Earlier this month Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. A lot of people (myself included) took to social media congratulating the Canadian short story writer. It’s no secret I’m a fan of her writing, but I imagine she probably made new fans based on her humble and gracious acceptance. The fact that short stories are being celebrated as something other than “not a novel” is pretty great too.
One person who was not excited about Alice Munro’s win was Bret Easton Ellis, author of Less than Zero and American Psycho. He tweeted things like, “Alice Munro is so completely overrated” and later, “Alice Munro was always an overrated writer and now that she’s won The Nobel she always will be. The Nobel is a joke and has been for ages…”
Ellis’ tweets (and the subsequent backlash against him) got me thinking about our responsibility as writers, specifically our responsibility to each other. On the one hand, I don’t think there is anything wrong with Ellis disliking Munro’s style. Some of my favorite writer friends dislike her stories. (It pains me a little to write this. How can someone not love “Passion”? Or “Chance”? Or any story in the collection Runaway?) Sometimes a book will speak to you and the characters will haunt you for days and weeks, maybe even months after you read the last page, and you recommend that same book to someone and he reads it and says something like, “Meh. It was okay.” (Fight the urge to hit this person over the head with your copy of the book, by the way.)
So of course it’s perfectly fine for Ellis to dislike Alice Munro’s style. But there is something about publicly slamming another writer, not just critiquing but disparaging, that doesn’t sit well with me.
A few years ago I was a writer’s conference and the keynote speaker said something that I remember very well, and it was that writers are essentially cave people—we hunker down and do our thing and then we’re expected to go out in the real world and promote our work and often this goes against our very nature. She said that as nice as it was to be a published writer, she was ready to return to her cave, to get back to writing and creating again, as opposed to being out in the world, promoting and signing books. (Do you believe her? I didn’t at the time, but I do now.)
Writers face an absurd amount of rejection. We write in our caves and we revise and we send out our work and we revise again and our stuff gets rejected and rejected and rejected until the day it’s (hopefully) accepted. When the rejections start pouring in, and some days it will feel like a deluge, we lean on our writer friends for reassurance that we are not in fact sending out trite and predictable nonsense that clearly deserves to be rejected and ohmygod this story is horrible, isn’t it, why did you let me send this out??? (One particularly great day I received rejections on three different stories from three separate literary magazines. When I complained about this, one of my writer friends told me that on the bright side I was now a Triple Crown winner and should be sure to put that on my CV.)
As writers we should be supportive of each other. Our job should be to look out for our own. And as soon as you take to a very public forum like Twitter or Facebook and denounce someone in your profession, you are eroding that support, especially because as writers we know the power of words. Is being called overrated all that bad? To a writer, yes. I think that’s one of the many fears lurking inside us: there is the fear that we will never be recognized or published and then there is the more potent fear that we will be published only to be called a talentless fraud by our peers. (Newsflash: your writer friends are completely and utterly neurotic.)
It’s so easy these days to garner fame (or is it infamy?) with 140 characters on Twitter; it’s even easier to become a news story simply by taking an inflammatory position. After Ellis was attacked for attacking Munro, he tweeted this: “The sentimental hatred for me has made me want to re-read Munro, who I never really got, because now I feel like I’ve beaten-up Santa Claus.” (Do you believe him? Frankly, I don’t.) But for all you optimistic Alice Munro fans out there, what story or collection of Munro’s should Ellis read?