That Time the SF/F Author Community Crowdsourced the Worst Novel of All Time

atlantaAll authors have that one novel that doesn’t live up to the rest of their repertoire. For more than 30 sci-fi and fantasy authors, a single book can be justly called the worst thing they’ve ever written. And it’s horrifying.

The 2004 novel Atlanta Nights was engineered to be just two things: 1) bone-chillingly unreadable, and 2) published. It was all a hoax, designed to expose “traditional publisher” PublishAmerica as a vanity press.

While traditional presses profit by helping an author connect with an audience, vanity presses profit directly off of their authors—and any family or friends supportive enough to shell out money. Vanity presses lack acceptance standards and inevitably end up preying on the inexperienced would-be authors of the world. Like vanity mirrors, they exist in order to reflect back upon their clients. Unlike vanity mirrors, they don’t help improve anyone’s appearance.

In the early 2000s, PublishAmerica started a feud with the sci-fi and fantasy community, among its most vocal critics. In several blog posts, PublishAmerica claimed SF/F authors, “have no clue about what it is to write real-life stories, and how to find them a home,” are, “not ashamed to be seen as literary parasites and plagiarists,” and believe that their preferred genres liberate them from such concepts as “believable storylines” or “believable every-day characters.”

PublishAmerica was trying to undermine its opponents’ credibility in order to destroy any future arguments against it. The SF/F critics needed to respond with something more substantial than just words. They needed to prove that PublishAmerica had no standards, and was simply out to take money from gullible writers who dreamed of seeing their names in print.

Enter the punningly named “Travis Tea” and his debut novel, Atlanta Nights.

The sting operation, organized by author and vanity press-buster James D. Macdonald, aimed to create a book designed to be disturbingly bad. He rounded up a host of co-conspirators, among them some of the most popular (and even award-winning) writers in the genre; Sherwood Smith, Adam Troy-Castro, Allen Steele, and Megan Lindholm (aka Robin Hobb) were among those who contributed chapters under intentionally vague guidelines. No one knew any details about the plot, character backgrounds, or even where their chapter would fall in the book.

In the final draft, chapter 21 was missing, replaced by a second chapter 12. Chapter 4 was identical to chapter 17. Chapter 34 was entirely generated by a software program. Reading Atlanta Nights is like experiencing an art project: the text might be justified to the center or to the right at a whim, and page 119 is entirely blank for no discernible reason.

The entire book is available online, but you might want to heed the warning of Alan Steele, 1996 Hugo Award winner and author of chapter 8: “Reading this thing may cause temporary brain damage.” If you’re curious and a masochist, these two excerpts offer a snapshot of the 71,000-word novel’s quality.

Here’s the opening page:

Pain.

Whispering voices.

Pain.

Pain. Pain. Pain.

Need pee—new pain—what are they sticking in me? . . .

Sleep.

Pain.

Whispering voices.

“As you know, Nurse Eastman, the government spooks controlling this hospital will not permit me to give this patient the care I think he needs.”

And the final page:

He slung the handful of pills in an overhand arc toward the direction of the designer wastebasket, watching them soar through the luminous light of the Ptolemies World Classic omnidirectional task light, heard them scatter like shotgun shot into the lacquered executive wastebasket with the little bar graphs decorated on it, the pinnacle of all his superficial aspirations, the symbol for his nearly untimely fall.

Richard Isaacs returned to the window again. Dick Isaacs looked through his reflection. No one looked back. No one ever did.

Outside the cruel uncaring metropolis. The juggernaut he would bring to it’s [sic] knees.

Inside Richard Isaacs.

And here’s the kicker: did PublishAmerica actually accept the manuscript? Yup. Despite their claims to only publish manuscripts of value, they somehow found no fault with the intentionally unreadable mess “Travis Tea” turned in for consideration. When the hoax was revealed, PublishAmerica immediately backtracked with a curt letter recommending other vanity presses instead. Sadly, PublishAmerica missed a chance to properly express the pain it felt—by typing out the word “pain” seven times, as any sensible author would.

The print edition, which you can still buy right here if something is broken inside of your brain, comes with a cheeky blurb assuring readers that it is not sci-fi or fantasy: “Atlanta Nights is a book that could only have been produced by an author well-versed in believable storylines, set in conditions that exist today, with believable everyday characters.” All proceeds go to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Emergency Medical Fund.

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