Monday, February 8, 2010
Why am I so damned critical?
Any of you who have read more than two or three editions of this blog know that I frequently criticize inept and dishonest vanity publishers and terrible writers.
Pompous incompetents are funny, it's fun to write about them, and I'm performing a public service by exposing them.
I've alway liked deflating big egos, and revealing scams. In Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes, I'd be the little kid who yelled out that the idiot ruler was parading in his undies. I have a powerful internal bullshit detector and I am by nature a bit of a wise-ass and seldom hold anything back. I see no need to be nice to jerks with big egos. I am not afraid of being sued, and my wife is so scared of my constant "pushing the limit," that she won't read what I write.
Yesterday I spent two wonderful hours with the man who taught me English and history in seventh grade. I had not spoken to him since June of 1959, so we had a lot to catch up on.
The main reason for my visit was to give him a copy of my book Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults), which is coming out on April Fools' Day. The book includes more than 100 mostly hysterically funny (others have said that -- not just me) stories that span 55 years. Incompetence is a frequent theme for the stories, and with no specific plan, it appears that I've targeted lots of incompetent doctors, lawyers and teachers.
I had a lot of really shitty teachers, and a few superb ones, including Lawrence DePalma, whom I visited yesterday. In the book, I wrote much more about the bad teachers, both as a warning and because they stimulated writing funny stories.
In the back of the book I have a two-page "honor roll" where I pay tribute to my few good teachers, like "Mr. D," and I wanted him to see it.
Because there are so many stories about bad teachers (and I decided to write the book when I was in sixth grade and the victim of a terrible teacher), I felt the need to point out to Mr. D that I am definitely not anti-teacher. I told him that my mother was a teacher, my father briefly taught college, my sister is a teacher, her husband taught in the same school that Mr. D taught me in, their son is a teacher, and I suppose I think of myself as teaching through my 40-plus years of writing.
While driving away from Mr. D's house, I thought about why I target bad doctors, lawyers and teachers in my book. The answer quickly came to me. It's because these three professions are so important, that when the professionals screw-up, they can do terrible damage.
Doctors are involved with us even when we are still pre-natal. They deliver us to the world, and heal us when we are ill or wounded. Their mission is to preserve life; and when they screw up, people can die.
Teachers are responsible for informing, shaping and directing each new generation of human beings. When a teacher screws up, kids can be misinformed, misshapened and misdirected.
Lawyers are entrusted to protect our rights -- while negotiating contracts and defending us in court. As legislators, they make laws, and as judges they rule on cases. When lawyers screw up, people agree to bad deals, children and spouses lose inheritances, guilty people go free, innocent people are executed, and millions suffer because of bad laws.
I can pick out other critical professions and occupations. If architects screw up, buildings fall down. If engineers screw up, airplanes fall down and cellphone batteries overheat. If pharmacists screw up, people can die from taking the wrong medication. If cooks screw up, people can get poisoned. If accountants screw up, their clients pay too much tax, or may get fined. If rulers screw up, their citizens die in the wrong wars. Etc.
When I was the victim of some terrible teachers, I complained to my mother (who later became a teacher). She did not believe my reports of lunacy, incompetence and sadism in the classroom and said that teachers must be respected because of their position (regardless of incompetence or derangement).
When we realize that some people in power are not worthy of automatic respect simply because of their title or uniform, some of us become incurable cynics.
I have trouble accepting authority. I know that if I was in the army and my sarge ordered me to peel potatoes, I'd respond either, "Why should I?," "Get a machine," "Do it yourself," or "Go fuck yourself" -- and I'd be locked up or thrown out. Fortunately, I was never in the army.
Vanity publishers probably have not caused deaths like bad doctors or bad judges or bad presidents. But they do cause writers to waste time and money, and cause readers to buy some terrible books. As shelves and websites get clogged with crap, it can be harder for good books to be recognized.
We all choose our battles and our opponents -- some puny, some powerful. Ralph Nader fought General Motors. I admire his zeal, although I loved my own 1965 Corvair Corsa. Consumer Reports targets dangerous and difficult-to use products and points out bad values. Thousands of reviewers warn us about bad books, movies and restaurants. This blog often goes after bad publishers and writers (but I have praised good books).
We should all be crusaders. Don't be afraid to call attention to naked emperors, corrupt cops, stupid judges, bad burgers, bad cars, bad books, bad movies, bad bosses, inaccurate articles, and sloppy driveway pavers.
But be equally dedicated to providing praise when deserved.
If you hear a street musician whom you like, don't just dump a quarter in her or his coffee cup and move on. Stick around to dig the performance; and at break time, shake a hand and give some encouragement. If you've enjoyed a good meal in a restaurant, tell the manager (who mostly hears complaints) and go into the kitchen to shake hands with the chef, and write something nice online.
It's important for inept and dishonest people to know that their failures and crimes will be discovered and publicized.
It's equally important for the hard-working good guys to know that their efforts will be recognized and rewarded.
(That's the end of today's sermon. Tomorrow I'll probably kick someone's ass.)