March 24, 2008 by A.C. Rhodes
Does competition (real & imagined) or difference of opinion ever impact it or get in the way?
Category: Question of the Week
I have a few writer friends. i’ve told a few that they brag too much, and i don’t really want to hear about their stupid book/ screenplay/article anymore. one friend i recently stopped telling her what i’m writing, because her usual reply was, “i wanted to do that.”
Usually, when other writers ask me what i’m “working on,” i’ll lie and say, “nothing much.” which saves them from getting that goofy look on their face like i just kicked them in the knee-cap. writers can be cool people, you just have to treat some like children — the whiny, bratty kind.
An interesting question, and I’ll be curious to see how many and what kind of responses are given.
I have done different kinds of writing, sometimes at different times (more fiction and poetry years ago; more cultural commentary — on books, film, music and social issues — recently); and when I was younger I was a bit romantic about writers and then a realized that most of the writers I knew were fairly brutal (I don’t exonerate myself from that, as I have sometimes been experienced in that way too) and I think that brutality is a combination of self-concern, honesty, criticality, survival instinct, acute sensitivity, and one or two other things, rooted in the fact that it’s hard to have a career bringing into creation things that most people do not think they need (which is often what writing is). These days, I know few fiction writers or poets and am more inclined to speak somewhat regularly with a couple of critics.
There has sometimes been a difference of opinion based on world views (a leftist world view versus a mainstream bourgeois world view; an African-American perspective versus a Euro-American perspective; gay/bi versus straight; etc.); and sometimes it is based more on philosophical or professional approach — wanting to join an aesthetic tradition versus wanting to change or overthrow a tradition, for instance realism versus postmodernism; or an intellectual orientation versus an anti-intellectual one. One of the surprising things to me is how few music writers seem to ask really important questions about how music relates to the rest of culture, or to history, or to prospects for the human future. I find that shallowness consistent in casual conversation and in writing. (Rockcritics.com, for instance, has asked some provocative questions and gotten much fewer provocative answers.) I find that lack of depth disappointing and dull.
I imagine that the conflicts between writers, and other artists and thinkers, is fairly similar to all human conflict – it may be, simply, more naked (the way that competition between politicians or boxers or rappers is more naked, less disguised, than most). Who doesn’t want his own vision to be considered a fundamental vision, his contribution to be considered necessary? Was it Gore Vidal who said that he always feels a little depressed when one of his friends is successful?
Not so much impact or get in the way. More like – “annoy,” “distract,” “like lingering diaper rash it chafes psychologically,” etc. I’ll answer this question in somewhat sideways fashion, because except for a few painful lapses over the years, I’ve steadfastly tried to avoid the competition syndrome; it’s a huge waste of mental energy, if not actual time. Plus, when expressing a difference of opinion with another writer, I have a hard time doing it in a caustic manner. A little bit of respect and a lot of self-deprecating humor will carry you far in this life.
Sample (possibly true) conversation overheard at dinner party:
Them: So what do you do?
Me: I’m a writer.
Them: Really? That’s interesting! What do you write about?
Me: Music journalism – bands, songwriters, the recording industry, etc.
Them: Oh! [long pause, eyes glaze over]
Me: [dumb grin frozen on face]
Them: [turning to someone else] Did you see the Tarheels play the other night?
My take has always been that all writers are inherently insecure about who they are and what they have chosen as a career path until they hit the NY Times bestseller list – which is to say, 99.9% of all writers carry that insecurity with them all their lives. I mean, let’s face it: laboring at home in relative solitude as your skin tone gradually takes on the appearance of one of those creepy blind deep sea denizens, always hustling to scare up that next writing gig, and constantly having to contend with the fact that when one of your grand slabs of creative artistry does appear in print most readers don’t even bother to take note of whose byline is attached to the story – those are probably not the kinds of factors that contribute to a healthy ego and a general sense of self-worth.
So my gut feeling is that same insecure streak is what breeds all the territorial pissing that goes on in the rock-write world. If you can only get that sense of self-worth by comparing yourself and your “success” (as it were) to what other writers have done or are doing, then it’s easy to understand how all the ridiculous pecking orders and cliques among rock critics spring up.
Everybody here can cite a handful of critics who seem to delight in making/furthering their name by calling out and dissing fellow writers; it’s as if they gauge their own so-called rise in stature by seeing how far down they can push their perceived competitors. Go to SXSW, for example, and you’re just as likely to hear someone go on and on about how this or that writer is such a putz, a whore, a jerk, etc., as you are hear them rave about some band they’ve just seen. And they don’t appear to view differences of opinion as simply that – opinions, not statements of fact – but as the printed word equivalent of pistols at dawn.
Among the rock critic species Rockus Insecuricus I’ve spotted two sub-species: Old Fart, and Young Dickhead. The former tends to be an established scribe who has a bit of a reputation that he or she has accumulated over the years and therefore has a sense of entitlement; you’re supposed to kiss his/her ring upon a meeting, and indeed, they tend to travel with an entourage of sycophants. The latter is a relative novice, but not necessarily wet behind the ears – more flush with some initial semi-fame (like, say, having just published his/her first Pitchfork review, or somehow landed a VIP guest list spot for the Spin party at SXSW) and aware that now, as the proverbial young gun in town, it’s time to go looking for the sheriff (read: any writer who has been doing the job for awhile) and take him down a peg.
When an Old Fart meets another Old Fart, watch the fur fly. Meow!
When a Young Dickhead meets another Young Dickhead, there’s much posturing, cockblocking and one upmanship, but since loyalties at a young age tend to be fluid, you never know when YD#1 and YD#2 will join forces and become allies, albeit on a temporary basis.
When an Old Fart meets a Young Dickhead, a Shakespearian drama of intrigue, betrayal and murder may soon unfold: YD is often seduced into sycophantry (is that a real word?), OF may adopt a mentor role, but eventually their true colors will show, so all shows of friendship or respect should be seen as inherently insincere.
Here’s the fun part you can do privately or among friends: print out my above analysis but replace the Old Fart and Young Dickhead terms with the names of REAL rock critics you know of!
I realize this doesn’t actually answer the question – like I said, I’m kinda going sideways here. But all my comments are based on actual observations and/or interactions.
I remain your… Doctor Rokk, former Harp editor, still-current sonic therapist. Next time we will discussion the Freudian implications of when rock critics get drunk and fuck (as in “copulate,” not “screw over,” but both shadings of the term remain operative during the transaction). That will be $50 for your session. Pay the receptionist on your way out.
This is a thorny, sticky, righteous topic. I’ll say this: Brian Smith just wrote a piece for Metro Times that ALMOST made me want to hear the new Black Crowes lp, it really SINGS, which says volumes about his talent. The Brains said it best, if you ask me: “Money Changes Everything!
Or like Iggy laments: “You can’t have friends, the money’ll see to that…”
Yeah, only writers tend to make a lousy living. ;p
No and Yes. I had a roommate in college who became an English Prof and “writer” — who actually published several novels. More hot air than the Hindenberg. I’ve encountered other dorks as well (prob been one myself even). Then again, the guy who wrote the novel for Terry Gilliam’s last movie has always come off as a genuinely nice chap.
But a lot of writers I’ve met in my music travels have been decent folk. Depends on the personality. Is the pen mightier than the amp?
My publisher, Kunati Books has a list-serv that all the authors are on, and we use it to support one another. Kunati specializes in breaking out debut authors, so the newbies (like me) learn from the more experienced authors. I have found it to be a supportive environment.
On the other hand, I swore off a writers’ message board that I used to be on, because it came to feel like shark-infested waters, and I was wearing a “chum” swimsuit. Maybe the vicious people were just a lot louder than the nice people, but, DAMN!I found it too hard to take. I guess I need to work on my thick skin a little more.
My general experience since getting into this brave new world of becoming a published author, though, has been that, yes, writers can be friends with other writers. I should disclose, however, that I don’t have any “whiny” writer friends or any one who feels like they drain the life from me, as it sounds like some of the posters on this site have experienced.
I just found this question, and boy, it’s a dangerous one! My answer is: Yes, but aside from Fred Mills, I tend to like editors better. (Yes, the ass-kissing you see in my answer is a pathetic attempt to get assignments.) And of course, publicists just “love” us.
Seriously, though, most of my best friends are not writers, although some are. Certainly competition can get in the way of establishing a close relationship, but I find that I don’t really get into a lot of shop talk with my friends who are also writers. I live in North Carolina now, so I’m much more (blissfully) ignorant of the infighting that goes on among writers and critics than I was when I lived in New York and Los Angeles. My closest friends here include a guy who works in a prison substance-abuse program, a guy who sells carpet-cleaning supplies, a guy who sells stuff to grocery stores, a woman who owns a local shop and, yeah, a few journalists.
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