The language rule they don’t teach in school

This story from the NYTimes was just too good to not share. As someone who studied journalism as an undergrad and creative writing as a grad student, and who has job duties now that include being the guardian of Time Union style (aka Conan the Grammarian), I had no idea that the world of publishing included the rule mentioned in the following story:

NYTIMES December 14, 2006

“Next,” Michael Crichton’s new novel about the perils of biotechnology, has not proved as polarizing as his previous thriller, “State of Fear,” which dismisses global warming. But one of the new book’s minor characters — Mick Crowley, a Washington political columnist who rapes a baby — may be a literary dagger aimed at Michael Crowley, a Washington political reporter who wrote an unflattering article about Mr. Crichton this year.

Certainly Mr. Crowley thinks so.

In a “Washington Diarist” feature that was to be posted last night on The New Republic’s Web site,, and published in the magazine’s Dec. 25 issue, Mr. Crowley says he is the victim of “a literary hit-and-run” because of a 3,700-word article in The New Republic in March.

In that article he accused Mr. Crichton of being “a menacing figure” because he uses his “potboiler prose” to advance causes now dear to Republicans. Mr. Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic and writes primarily about politics.

“In lieu of a letter to the editor, Crichton had fictionalized me as a child rapist,” Mr. Crowley writes.

Mr. Crichton could not be reached yesterday for comment, and a publicist at his publisher, HarperCollins, did not return calls.

The March article that Mr. Crowley referred to concluded: “And now, like a mighty t-rex that has escaped from Jurassic Park, Crichton stomps across the public policy landscape, finally claiming the influence that he has always sought. In this sense, he himself is like an experiment gone wrong — a creation of the publishing industry and Hollywood who has unexpectedly mutated into a menacing figure haunting think tanks, policy forums, hearing rooms and even the Oval Office.”

Mr. Crowley, 34, reached by telephone yesterday before the article was posted on the Web site, declined to expand on what he wrote. “I want to let the piece speak for itself,” he said.

The character that Mr. Crowley says he believes is modeled on him mostly appears on two pages in Mr. Crichton’s 431-page novel.

On Page 227 Mr. Crichton writes: “Alex Burnet was in the middle of the most difficult trial of her career, a rape case involving the sexual assault of a two-year-old boy in Malibu. The defendant, thirty-year-old Mick Crowley, was a Washington-based political columnist who was visiting his sister-in-law when he experienced an overwhelming urge to have anal sex with her young son, still in diapers.”

Mick Crowley is described as a “wealthy, spoiled Yale graduate” with a small penis that nonetheless “caused significant tears to the toddler’s rectum.”

Mr. Crowley writes that Mr. Crichton’s Mick Crowley not only has a similar name but is also a graduate of Yale and a Washington political journalist. Mr. Crowley contends that Mr. Crichton has tried to escape public censure for his literary attack by hiding behind what has become known as “the small penis rule.”

The rule, Mr. Crowley writes, is described in a 1998 article in The New York Times in which the libel lawyer Leon Friedman said it is a trick used by authors who have defamed someone to discourage lawsuits. “No male is going to come forward and say, ‘That character with a very small penis — that’s me!’ ” Mr. Friedman explained.

Although he writes that no one seems to have drawn the connection between Mick Crowley and Michael Crowley, Mr. Crowley concludes that he is “strangely flattered” by his 15 minutes of fame in Mr. Crichton’s novel.

“To explain why, let me propose a corollary to the small penis rule,” he writes. “Call it the small man rule: If someone offers substantive criticism of an author and the author responds by hitting below the belt, as it were, then he’s conceding that the critic has won.”


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