Thursday, April 03, 2014
THE EYE OF ARGON - or - When A Community Mocks Its Own
I've long been a fan of science fiction and fantasy, and I've long been a person who is pretentiously opposed to pretense. In a way, I'm like an angry Polyanna who aggressively argues against those who mock the "juvenile" or "popular" things in SF/F. I love "skiffy" and have experienced no greater sense of wonder than reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' writings of John Carter. That's right. I believe that ERB's tales of Barsoom are as imaginative - nay more so - than Iain Bank's Culture novels, and I love those too. I'm the fan who loves both the Dragonlance stories and Malazan Book of the Fallen. I love the genre at its most literary, at its most imaginative, and when it falls into the "written by an overenthusiastic fan" territory.
I'm so positive in my passion about genre fiction and geek culture that I wrote an approving review of I, FRANKENSTEIN and have been reminded by my editor at Topless Robot that I need to bare the fangs every now and then because I am usually so enthusiastic.
While it's not for my upcoming Topless Robot article, I did find something that really aggravates me. It's how cruel SFF professionals and fandom can be. There are plenty of examples I could pull out of a hat, often dealing with the treatment of female fans as being "fake geek girls." As the father of twin girls who love Pirates, Pokemon, Paladins, and Princesses, I find that whole "controversy" infuriating. That's why I'm not going to write about that topic. It would be very difficult for me to avoid expletives on what has been consistently a G-rated or PG-rated blog.
Instead, I want to focus on how professionals and fandom have treated on particular enthusiast of Sword and Sorcery fiction, Jim Theis the author of THE EYE OF ARGON.
I've been doing nightly out loud readings of THE EYE OF ARGON. I do one chapter, or half chapter as the book has half-chapters as well, per night. I thought it would be fun to do. I heard that the SF/F community had regular readings of this poorly written work of fiction that were the book equivalent of MST3K...and it had been mentioned by the MST3K crew...so I thought it would be fun to do my own midnight readings with my wife.
My takeaway from the experience is that the SF/F community are cruel, judgmental, and full of themselves. I also came to believe that I was part of the problem. By participating in my own personal midnight reading, I was being an SF/F bully.
My sister, Krista aka Luna McDunerson, bought me a the Wildside Press version of the book, which has a long introduction by Lee Weinstein that discusses the search and discovery of the real Jim Theis. It mentions an interview on a local (Los Angeles) radio show/podcast called Hour 25 where Jim supposedly stated, "that he was hurt that his story was being mocked and said he would never write anything again."
I'll be honest with you. I fluctuate in what to think. Either the whole thing is a hoax, or SF/F authors and fandom are cruel. Scratch that. Even if the whole thing is an elaborate hoax with false scholarship creating a plausible back story of a 16 year old writing the story for OSFAN, SF/F authors and fandom are still cruel. It doesn't matter whether Jim Theis is a real person or a fictional person, what matters is that the community has spent over 30 years mocking him. I became one of those people and it makes me feel terrible. The anger I feel toward myself more than outweighs the joy from any of the small chuckles I experienced during my reading of the work.
The thing is, I think that Jim Theis was a real person and that he did write THE EYE OF ARGON. While the Eaton Collection doesn't have a copy of OSFAN 10, the issue that is said to contain the original story, they do have issue 11 thanks to a generous donation by former UCLA librarian Bruce Pelz. According to the Weinstein essay in the Wildside edition, Theis remained an active fan of SF/F for most of his life. Can you imagine what it would be like to attend conventions where there was a midnight event dedicated to mocking you? It would be one thing if Theis embraced that mockery and made it his own, finding some way to leverage it into a positive thing, but that Hour 25 interview seems to imply the opposite. The mockery killed Theis' desire to become a writer. That's right, the SF/F community's mockery shattered a fan's aspirations. To me, that is the biggest crime that any professional or fan can do. No matter how "bad" a writer is at writing, they are never wrong to aspire to become a published author.
Yes THE EYE OF ARGON is poorly written, but not much more so than Lin Carter's THONGOR stories. Unlike Theis, Carter doesn't have the excuse that he was 16 when he wrote the THONGOR tales. Unlike Carter, Theis wasn't a brilliant editor. If an editor as brilliant as Carter was can write drivel and still be a vital contributor to the field as a whole, who is to say Theis may not have evolved into something more? I can tell you from experience that there are some sentences in ARGON that hint at some talent, if only Theis could set aside his Thesaurus for a moment.
When my wife was in film school, one of her classmates stated that she wanted "to be one of those writers who writes terrible movies" and wanted to know how to do that because it seemed like an easy way to make money. It was a statement filled with pretense and disdain that also lacked an understanding of why and how things are created. I don't think anyone writes with the intention of creating something terrible - baring those things that are done as parody. Instead, most writers are attempting to entertain others and to share their own personal feelings and joys. Jim Theis, like Lin Carter, clearly enjoyed his Robert E. Howard stories. Heck, he might even have enjoyed Carter's THONGOR stories. It seems that a 16 year old Thies wanted to share his love of those tales with others by creating his own version. What was his reward for exposing himself thus?
He was publicly ridiculed for over 30 years.
For a community to spend 30+ years making a game that amounts to nothing more than "Taking turns mocking one's own" is something for which I have nothing but I have disdain. I'm not saying to end the readings of THE EYE OF ARGON. There is humor to be found in the mixed metaphors and odd misuses of words that Theis clearly didn't understand. But there is also an enthusiasm to the writing, a sincerity, that should be acknowledged. Readings of THE EYE OF ARGON can be humorous and educational experiences, but they should exclude mockery for mockery's sake. Acknowledge the enthusiasm of the author. Point out how his errors are the errors that many new authors make. And remember that the writing in THE EYE OF ARGON is so "bad" that many of the early myths of its origin required that it be written by someone of respected talent.