure.
- It’s mean-spirited. The reason it’s taken me so long to even get around to attending a “TEoA” reading is that it is cruel. Like most nerds of my generation, I was an object of ridicule for many of my classmates. And try growing up Jewish in the Pennsylvania German country. I once got beat up on the way to bar mitzvah lessons, and I’d take that beating over and over again rather than endure other social stigmas I had to deal with on a daily basis. So I’m astonished that a community like ours, with its opposition to sexual harassment, physical bullying, cyber-bullying, slut-shaming, racial intolerance, sexual identity insensitivity, and other unenlightened behaviors celebrates the mocking of the best effort of someone who tried to write a story as a teenager and died before he reached fifty.
So what are the arguments in favor of continuing this sad indulgence? “It’s fun — and it’s a tradition!” So were minstrel shows. So was reveling in unabashed support for the Washington Redskins. That’s not to say that everyone who attended or performed in minstrel shows were racists; many certainly were not. But that tradition’s time came and went. And there are lots of Washington football fans who still root for the team but would be much more comfortable if the owners found a less offensive mascot.
So let’s end the travesty of ridicule for ridicule’s sake. Come on, do we really need to piss on the grave of a now-deceased 16-year-old boy just so we can feel superior ourselves? No, we’re better that that.
It’s time to recognize the ugliness of this tradition, retire it, and let both Grignr the Ecordian and Jim Theis rest in peace.