My review of this on Goodreads was quite short, so I'll reproduce it in full here:
Purchased the Kindle edition for the three essays. I have a photocopy of TEoA.
The background information was interesting, especially on the nature of fan fiction in the days long before KDP, Wattpad, and Smashwords.
Editor Allen, however, could have done a much better job of proofreading this. It's one thing to leave all the errors in the original text of TEoA, but there were damn near as many typos in the transcription of the three accompanying essays. It really didn't look very professional.
And the full disclosure: I purchased the Kindle edition of this book for full retail price on 9 June 2014. I do not know any of the authors nor have I ever had any communication with any of them on any subject whatsoever. I have no financial interest in the book or its publisher. I am an author of historical romances.
The Eye of Argon is a classic of self-published fiction, even though technically it wasn't self-published. It provides a perfect introduction, however, to an exploration of what happens when there are no controls whatsoever between the rank amateur writer and The Reading Public.
For those who don't know the background: The Eye of Argon was written ~1970 by then 16-year-old Jim Theis and printed in a local science fiction/fantasy fanzine. Copyright law being what it was at the time, the novel fell almost instantly into public domain status. This makes it one of the relatively rare raw, unedited but published examples of truly amateur fiction writing from the days before Wattpad, Smashwords, and Kindle Direct Publishing.
During my active years in Romance Writers of America, I saw many manuscripts of similar quality -- indeed, some were even worse than The Eye of Argon -- but by then they were protected by revised copyright statutes, so I couldn't legally make or keep copies, plus in some cases I was bound by various confidentiality agreements, to say nothing of just ordinary professional ethics. If there is a romance novel equivalent to The Eye of Argon, and from the same era with the same copyright status, I don't know of it. For the most part, these unedited, uncritiqued, and unpublished manuscripts remained in dresser drawers or on closet shelves, if the writers didn't destroy them entirely. They never reached the public.
SF/F and romance, however, are the two genres that had established cultures for unpublished writers and their fiction. SF/F's culture is older than romance's, but the nature of RWA created a more formal, institutionalized culture, so that it's easy to find strong similarities between the two, especially in reference to The Eye of Argon.
These connections and similarities between SF/F and romance are important.
Since the mid-1970s, the romance genre has dominated popular fiction, with SF/F a rather distant second. Both genres have benefited from their nurturing of amateur writers, whether through the fanzines sponsored by various SF/F groups or the RWA chapters and contests. Both of those traditions continue to flourish, offering the aspiring writer a multitude of opportunities to learn the craft and business of professional fiction writing.
For whatever reasons, and most of them may have had more to do with his young age at the time than anything else, Jim Theis published his story before taking advantage of the opportunities that were available even then. What he suffered as a result -- seeing his work not only harshly criticized but mocked and insulted -- was in many ways far worse than what writers today endure when they publish their work and get negative reviews. As far as is known, Theis never wrote or published any fiction after The Eye of Argon.
And he had lost all legal ownership of the story; he had no recourse, no way to fix it, no way to repair any of the damage done to it or to himself.
Whatever aspirations Jim Theis had are beyond knowing now; he died in 2002.
One significant difference between Theis's effort and some of what's being published today is that he came from a prose fiction tradition, not a video one. For all its faults, and they are many, The Eye of Argon conforms to most of the conventions of its genre. It's clear that Theis was familiar with the sword and sorcery genre, and that he had both an affection for it and a respect for it.
What's also clear is that his effort to write it fell woefully short of professional standards.
What happened to Theis's story was that it fell into the hands of knowledgeable critics. The fans, readers, writers, editors, and publishers who "discovered" The Eye of Argon were experts in the field. In the 1970s and 1980s, writers still knew how to write. Editors were still looking for good stories. The people who mocked The Eye of Argon were not enemies of Jim Theis, nor were they jealous competitors. They were people who genuinely cared about the art, craft, and business of writing and publishing sword-and-sorcery heroic fantasy.
They were professionals.
Had they encountered The Eye of Argon and Jim Theis in another environment, the whole story might have had a very different ending. Someone might have seen the potential in the story, helped Theis polish his writing, given him some guidance and mentoring, and The Eye of Argon might today be a classic of the genre, the first in a whole series of thrilling adventures featuring Grignr the Barbarian.
The fact remains, however, that The Eye of Argon was published long before it should have been, and the damage could not be undone.
Forty-odd years later, with the technological as well as legal advances, writers like Jim Theis have all the opportunities he had plus so many more. There were and still are writers' clubs and critique groups, just like in the 70s and 80s. There are still dozens, hundreds of books on how to write, how to publish. That poor mimeographed manuscript of The Eye of Argon could have been improved just with the spell checker on Microsoft Word. Copyright now applies the instant a work is fixed in tangible form, so Theis would never have lost ownership of his story.
One thing that hasn't changed, however:
Now, isn’t it a tad cruel for all of us to be ridiculing some poor would-be scrivner’s magnum opus and making a public, ongoing spectacle out of it?
No. Life ain’t a bed of roses. You are responsible for what you write.
(from One Fine Day in the Stygian Haunts of Hell: Being the Lore and Legend of the Fabled “Eye of Argon” (c) 1987, 1997 by Darrell Schweitzer, being reprinted in and part of
Theis, Jim (2011-03-16). The Eye of Argon: Scholars' Ebook Edition (Kindle Locations 610-612). FoxAcre Press. Kindle Edition.
Schweitzer goes on to write later in the same essay:
I believe he [Theis] wrote “The Eye of Argon” in all seriousness.
But what else is new? I wrote some stories nearly as bad when I was that age. So did a lot of people who are now widely-published, professional authors. On the plus side, this kid had a certain sense of structure, and an important writerly virtue--he persisted. He wrote a story in the neighborhood of 12,000 words. Before you completely dismiss him as being beyond the pale, stop and think how many people who say they “have wonderful ideas but no time to write them” will ever accomplish as much as Jim Theis did.
Darrell Schweitzer in Theis, Jim (2011-03-16). The Eye of Argon: Scholars' Ebook Edition (Kindle Locations 661-666). FoxAcre Press. Kindle Edition.Does acknowledging Theis's accomplishment mean Schweitzer gives him a pass on the quality of the writing? No, not at all.
He took chances—and, sad to say, failed catastrophically, failed beyond his wildest dreams, failed his way into a peculiar and unwanted sort of immortality. He failed so completely that forty-plus years later, his failure still inspires an eccentric sort of scholarship as science fiction and fantasy fandoms seeks to know more about what has become almost a founding legend of the field. But, failure or not—he tried. Many don’t.
Theis, Jim (2011-03-16). The Eye of Argon: Scholars' Ebook Edition (Kindle Locations 1031-1034). FoxAcre Press. Kindle Edition.It is possible, therefore, to acknowledge, even tacitly, that the writer has accomplished something, and yet still observe that the accomplishment is . . . terrible. And further, that this can be done by professionals who are well aware of what it takes to achieve the accomplishment as well as by amateurs. And by amateurs, I mean those who are not writers, who are not editors, who are not publishers, but are, ahem, merely readers. For it was readers at those cons who made up most of the audience for the readings of The Eye of Argon.
More than likely, no other book will ever again be subjected to the public ridicule and mockery and criticism that The Eye of Argon enjoyed. For that, most writers should be thankful. They can also be thankful that changes in copyright law afford them much more protection against copying of their work. In the event that someone does write an even worse book, such that public readings are given as drunken entertainment at cons, at least that author will be able to demand royalties on the copies from which readings are done or even issue a cease and desist order for unauthorized performances.
But not every book that is not The Eye of Argon is wonderfully written. Some are, quite frankly, very nearly as bad. Others obviously are wonderful and attract massive audiences of adoring fans. Regardless of genre, most fall somewhere in between.
In the old days -- such as when Jim Theis gave his story to a fanzine to be published -- there was a veritable gantlet of gatekeepers to protect the unwitting reader from paying good money for bad books. A manuscript had to pass the scrutiny of agents and then editors before it was accepted for publication. After acceptance, it was processed by additional editors and proofreaders as well as groomed by an art department, a marketing department, and so on. The book might then be read and reviewed in a few print publications, to which some few readers might subscribe. Ultimately, the reader would decide for herself if she wished to purchase (or check out of the library) an individual book, and then she could make up her mind if she enjoyed it or not.
She was almost certainly guaranteed that the physical product she purchased (or borrowed from the library) would meet basic standards of readability: Spelling, grammar, print quality, etc. She might not end up liking the story, but she would probably not consider the book badly produced.
She would probably also not consider that the publisher was primarily motivated by a bottom line of profit to make sure she was a satisfied customer.
But in fact that is what publishing became: A profit-oriented business, which churned out book after book after book, in all genres, that was reasonably expected to provide as comfortable a return on investment as possible. And the gatekeepers were, of course, not really protecting the expectations of the readers as much as they were protecting their control of the market. Their market.
Had Jim Theis published The Eye of Argon on Wattpad or some similar online writers' community, it might have been ridiculed every bit as harshly as he was by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and George Scithers. Or he might have found a congenial circle of colleagues who helped him clean up his writing and turn his story into something that generated so much chatter that a major publisher picked it up. Or he might have published it himself on Amazon and sold 100,000 copies the first week.
Or he might have rejected any and all criticism, even those who said "No lie, Jim, this really sucks," and published it himself as he had originally written it, fractured syntax and wrong words and screwed up punctuation, only to see it sell a couple of copies, collect no positive reviews on Amazon, and net him $2.71 in royalties.
The book is still bad. Nothing can change that assessment.
And that's why I think this book, which contains the original text of the "book" as well as the three accompanying essays, is a must-read for any writer considering the self-publishing options available today. And it's an absolute must-read for any writer who has encountered harsh criticism of a book they've self-published. Read The Eye of Argon to understand what bad writing is and perhaps understand why professionals can rip a story to shreds without knowing or caring about the author. It it always first and foremost about the writing. It has to be.
I obtained one of those photocopied copies of The Eye of Argon sometime around 1988. I laughed hysterically reading it, and I'm not even sure I made it all the way through. I still have that copy.
I also have copies of monumentally bad romance novel manuscripts from a variety of sources: RWA contests in which I was a judge, critique groups, personal requests for evaluation. I admit to having two very short excerpts from two books, by unknown authors, that were shared quite unethically with me more than 20 years ago, one by a friend who was a "reader" for a New York publisher, the other by another friend who was an agent. Even the worst of them is not as bad as The Eye of Argon, though there are passages that come close.
Those books never made their way into print because the traditional gatekeepers wouldn't let them in, with decisions based on that ROI calculation. At least two of them, however, have turned up in digital editions published by the authors. In the new publishing paradigm, the old gatekeepers no longer operate.
But that doesn't mean there are no gatekeepers at all between the writer and the reader in this new model. Nor does it mean that decisions by the new gatekeepers are necessarily not based on a projected return on investment.
Today's self-publishing author has certain legal protections Jim Theis didn't have in 1970, but today's self-publishing author has also entered an industry and a marketplace that in some ways bears little resemblance to the one that catapulted romance fiction to its 50%-plus market share in the early 1970s or the one that took SF/F from the blockbuster novel status of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series in the 1990s to the multi-media blockbusters of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones.
How successful today's self-publishing author will be will depend as much on how well she writes as on how well she understands the visible and invisible machinations of the new publishing paradigm.
Most book reviews are written for readers. The book is done, it is published, and now the writer backs graciously away and allows the audience of readers to pass sentence. This blog is different: This is a book review blog directed at writers as well as readers.This doesn't mean the reviews will be critiques of the type the author should have received before publishing; I'm not giving free editorial advice here. But I am one of the few reasonably fearless reviewers who will confront a book on its massive shortcomings, and thereby put myself in the position of gatekeeper, at least for those readers who choose to take shelter behind my particular gate.
It is now, whether they like it or not, the readers' responsibility to do the gatekeeping. Some will abdicate that responsibility to the traditional gatekeepers who continue to manage the traditional publishing operations. These readers will avoid almost all contact with books from self-publishing writers, and they have that right. Many of them have been repeatedly burned by badly written books, and many of them have been victimized by ill-mannered authors who have not been able to accept criticism of their product.
I have the added advantage of being a published author who passed the traditional gatekeepers and who knows therefore at least something of how that process operated and how much of it continues to operate. I've written the books, rewritten them, been through the critique process and the contest experience. I've face-palmed at my own dumb mistakes, and I've questioned my own confidence that I chose the right path in plotting a character arc.
I've dealt with good editors and bad. (Mostly bad.)
When I took my books to self-publishing, I handled virtually every aspect myself, with the sole exception of designing cover art. I'm not a visual artist, and I know my limitations there. Formatting, proofreading, converting, and publishing: I've done it.
None of it matters, however, if the fundamental product -- the writing -- is a failure. Jim Theis failed at that, and failed spectacularly. We'll never really know for sure how it happened that someone picked up that fanzine and recognized The Eye of Argon for the gem it was, but we do know that its failure was at the stage when the writer has the most control over it.
By the time a book reaches digital publication, the writer has voluntarily relinquished that control. Oh, she can choose to unpublish and revise, change the title and cover and even her own name to republish, but the copy she released is the copy someone, somewhere has read, and she has no control over their reaction.
Whether that reaction is the same as that which still greets The Eye of Argon is what I intend to find out.