At this point, there isn’t much more to write about the most recent literary sockpuppet scandal that hasn’t already been written. R.J. Ellory has been the subject of more ink and page-views over the past two weeks than Clint Eastwood’s empty chair. The poor bastard’s been slammed from pillar-to-post for writing fake reviews under phony names that not only glorified his own work, but trashed the work of others, and enough of his fellow writers have stepped up to condemn him — and, to some extent, even defend him — that one would think there’s no angle to this shitstorm that hasn’t already been examined a thousand times over.
Well, I can think of maybe one.
As Martyn demonstrated here earlier this week, the vast majority of the outrage people have expressed over Ellory’s behavior has been due to the reviews he pseudonymously posted ripping other authors, including Mark Billingham and Stuart MacBride. People wonder what could have possessed the man to do such a thing. After all, aren’t we in the crime writing community all one big happy family? Don’t we all share a mutual respect for one another that supersedes any jealousies or resentments we could otherwise harbor toward those more successful than we are? Aren’t we above all the foolish and petty infighting that has marred the landscape of literary fiction for years?
Uh, no, no and no.
The truth is, crime writers are just as capable of making enemies of other crime writers as Gore Vidal was of making one of Norman Mailer. We may all be in this writing game together, but some of us are sinking like a stone while others are tanning themselves on the deck of the Good Ship Lollypop, and the disparity between the two states of being sometimes goes to a crazed person’s head. Most of the time, this crazed person is the writer holding the short end of the stick, but not always; sometimes, the fear and paranoia behind all the venom are actually a byproduct of being the one on top looking down.
I know a thing or two about this enemy-making business because I’ve made more than a few myself. I know this leaves you incredulous — “An old softy like Gar Haywood making enemies?” — but it’s true. I’ve done it in various ways:
- Daring to criticize other authors by name. Just as the first rule of Fight Club is “You do not talk about Fight Club!” (followed by the second rule: “You DO NOT talk about Fight Club!”), some crime writers believe a similar, even more sacred rule exists for Authors’ Club: “You DO NOT talk about other authors!” Which is an admirable sentiment, to be sure, but a rather unrealistic and immature one, as well. I mean, “If you can’t say something nice . . .” might work fine as an operating principle out on the playground at PS 44, but no adult who enjoys thoughtful discussions of matters literary as much as I do should be expected to adhere to it.
Needless to say, there’s a line between honest criticism and personal attack that should never be crossed, and I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever crossed it. But this is a distinction lost on some of the writers I’ve publicly taken to task for one perceived technical failing or another. To them, any negative word spoken by one writer about another in the public square is tantamount to slander, and whoa be to him who breaks the Brotherhood’s code of silence in this manner.
- Taking myself too seriously. Humble as I am, I am not without ego, and some of my peers have confused a healthy dose of self-confidence with insufferable hubris. This is perfectly ridiculous. How could anybody with my Bookscan numbers be afflicted with insufferable hubris?
- Not taking myself seriously enough. Believe it or not, not everyone finds my brand of self-deprecating humor, as illustrated above, hilarious. In fact, they think it cheapens my profession, which happens to also be their profession, so a joke at my expense is a joke at their expense. And how will they ever convince the Pulitzer fiction committee to give their work a serious look with clowns like me constantly mucking up the genre with a sense of humor?
As near as I can tell, the general assumption has been that R.J. Ellory posted those malicious reviews of Mark Billingham’s and Stuart MacBride’s books simply to scuttle their careers and advance his own. And maybe his motives were precisely that impersonal.
But I doubt it. My guess is — and it’s only a guess — somewhere down the line, Mr. Billingham and Mr. MacBride, individually or as a pair, did or said something that Ellory found personally painful, and deserving of some kind of payback. So he gave it to them.
If I’ve learned anything about myself and my fellow crime writers over the years, it’s that, by and large, we are all rather delicate creatures. Which is to say, we bruise easily. We don’t like criticism and we don’t trust the judgment of anyone who would presume to offer it, especially another writer.
Let me give you an example:
There is a Big Name Author I used to appear on panels with quite frequently. Let’s call him Leonard. I have always liked and admired Leonard, and have a great deal of respect for his work, as many readers of genre and non-genre fiction alike do to this day. But back then, Leonard, like everyone else who’s ever shared an open microphone with me, was often at the heart of the one-liners I like to sprinkle throughout a panel appearance, and unbeknownst to me, he didn’t like it. Stephen or David will tell you, having seen it firsthand, that no co-panelist of mine is safe from my rapier-like wit, I’m an equal-opportunity quipster — but Leonard had the idea I was always singling him out for special ridicule.
So the phone rings on my desk one day, not long after we’d done a panel together and a month or so before we were scheduled to do another. And Leonard — who’d never called me on the phone before — says, “I can’t do our panel.”
I’m thinking he’s fallen ill. “Oh, man, I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
“No, no, I’m fine, it’s not like that. I mean, I can’t do another panel with you. I just can’t.”
The rest of the conversation is a blur after all these years, but through my shock and awe I heard Leonard tell me that he couldn’t take my making fun of him anymore, and he wasn’t going to. We’d appeared on our last panel together, he was about to call the organizers of our next one to cancel and he just wanted me to know why he was doing it, first.
I was blown away. He thought I didn’t like him. Eventually, after I’d explained that nothing could be further from the truth, and offered to pull out of our panel appearance in his stead since he was the real draw of the event, not me, cooler heads prevailed and he agreed to do the thing, after all.
But as you might imagine, nothing has been the same between us since.
I hesitate to suspect Leonard “hates” me now, because that sounds incredibly pompous considering our difference in professional stations. You’d think he had more important people to hate on. Still, if I cared to, I could probably build a case for him continuing to strongly dislike me based on some rather damning evidence, some of it eerily similar to that which earned R.J. Ellory such recent infamy.
I bring all this up now to pose a single question: Is writer-on-writer crime a damn shame?
But nobody should be surprised by it anymore.