Smoke This

A Whatever reader has asked me to comment on this, in which a $145 billion judgment against several tobacco companies in a class action suit was reversed. The tone of the e-mail suggested my correspondent thinks that this overturning of the suit is a good thing; he suggested I entitle the entry: “Responsibility Upheld; Victimhood Suffers.”

I won’t be doing that. But I can’t say I can work up any sort of outrage against the decision being overturned. My general feeling about smokers has always been that everyone who started smoking after the inception of the Surgeon General’s warning on individual packs has really shaky ground to complain that they were mislead by the tobacco industry. When every pack sold in the US has a note on it that states explicitly that the product within is going to hurt you, the only people who have the legitimate claim that they didn’t know what they were getting into are the illiterate (and being nicotine addicts are the least of their problems).

More specifically, I’ve always thought anyone my age or younger should be totally banned from suggesting that they are anything less than entirely responsible for their own habit. I knew that cigarettes were bad for you almost before I knew what were cigarettes were; indeed, I can’t remember ever not knowing cigarettes were bad. People start smoking for lots of reasons, and they typically start before their brains are fully engaged on the repercussions of voluntarily starting an addictive habit. Be that as it may, let’s just say that anyone under the of age 40 in North America’s slate of excuses for starting smoking doesn’t include “I didn’t know it was bad.” I knew. They knew. We knew.

I am in fact fairly prejudicial about people who smoke, on a sliding scale. People who are over 40 who smoke, I pretty much give a pass. Everybody smoked before 1960. They gave cigarettes to pets. And so on. People between the age of 30 and 40 (i.e., “my age”) who smoke cause me to deduct between 10% to 30% off my initial impressions of their intelligence and common sense, depending. People between 20 and 30 who smoke I consider to be complete dumbasses until they prove themselves otherwise. Anyone who is under 20 and smoking should be thrown in a woodchipper, all the better to start again on the karmic wheel of rebirth, and hopefully this time they’ll be born with brain stems that connect.

Now, I would agree that the tobacco industry did a yeoman’s job of trying to convince young and all that smoking makes you alive with pleasure. But, you know, here’s the thing with that: Part of being a teenager, or at least part of being a teenager when I was growing up, was totally mistrusting everything an adult tried to sell you, ever, end of story. I always thought it was funny that cigarettes, of all products, managed to escape that particular injunction (bear in mind that I don’t think teenagers actually do mistrust everything adults try to sell them. Malls across the nation would collapse. But as a teen, you’re supposed to at least pretend). So, even while entirely agreeing that tobacco companies are evil and run by evil people who happily produce products that kill when used as directed, it still comes down to the person who lights up and sucks smoke into his or her lungs.

What I think we should do is what states and cities are doing, which is tax the Hell out of the vile little tubes, to pay for the uninsured joes who will inevitably stagger into the ERs with smoking-related heart attacks, strokes and whatnot. Insurance companies likewise should feel perfectly cool about jacking up the insurance rates of smokers so that when they do hack out their lungs at the end of a 30-year smoking career, they don’t overly burden the rest of us because of it. Social denigration? Groovy. Banning smoking everywhere but cold, windy sidewalks? Even better (I except bars. Because, honestly. You’re going to friggin’ drink. If you’re going to abuse your liver, you might as well abuse your lungs while you’re at it).

But as for suing the tobacco industry, well, I wouldn’t. Were I smoker and noticed one day that my lung capacity was clocking at about 30%, my first thought would not be How did this happen? And who can I sue? My first thought would be, Well, it’s here. I guess I should work on that will.



Because I don’t want you to think my life is entirely charmed, what with the fabulous wife and great kid and the job where I make stuff up from the comfort of my own home while the rest of you slave for the man in decapitation-height cubicles, here’s a recent disappointment: I’ve been turned down my (yet another) fiction agent.

No, no. I’m fine, really. To begin, it was a really nice rejection, so much so that I like to think that I’ve not so much lost agentorial representation as gained another random e-mail buddy. And you can never have too many of those. And there’s the fact that, since I actually have a two-novel deal, my absolute need for an agent at this moment is less than it might otherwise be. For all that, I do have foreign and film/tv rights to sell, and I know for sure that I don’t want to be the guy who has to slog through and do it. Not to mention selling the novels after these. Somebody save me from myself.

Being rejected is also an object lesson in a fact that when it comes to creative output it is exactly as screenwriter William Goldman famously said of Hollywood: Nobody Knows Anything. Ultimately, nearly all of it comes down to hunches and personal tastes. In this particular case, some of the reason for my rejection by the agent is rooted in the idiosyncrasies of my writing style, which is focused on dialogue and action, and not so much on introspection and internal conflict.

This is of course, a perfectly valid criticism, and one which I get a lot. Go back to my first year in college, when I rather presumptuously shouldered my way into an upper-level fiction writing course, and you’ll find my writing being taken apart by my classmates for being glib and unconvincing. And why not: They were nearly all writing heady stories about drugs and bisexual experiences in the dorms, while I wrote a story about a boy accidentally trapped by the garage door when his dad’s repair job of the garage door opener went awry. Everyone else was writing from what they knew (or, probably more accurately, what they wished they knew), while I was writing from what I thought was amusing. Kid trapped by the garage door? That’s comedy gold! The only thing my writing teacher liked of mine is a one-page vignette I wrote about a college-age kid trying to convince his grandfather that’s he’s not a disappointment, and the grandfather trying to communicate the idea (falsely) that he wasn’t disappointed in the kid. I didn’t like it much personally, but I figured my instructor would.

So, it’s true: I’m glib. But on the other hand, it’s this same style that actually helped sell Old Man’s War, and is implicitly the style the book I’m writing now is supposed to be in. I sold the book on the promise that there would be action and dialogue, and by God, action and dialogue it shall have. There might indeed be some personal introspection and even a couple of larger themes in there, too. So long as they don’t get in the way of action and the dialogue. Anyway, I can’t imagine the story getting too heavy, since as I’ve mentioned before, one of the major plot points involves sheep. Sheep! They’re comedy gold! Scribble, scribble.

So who’s right? The agent who rejected me? The editor who bought my book? Me, glibly writing about sheep? Well, this my point. We’re all right. The agent is perfectly right to reject the work of mine she’s seen — it doesn’t work for her, and that would make it harder for her to sell it. The editor was right to buy the book he bought, because it worked for him and he thinks it’ll work for his audience. I’m right to write what I do because I like what I write, and that fact has its effect on the quality of the writing. And we could also all be wrong, too: The agent might kick herself for letting me get away, the editor could seriously misjudge the market for the novels, and I may be seriously overestimating people’s tolerance for sheep in their science fiction. Nobody knows. We have to wait and see.

In the meantime, I’ve already sent a query off to another agent. You can’t sit around moping after a rejection, you have to rush into the arms of the next rejection. Because who knows? It might not be a rejection at all.


In Case You Were Wondering

Yes, the site was down for a couple of hours. Server problems at my host. It is now resolved, in a process which I’m sure involved sacrificing a penguin to the gods of UNIX.


Happy Family

Why are these people smiling? For the little girl in the center, who is named Andrea, it’s because her adoption papers finally arrived yesterday, which means she has documented proof that she is, you know, in my family. For the woman on the left, whose name is My Mom (and who is holding the aforementioned documents), it’s because she gets the benefit of having a new daughter without the inconvenience of passing said daughter through her body first (and good thing: Look at the size of that kid). For the guy on the right, who is named Robert My Stepdad, it’s because he can’t wait to pay to send Andrea to college! Look at that grin! Ah ha ha ha… heh. And all of them are happy because I took out the boring white wall they had been sitting in front of and replaced it with a groovy Photoshop sky. I’m just giving that way.

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