Ray Bradbury: A writer's writer
By Thomas M. Sipos
I discovered Ray Bradbury in a trash can. On my way home from grammar school, I saw that someone had discarded some yellowed, worn 1970s paperbacks. I salvaged all the true ghost stories and horror fiction anthologies. One Berkeley paperback contained Bradbury's "The Small Assassin," the tale of a mentally mature infant who plots his mother's murder. (Think of The Family Guy's Stewie.)
People forget that Bradbury, known for his science fiction, was also a horror writer. With "The Small Assassin" I became a lifelong Bradbury fan, whatever his story's genre.
I first met Bradbury in 1992, at a Malibu, California book-signing. (His, not mine). He loved my trash can story. One would expect the author of Fahrenheit 451 to rejoice at people rescuing any books from landfills, incinerators, or recyclers.
Shortly thereafter, I sent him a St. Patrick's Day card -- the nearest holiday -- telling him of my having won the Writer's Digest magazine contest and of my own writing aspirations. He replied with a letter of encouragement, and a free copy of his Zen in the Art of Writing autographed to me with a Bravo! He asked me to write to him every St. Patrick's Day and keep him abreast of my progress.
Ray Bradbury was generous with his Bravos! I've seen his Bravos blurbed on various writers' books. One of them told me that when he gave a copy of his self-published book to Bradbury at a book-signing (Bradbury's, not the writer's), Bradbury accepted the book as though it were a delicate treasure, and kissed it.
Bradbury loved writers and loved to inspire them. He said that one should not write for money or for critics, but for the love of writing. That fortune or prestige may come someday, but that these should not be a writer's goals, nor a measure of success or failure. Instead, he said, "You only fail if you give up."
I sent Bradbury a card every St. Patrick's Day, updating him on my life. Sometimes he wrote back. I suspect he had dozens, maybe hundreds, of pen pals. The world saw him as a celebrity, yet he behaved as though he were still the small town Illinois boy in Dandelion Wine.
Brad Linaweaver, the libertarian science fiction writer, told me a story. He was at a Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America dinner. (A Nebula Awards banquet, perhaps.) The SFWA is a mostly liberal group, and when Linaweaver praised Ronald Reagan (this was some years after his presidency), the tension heightened at his table. But before anyone could angrily protest, Bradbury loudly joined Linaweaver in praising Reagan.
That cowed the attending writers. However liberal they might be, none dared disrespect Bradbury. Nor would Linaweaver or I have protested if Bradbury had praised Clinton or Obama. Bradbury was every writer's beloved great-uncle. No matter what he said at the Thanksgiving dinner table, he got a free pass.
(When I related this incident to Bradbury one St. Patrick's Day, he confirmed it.)
Bradbury was a writer's writer not only because he reached out to encourage us, but because he wrote about us. Many of his books and stories are about books and writers.
Other writers write about writing. Few do it well. Their tales are too insider and inbred. Readers just don't give a damn about the pedestrian struggles of bourgeois English professors, sensitive Brooklyn novelists, and aspiring Hollywood screenwriters. George Gissing's New Grub Street (1891) is still the best of the "writer's life" novels, but even that extraordinary work likely appeals almost exclusively to other writers. So the character gets another rejection letter? So what?
But then there is Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury's dystopian novel condemns book-burning. A theme close to writers' hearts. However, if the book's sole message were "Book-burning bad. Freedom good." then readers would rightfully react with a "Duh!"But Fahrenheit 451 is not about a government that burns books, but about people who disdain books.
Some have described the future America of Fahrenheit 451 as a totalitarian dictatorship. It is not. Part of the book's genius is that it portrays a democracy engaged in book-burning. An election campaign is airing on TV. Nothing implies that the election is rigged. The telegenic candidate will surely defeat his uglier opponent, yet nothing in Fahrenheit 451 indicates a significant policy difference between them. We don't know their policies, because the characters don't care. They're voting for the handsome guy. More importantly, they're free to vote. They're getting the society they want, book-burning and all.
Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953, yet it predicted television's impact on the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debate. Fahrenheit 451 foresaw a lot. In many areas, it's more prescient than either 1984 or Brave New World.
The America of Fahrenheit 451 is populated with voluntarily dummied-down people. They anesthetize their intellects with 360 degree TVs: a giant screen on each of a room's four walls. (Thus did Bradbury foresee flatscreen TVs and virtual reality.) They numb their feelings with prescription drugs. (Valium and Prozac.) They seek mindless thrills, speeding on suburban streets, killing pedestrians. They watch police chases on TV -- broadcast live from helicopters. Quickly bored by their materially prosperous but emotionally and spiritually empty lives, they suffer from short attention spans. When the police can't find and capture Montag in time, they introduce a fake Montag to catch and kill before the last commercial break. (Much like today's faked "reality" TV.)
Fahrenheit 451 is not about a tyrannical autocracy, but about tyranny of the majority -- from liberals' hypersensitive political correctness (burning books so as not to offend minorities), to conservatives' mindless, knee-jerk patriotism (there's a war approaching, which none dare question). Yes, the government spouts propaganda and represses misfits. But the majority enjoy their propaganda and revile the misfits. "We the People" oppress others and ourselves.
Despite celebrating space travel and robots, Bradbury often created sympathetic Luddites who rebel against technology's pernicious influence on humans. In his 1953 short story, "The Murderer," people focus 24/7 on their handheld TVs and music players and phones, oblivious to each other. Then a man "murders" their gadgets with a signal blocker. Unable to cope when faced with blank screens and silence, people panic. Naturally, the "murderer" (his term) is judged insane and locked away.
That prescient tale obviously foresaw Walkmans and iPods and smart phones. I have read that some people suffer addiction withdrawal if they lose the use of their smart phones or internet. And I have fantasized about silencing all cell phones -- and their vapidly screaming owners -- within my vicinity. Bravo Mr. Bradbury! Would that it were so.
Ray Bradbury told me that he loved St. Patrick's Day. That will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his Irish stories. He received his last St. Patrick's Day card from me this past March. As the world knows by now, Bradbury passed away on June 5, 2012. His work will continue to inspire writers and readers for generations to come.