Wednesday, February 3, 2016

On Mean Writers

I've been thinking the last several days about what it means to be a mean writer in the context of a literary Festival.

People often ask me for "gossip," for which writers are nice, which are awful, and the truth is that most writers I've dealt with throughout the years are kind, lovely people. I can think of many who stand out as particularly kind.

Some are kind on the surface but say horrible things to other people or treat other members of the
staff badly. Unforgivable.

Some are just plain horrible people.

No I'm not going to name names, as much as I'd like to!

But it intrigues me how someone can travel for hours by plane as a guest and then be awful: rude, cutting, patronizing or just plain mean.

I get that people have bad experiences. People don't like hotel rooms. Flights get delayed. People might be having personal problems that are interfering with their professional lives. I get all that.

But some people are just plain mean. And why is it that these are the writers I remember: the very small number who were unpleasant.

One writer threw a fit because she hates Laguardia and insisted that she didn't want to fly through it. Since I don't control airlines and since Air Canada tends to fly almost all their flights through LGA, I tried to explain to her that we don't have a private jet to fly her to the Festival. Still she arrived, strumpy and furious and complained non-stop about everything from beginning to end. She had not a single nice thing to say about anything. She hated the weather, the hotel, her events, the food, the neighborhood we were in. I was so happy when she left.

I can think of several like this...
Another writer insisted (before he even arrived in Montreal ) that he couldn't possibly spend a free afternoon in town and wanted to fly back home as early as possible. When we explained that Montreal had New York flights early in the morning and in the early evening and almost none in the middle of the day and that perhaps he might head out of the hotel and explore the city for a few hours, have lunch, see a movie (he had like 4 hours to kill and he could have even stayed in his room if he'd wanted), he smiled and said OK that's fine. Later, I found out he called everyone in his class scheduled for Sunday morning, asked them to come in early (only a few of whom could), met with them very briefly, rescheduled his flight and left. WTF?!

Not to say that we're allergic to complaints: sometimes people do have legitimate things to gripe about. We sometimes mess something up. With 200+ events and 200+ writers coming in, we mess things up every single year. No question. Again, 95% of people are kind and forgiving and understanding when this happens. One writer complained to me after his event that the producer didn't show up and that his event went off terribly and no one seemed to be in charge. That happens. Understandable once in a while. But what I felt horrible about was how it made him feel: it was his first book and he said he felt like we just didn't care about him, that he was unimportant and not even important enough to plan his event properly. Ugh. Words like that kill me because I never want any writer to feel that way.

Still: that writer didn't throw a fit or act rude or scream and yell. He was professional. He told me (after some prodding though he did tell several other people and I heard about it later). We chalk that one up to lesson learned and try to do better.

One other thing about mean writers: if you're mean, you get a reputation. There are writers I would
Inspired by Meanness
never invite back because they were so awful. I wouldn't read their book. There have even been a few writers whose work I liked a lot but after they left, I had to bring their books into my office because I couldn't stand my eyes falling on their book at home and remembering how horrible they were. And Festivals know this: there are writers who are known to be horrible, who are known to cancel at the last minute, who are known to show up drunk or high.

But it works the other way, too: writers whose work I didn't necessarily like that much until I met them and found them so charming and kind and friendly and then became a fan. These writers also get a reputation and I'd rather have 25 kind nice and unfamous writers at a Festival than 25 awful boors. Always.

One thing I've noticed: generally the big writers are nice. I think it's not a coincidence. If you're nice, word spreads and other Festivals invite you. I get far more pitches than I can possibly handle each year and if I have to choose between two books or writers and one is known as being unkind, forget about it.

I am not much on trite one liners or self-help maxims. But one thing is true: Being nice is always a good idea no matter what line of work you're in. Maybe some people think being unkind makes them seem smart or better than everyone but it has the opposite effect. People might kow-tow to your face or you might get what you want, but people remember being disrespected and that comes back to haunt you sooner or later.

Be nice!

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