Going against the grain is never easy. Swimming upstream is bound to get you talked about, criticized, and maybe even hated. As writers, our job isn’t to make people comfortable—it’s to write what we know to be true (spoken as a writer who writes nonfiction).
Mark Twain was quoted as saying “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” I don’t know if he added, after reflecting—move in the other direction.
What I’ve noticed throughout my life is that the majority is often on the wrong side of history. A mere cursory reading of the subject will tell you that. Yet, many people still hate having you point that out to them.
I just finished Salinger, the book that David Shields and Shane Salerno wrote about one of the 20th century’s greatest literary figures, as well as one of the most talked about. Salinger wrote fiction for the New Yorker, when it was edited by William Shawn, who some in Salinger called “an enabler” of the literary giant’s foibles and eccentricities. Shawn himself was an odd duck, so perhaps it was a case of Shawn and Salinger being similar.
Tom Wolfe, of New Journalism fame, wrote a major, two-part takedown of the New Yorker and Shawn for New York, which at the time was a Sunday insert in the now defunct New York Herald Tribune. New York was a small potatoes rival to Shawn’s vaunted publication. Wolfe’s first of two features, “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!” (Part II was called, “Lost in the Whichy Thicket”), laid low the Shawn-directed ways of one of the major literary publications. These pieces by Wolfe rankled Salinger, too.
Not only did Wolfe’s darts hit a target in Salinger, but E.B. White and Walter Lippmann were critical of the journalist, calling him “an incompetent ass.” There were a host of other lengthy criticisms, and even the White House called to complain to Wolfe’s editor, Clay Felker—not that they had anything else going on in 1965, like a major war, or anything.
This article put Wolfe on the radar as a writer/journalist and he’s gone on to a successful career where he’s now being criticized as being “establishment.” It also got he and Felker invited to all the chic and trendy parties for the literati on New York’s upper east side.
The point is that Wolfe got people’s attention by paying attention, and offering something that others weren’t bothering with at the time. It amazes me how often writers just go along with the status quo, acting as scriveners for those in power. This is never more apparent than when I read Maine’s daily newspapers, or publications that incessantly cheer for Maine’s business community.
Since I’ve been blogging, I’ve tried to offer some contrary ideas and writing. Some of my freelance work continues in that vein.
I hope to do more of it in 2015.