Fanorama by Walt Willis

WALTER WILLIS writes for you

While James White was having tea with us the other night he mentioned casually that he'd just sold a story in Italy. Naturally I was spiritually uplifted to learn of this fresh advance of culture .and enlightenment and I cast about for some diplomatic way of putting the question which lies nearest to the hearts of all us dedicated missionaries of science fiction. "How much?" was  how I phrased it. "Eleven thousand lira," he said sonorously, and went on to talk about his model train set. "And how much is that in sordid sterling?" I pursued, wondering if he'd let me drive his Maserati. James had already made his mark in Germany, not to mention his kroner in Sweden, and we were becoming minor authorities on currency exchange rates. "I suppose you'll keep on your job at the Co for a while?" "Yes," said James, " I think I'd better. After deductions it works out at £4 14s. 10d." "Still a five-figure cheque," I pointed out. "Yes," said James, brightening, "and, besides, you must admit it's nicer to be paid two lira a word than a few guineas a thousand."

I agreed. You have to be pretty famous to be paid by the single word in Britain. I've heard that Arthur Conan Doyle got 5/- a word for the later Sherlock Holmes stories but I hope I'm not destroying any illusions when I say that few science fiction magazines, even NEBULA, can afford to pay that much, even to authors who are turning out better science fiction than Doyle ever did.

Last month, as you probably don’t remember, I mentioned how much science fiction was just fairy stories. The same thought has occurred to Edmund Crispin, anthologist of Best SF Three, and he has come up with a very snappy comeback which you can quote if anyone ever makes this criticism in your presence. Towards the end of his preface Edmund hauls off and delivers the following telling counterpunch:

". . . they differ from conventional fairy tales in carrying a massive, so to say epiphenomenal, load of religious, political, ethical and sociological implication, and so, at their best, provide intellectual stimulation of a generalised variety which mainstream fiction is incapable of embodying in any tolerable form."

I'll bet this will silence your opponent, at least until he has a chance to sneak off and look up "epiphenomenal" in the dictionary.

Which brings me back to this question of word rates. Don't you think it's ridiculous to treat all words as if they were the same value? It's obvious that a complicated piece of semantic machinery like "epiphenomenal" is worth a dozen "ands" and "buts", and an author capable of operating it without it falling on him deserves a bonus. I'm not suggesting we should go back to paying authors by the line—I don't like stories consisting entirely of dialogue any more than you do—but that science fiction could be improved if we introduced a differential scale for words. Why, for instance, should an author get paid for conjunctions when he doesn't get paid for full stops? And then, take adjectives. Everyone knows that the excessive use of adjectives is a sign of bad writing and after you've written anything you should go over it and strike them all out. But you can't expect an author paid the present way to do it when every stroke of the pencil is taking bread out of the mouths of his starving children.. So suppose we pay half the standard rate for adjectives, and of course adverbs. Nouns and verbs, on the other hand, are good since they mean thought and action, so we'll pay double for those. Taking it even further, we could encourage colourful and poetic writing by paying special bonuses for "like" and "as if ". Eventually we might work out a point value for every word in the language.

You may suggest this would be too complicated, but I'd reply that this is the sort of problem that would be child's play to the keen mathematical minds of our professional editors, easy as falling off a logarithm. In fact this sort of thing is being done already, by the electronic computer school of literary critics. What these people do is count all the words in an author's work and find the number of times each of them recurs. Then by comparing these frequencies with statistical norms, they can deduce such things as that Shakespeare was two other people or that Dickens had an Oedipus complex. What interests me, though, is that they really can make quite legitimate deductions about an author's education, background, knowledge and method of thinking, whether imaginative or concrete and so on. It seems to me that all that is needed to improve the standard of science fiction is for our editors to subject to statistical analysis the words used in all the really good science fiction that's been published so far and base their rates on the results. Naturally this would have to be kept dark to prevent authors cashing in unfairly and if Peter Hamilton adopts the system I promise to tell hardly anyone. I wonder if James will let me drive his Jaguar?

from Nebula No. 39, February 1959

Last revised: 1 October, 2006

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