Yesterday I was listening to a Barnes & Noble Meet the Writer’s podcast where Steve Bertrand was interviewing YA fantasy author James Dashner about his new book “The Maze Runner.” In their conversations Bertrand brought up a quote by Dashner where he said something about not being able to write a “lame-o detective novel about a murder in a social club.” to which Bertrand responds (and maybe SB was joking, I’m not entirely sure) “You’re never supposed to put down your other writers.”
Now, like I said, I’m not sure if Steve Bertrand wasn’t just making a joke. But I do sometimes feel like the idea that writers have to play nice with each other in public is hurting literature (of course, giving away our books for free is hurting literature even worse, but in a different area). I look to the writers I admire to warn me about the writers out there who aren’t worth my time. Steve Heller (and much later my editor, Fred Ramey) have saved me from further adventures with the books of TC Boyle, for example. I come to my own opinions, but what Steven and Fred did was reinforce my suspicions.
Bertrand is, of course, a bookseller. To be a good bookseller you do have to adopt the kind of mindset that says “every book is somebody’s favorite book” and it doesn’t always help your business to be vocally critical of writers and their books. This is why a somewhat “liberal” bookstore will host one of the *GSSCB’s like Mike Huckabee - and do it with a smile plastered to their faces.
But writers are a different breed. They have to be in order to do what they do. Does anyone remember the play/movie Biloxi Blues? Here’s an exchange from the movie version that has always stuck with me:
Eugene Morris Jerome: Why is it that we come from the same place but I can't understand you?
Arnold Epstein: You're a witness. You're always standing around watching what's happening, scribbling in your book what other people do. You have to get in the middle of it. You have to take sides. Make a contribution to the fight.
Eugene Morris Jerome: What fight?
Arnold Epstein: Any fight. One you believe in. Until you do you'll never be a writer Eugene.
I’ve always believed that a writer has to be engaged in something: they have to make a contribution to the fight they believe in. For some, it’s peace. For others it’s animal abuse.
For me, it’s the validity of literature in a nearly post-literary world. Maybe it’s because of the area where I grew up; or maybe I’m overly sensitive to the ridiculously self-destructive anti-intellectualism I see around me, and its accompanying idea that books, fiction in particular, are just entertainment or that they’re feminine, or for geeks. Either way, literature can’t be only entertainment. If it’s only entertainment then it can be marginalized, ignored, trivialized, sold for nothing.
This is the fight I believe in, and part of it involves calling out the hacks, the cheaters, and the dishonest writers who I think are damaging the reader’s minds and souls, deadening the reader’s empathy, and making the kind of world where unanalyzed self-interest and blind thrill-seeking take precedence over compassion and tolerance and self-awareness.
*Giant Screaming Shit-Covered Babies