Monday, August 7, 2017

The Book of the Dead: Farnsworth Wright and the Slush Pile

Finally getting around to E. Hoffman Price's Book of the Dead, a memoir of sorts covering his interactions with many authors and editors at Weird Tales. Just scratching the surface, and already it has proven its worth in entertainment and in advice.

For example, E. Hoffman Price recounts a lesson he learned from Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright after reading through the slush pile on a sleepy day:
One day after an unusually long night shift, I was too groggy to do justice to a script. I told him so. 
Farnsworth said, "You're quite wrong. We do have many quick witted readers, very much alert. But most of them are dull, really thick headed. If you're fifty per cent below par, it'll take a solid impact to make an impression on you. Anything that stirs you now is sure to make the standard reader sit up and take notice." 
Though I had my doubts, I nodded and blinked my way through half a dozen scripts. some were well written, aptly phrased, nicely composed. Finally, I said, "This isn't working out at all. I'm too dopey to follow the stuff. It's good material, some of it is, but I'm damned if I can keep my eyes open." 
"Go ahead," he persisted. "I'll check them later." And then, "You'd be surprised if you realized how very alert you were when you tried to convince me that you were in a stupor, open eyed sleep." 
Another half dozen scripts, purely soporific--ranging from sedative to outright anaesthetic. Then came one which brought me to my feet with a whoop. Farnsworth had been right, was right! Vitality made the thing sparkle. The "good ones" which had put me to sleep had everything except life. All they needed was embalming.
Farnsworth chuckled. "It's not necessary to read a dud all the way to the end. If a script doesn't show life within the first two pages, it'll prove out to be a zombi to the finish. 
After reading a hundred or more impossibles to the final line, I knew he was right. The duffer who grimly, laboriously or hastily and sloppily, composes a couple of stories annually is inclined to feel that every line deserves careful reading, no matter how much of the reader's effort is required. The stern and dedicated novice has the notion that it's a reader's duty to have comparable fortitude. It never occurs to the self centered blockhead that it is his job to win and hold the reader's interest: and regardless of whether that reader is a dull witted clod or a bright person weary from a long day's work, he is entitled to entertainment. 
Much of the time which Wright saved through realistic refusal to wade through dull verbiage was devoted to analyzing living yarns which, although not acceptable, could be made so if the author cared to revise his good start. All too often, Wright's effort got him a reply packed with the indignation and fury of a "sincere and sensitive artist" who would not cater to any "crass and mercenary" editor.

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