I’ve met Howard Junker — the man was silly enough to drink a barely drinkable pint of Pabst Blue Ribbon with me — and I also email him from time to time. He’s a quietly intelligent and friendly gentleman. I also know that he’s outspoken about what he likes and what he doesn’t like. He does this not to be spiteful, but because he cares tremendously about literature. Like any good literary enthusiast, he demands the best out of people. And if that means telling people point-blank that their work isn’t up to snuff, then that’s simply the way that Howard operates.
But for Stephen Elliott, a writer who purports to chronicle misfits and the misunderstood, a remark Junker made at a competitive reading contest was enough to send him over the edge.
Elliott misheard a remark that Junker made concerning Elliott’s “literary merit.” Elliott didn’t come up to Junker or ask for an apology or express his anger or initiate any attempt to clear things up. (As Howard wryly notes, Elliott didn’t even ask to settle things in the alley.) Instead, he threw beer onto Howard Junker, as well as the new owners of the Booksmith — who are also both very kind people. There was no explanation. No effort on Elliott’s part to talk things out.
Junker immediately left the room without causing any additional fuss. What was Elliott’s response? “I don’t understand why Junker left that night. I had a shirt in my bag he could have borrowed.”
I realize that Elliott has had a tough life. But this does not justify acting like a boor in the present. Particularly when the target is as understanding a man as Howard Junker. Things did not have to escalate to this level.
As Junker noted, “‘Literary merit’ is not a term I use on my own, and it is certainly not among the criteria I use to judge a man as a man. A man, I feel, should be able to hold his beer. Should be able to take his lumps. Should exhibit courage in the face of adversity. And so on.”
The very least that Elliott owes Junker is an apology. Real men own up to their mistakes.
What Elliott did is far from taking his lumps, far from exhibiting courage, and far from being a gentleman.