Appointment in Samarra Revisited

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.

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8 Comments

  1. I read the gossip item that Junker refers to and while I’m not the type to condone throwing a beer on someone as a problem solving technique, I think Junker is being a wee-bit disingenuous and you’re maybe heaping more blame on Elliott than he deserves.

    According to the tape, cited in the column, (http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2007/07/20/DDGUDR3F0P1.DTL) Junker’s quote was: “Stephen Elliott made me laugh occasionally, but as a writer, I think he has no literary merit.”

    Junker says that this is true, but he “thought” he said something else that was directed at the piece, rather than the writer as a whole.

    I have to say, I’d have a hard time not taking extreme offense at Junker’s statement, a full-frontal assault at an event that seemed like it was supposed to be all in good fun. In the gossip column Elliott says he was too stunned to react, which seems plausible to me.

    His ultimate reaction of throwing the beer on Junker is pretty shitty, but Junker was a shit himself and his subsquent posting on his blog makes him look even shittier.

    If “real men” (how about “real people”?) own up to their mistakes, Junker has some owning up to do himself.

  2. As a writer of no literary merit and little imagination myself, I wonder why there are events called Literary Death Matches and wonder why anyone is surprised that they don’t bring out the best in people participating in them.

  3. You know, if you’re going to suggest that Stephen Elliot acted untoward in a certain situation, then why not describe the situation as it happened rather than hint at it? I mean, really.

  4. I take back yesterday’s fatuous comment of no literary merit. Having just come from the delightful, cheerful, joyful New York version of the Literary Death March, I would have to say that mistakes were made in my previous comment and it is inoperative — at least as in regard to literary death matches held in Washington Square Park (where no beer could be spilled because city parks don’t allow alcohol).

    It was a fun event and everyone seemed to go home with a smile.

  5. Why is this blog still on Pacific daylight time (or Arizona time)? It makes it appear as if I have commented upon an event which has not yet taken place.

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