Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

How Not to be a Writer

So, imagine for a second that you're a gay writer of strange fiction, with stories published here and there. We'll call you, for the sake of argument, Kevin W. Reardon. Now, you're kind of precious about it all, adopting the posture of the purely-driven auteur, oblivious to the temptations of cash and kudos. You're "not really in it for the 'career'." You're "in it for the writing." You write because you "have to." You even affect a casual indifference to publication and a(n apparent) modesty about the value of your own work. It's simply been your "good fortune" that "a few editors have liked a few of [your] stories enough to publish them. Maybe that will happen again. Maybe it won't." Emphasis on the affect.

Now imagine that one of those stories which had such "good fortune" was published in an anthology of gay-themed horror, UNSPEAKABLE HORROR. Far be it from you to claim greatness for that story. Far be it from you to proclaim your own genius. As an auteur, you're above such crass vanity. You care only for the work, and naught for the opinions of others. It's simply your "good fortune" if another editor happens to like your work. If another editor should happen to not like that same work, the logical reaction would be to see this as "bad fortune", no?

So, it turns out that this is the case. Another editor -- we'll call him, for the sake of argument, Steve Berman -- reads your story while he's putting together an anthology of the year's best in gay-themed strange fiction, WILDE STORIES; and it doesn't really work for him. He reads it as part of the UNSPEAKABLE HORROR anthology, and -- truth be told -- there's not a lot in that anthology that does work for him. As an editor and a writer, this Steve Berman has a LiveJournal, where he posts personal thoughts on different aspects of his life, his life as an editor and a writer. Some days, he'll post about the sense of despair he suffers from at times, how he wishes he had the same passion for it all that he once had. Other days -- one particular day, in fact -- he posts an entry which briefly outlines his thoughts on some of the work he's been considering for WILDE STORIES. As a writer or editor or critic might offer thoughts, cursory or detailed, casual or considered, laudatory or scathing, on a book they've just read or a movie they've just seen, so this Steve Berman offers his thoughts on each of the stories in UNSPEAKABLE HORROR. What he says about your story is pretty brief:

"[A] bad opening crippled this story for me plus the various relationships felt off."

It's not too scathing a comment. The middle of the story isn't slated. The ending of the story isn't slated. The story as a whole isn't slated. It's simply that, in Steve Berman's mind, the story has a false start that it doesn't recover from. This is offered as an implicitly objective assessment of the story, a judgement that the opening is bad, that the story has a bad opening, rather than that the opening doesn't work for this particular reader; but this sort of craft-based assessment is hardly as objectionable as a theme-based assessment that criticises a story for, say, latent misogyny or incipient racism, where a writer might well feel such implicit claims to objectivity require challenging. Anyway, in addition to this critique of the story's craftedness, a valuation which is explicitly subjective is placed on the plausibility of character relationships. It's not that they are "off"; it's that they felt "off". They don't work for Steve Berman. He didn't respond to them the way you wanted him to, didn't feel that they rang true. So, he doesn't like your story enough to publish it in his year's best anthology.

Ah, well, one might expect you to say. This is clearly a case of "bad fortune".

But, no. Despite your (apparent) modesty about the value of your work, you feel this to be an unjustifiable slight of your precious story. Despite your disregard for the base reward of kudos, you do a vanity Google on your name to see how much impact you have on the interwebs. Despite the fact that you're "in it for the writing", you find it deeply irksome that the top hit on your name -- Kevin W. Reardon -- is that LiveJournal post in which this Steve Berman dispraises your story. Despite your affectation of indifference, the idea that your story rates only a one-line dismissal, alongside all those other stories in UNSPEAKABLE HORROR which are rejected with equally casual judgements... this is just wrong! Such off-hand disregard! And the top hit on a Google search of your name! Why, what will people think when they search on your name and come across that editor's thoughtless negativity?

Not that you care, of course. Not that you "write for attention". Perish the thought that you would be driven by such base motives. Perish the thought that you would be driven by such base motives to post a spiteful comment, under a different name -- Cole, say -- on another post on this Steve Berman's LiveJournal. Perish the thought that when this Steve Berman posts a personal and confessional entry about his loss of writerly zeal, his desire to "light a candle" for "my passion, my devotion, my enthusiasm for the written word", your response of a petty vicious encouragement to commit suicide -- "Obviously, that'd be no great loss to literature... Just do us all a favor and take down your blog first." -- perish the thought that this might be motivated by the wounded vanity of a posturer and a phony who really does care deeply about acclaim. Perish the thought that you are in fact so invested in your grandiose self-image as an auteur that the slightest puncturing of that image in the public domain drives you to spiteful trolling. Perish the thought that the subject line of this comment -- "You should really just kill yourself" -- is the petulant bile of an egoist on the grandest scale, so wrapped up in your puerile arrogance, so incapable of accepting the mere existence of another's opinion, let alone its validity, so immersed in the delusion that the world revolves around you, so callously contemptuous of the feelings of anyone that isn't you that you see no ethical or simply empathic reason not to encourage someone apparently suffering from depression to commit suicide.

No, you're not driven by the base motives of vanity. You don't "write for attention".

Unlike this Steve Berman, of course, as you decide to make clear in a later comment, where you reiterate your encouragement for him to commit suicide, doing your best to communicate the full force of your malicious loathing with a baiting rhetorical question as to whether his apartment window is a good place to jump from ("Is it a high floor?") and an injunction ("If Dault will come to you, take your cat in your arms and jump.") which basically amounts to, "and kill your cat while you're at it." Given your sexuality, one might imagine, (albeit in a sort of "homonormativity",) that the whole Wicked Witch style "and your little dog too!" routine would be seen as... well... wicked by a "friend of Dorothy", so to speak -- as a cruel enmity taken to the level of outright malevolence against any and all associated with you.

But, no. You don't see it that way. Your vicious and vindictive reaction could not be at the possibility that others may not esteem your work as highly as you do. It could not be at the fact that, for all your hollow proclamations of the auteur's commitment to the work alone, this imposture is actually an artifical bolstering of a self-esteem that's actually quite frail and flimsy. It could not be that the grand role of the artiste is a desperately self-delusional shell around the soft and gooey centre of a very small and weak ego, all too easily hurt by even the mildest and most unconcerned critique.

No, such things are not your concern. You're "in it for the writing".

If we are to take your proclamations seriously, we might expect you to act in accordance with them. So, when this Steve Berman makes the connection between that passing critique and this otherwise apparently baseless but repeated hostility, when he posts the email exchange between the two of you on his LiveJournal, when we see you take exception to his "review", characterising it as a calculating and unscrupulous attempt to undermine the "competition, diminishing their work while simultaneously promoting your own," when we see Steve Berman calmly explain his position -- that anthologies in the same field do not actually compete in this way, especially when one is a year's best culled from these self-same "competing anthologies", open in its nature as an anthology of reprints rather than original fiction, and that the "review" is in fact merely a reaction, that it is really only about whether the story "worked for [him]" -- when this reasonable response is offered, we might expect that you would take it in good faith.

This Steve Berman's response is actually not just level-headed; it's actually quite sensitive in its advice in this regard -- to distance yourself from the judgements of readers -- and in its emphasis on the subjectivity of his opinion, its reassurance that you should not afford it too much authority:

"I recommend that you take a step back from any offense. Once you put a story out there all readers are allowed to offer their thoughts. What was the worst thing I expressed about your story: "a bad opening" - everyone who reads this knows I am stating an opinion. Do people listen to me as gospel? No. Have you ever told a friend that you disliked a book? I'm sure."

If we are to take your proclamations seriously, we might expect you to accept this. After all, you're "in it for the writing", not cash and kudos. The marginal and potential negative impact of this Steve Berman's nugatory critique on the sales and acclaim garnered by UNSPEAKABLE HORROR should hardly be of much concern. The fact that this review is the first hit in a vanity Google of your name should be a trifling matter for the auteur indifferent to attention. And if this editor doesn't like your story enough to publish it, that's just the flip-side of the "good fortune" you had when the editor of UNSPEAKABLE HORROR did. So it goes, as a writer wiser than most of us once said. You don't have an inflated sense of your work's value. It's just "good fortune" if it works for one editor, and if it doesn't work for another, well... such is life. And you don't care about esteem, so if they say so in public, well... them's the breaks.

Strangely, though, this explanation does not suffice, not for you. Rather you decide to take your umbrage to the editor's blog, not to engage with him in public on the relevant post, over your concerns that "the jobs of editing, writing and reviewing require discrete skills and should probably not be done by the same person", but to vent your spleen in direct personal attacks, not simply attempting to exploit his depression through contemptuous affirmations of his sense of barrenness, but even going so far as to deny the reality of that depression, asserting that this editor is "not really suicidal, or not really even that depressed". It does not occur to you, apparently, that should you be wrong (for it would never occur to you, it seems, that you could be wrong), what you are doing constitutes an act of the most abhorrent malevolence, a goading that is not just designed to verbally shove a potential suicide towards the execution of the act itself but one that might, in fact, have some effect towards its aim. At the very least the disrecognition of depression is exactly the sort of thing that fuels depression.

This last vilifying barb you offer in yet another comment when, having had the whole root of your hatred revealed in the posting of that email exchange, rather than actually give grounds for your risible concern with a purported conflict of interests, you continue your rancorous pillorying, not to mention the concomitant pompous self-aggrandisement. You root this editor's despondency in a vacuous desire for success. You contrast this with your own commitment to art-for-art's-sake, in invocations of Emily Dickinson and phrases like "labor of love"... and seemingly oblivious of the shallow and self-important posturing this will almost certainly communicate to most readers. Even as you affect your false modesty as regards the "weak[ness]" of your "voice" in comparison to the writers of the past, you depict yourself "in a dialog" with them; it is not that you assume your equal status with them, your place in such a dialog, but oh, you do see yourself as being in that tradition -- a writer like those before you, an author who can aspire to greatness as an author, not in their writing but in and of themselves. You might have said that your writing was in dialog with theirs, were you really only "in it for the writing"; that you do not could well be considered rather revealing of the perennial vice of the literary phony -- in love with the idea of being a writer more than the writing itself.

And all of this -- all of this -- you justify as a balancing of the "bile" you seem to perceive as being heaped upon you by that one-line critique, as an attempt to "fight fire with fire". And finally you reveal the sham of yourself, the lip-service you pay to the idea that "[f]or a reviewer, I suppose all published work is fair game and, as writers, we should expect to take the good with the bad, review-wise" in your email, when you mewl pitiably that, "if I had received that email, I would have taken down the review." In the end, you're so thin-skinned and self-involved you can't even resist rearticulating your manipulative whining, your implicit judgement of how Steve Berman should have had the decency to molly-coddle your fragile ego by removing his post, as an express desire for him to do so now: "I hope you will either post this, or take down the original review."

Imagine that you are this writer, this Kevin W. Reardon. Imagine that you dig a hole for yourself so deep through all this that it leaves every single reader of Steve Berman's LiveJournal aghast at the sheer folly of it alone, never mind the reprehensible nsatiness with which that folly is executed.

Now imagine that it gets back to this editor, this Steve Berman, that you have genuinely, actually threatened his life. You, Kevin W. Reardon, have now officially passed beyond the realm of posturing amateur who can't take critique, beyond the realm of internet troll too asinine to be taken seriously, beyond the realm of froth-mouthed, vicious cunt of a crazy man who nobody wants to deal with as a human being let alone in a professional capacity. You have now entered the realm of the police and criminal justice system. The nearest thing you're going to get to sympathy is the assumption that you've undergone some form of mental breakdown into the obsessive mania that defines a stalker; and rest assured that this will do as little for your career as an attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan would do for your chances of a relationship with Jody Foster.

And that -- if you can imagine it -- is how not to be a writer.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Hal.

11:54 pm  
Blogger Kelly said...

I didn't imagine I'd get sucked into something so (sadly) entertaining.

I am glad you are awesome.

5:26 am  
Blogger Spherical Time said...

You have to wonder if someone disassociated from reality enough to think that selling his work in the market is part of "being in it for the writing" will realize that the criticism is universally against him.

Will he stop and do the necessary self examination or is his next horror story going to feature the bloody death of "Stephen Herman" or some other thinly veiled analogue?

I'm guessing the latter, over and over again.

7:29 am  
Blogger Lynne Jamneck said...

Steve's an awesome guy. Thanks for posting this, Hal.

8:32 am  
Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

Ditto. Steve's just as awesome in person as he is online. Thank you for so succinctly summing up this whole thing, Hal (especially for someone who's on an unintentional blog-reading hiatus). Cheers, mate.

12:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much. This is the best thing I've seen regarding this situation.

8:56 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the end of this post, I wanted to applaud you for this summary just so's I'd have something to *do* with how aghast I am at the whole situation. Bravo. Poor Steve.

8:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brilliantly done! And thanks for doing it!

John Langan

9:30 pm  
Blogger Lore said...

Here via Sam Henderson. Brava.

9:40 pm  
Blogger Swainson said...

Pretty much 'how not to be a human being'

I just hope he gets what he deserves.

What a total wanker.

9:44 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. All of this makes me wish I edited a magazine just for the chance to turn down one of Mr. Reardon's stories unread.

9:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Close your eyes and think of England.


12:58 am  

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