"The New Republic Online
Cock and Bull
by Michael Crowley
Post date: 12.14.06
Issue date: 12.25.06
There is an obscure publishing doctrine known as "the small penis rule." As described in a 1998 New York Times article, it is a sly trick employed by authors who have defamed someone to discourage their targets from filing lawsuits. As libel lawyer Leon Friedman explained to the Times, "No male is going to come forward and say, 'That character with a very small penis, 'That's me!'" This gimmick was undoubtedly on the mind of Michael Crichton, the pulp science-fiction writer of Jurassic Park fame, when he wrote the following passage in his latest novel, Next. (Caution: Graphic imagery. Kids, ask for permission before reading on):
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. Crowley was a wealthy, spoiled Yale graduate and heir to a pharmaceutical fortune. ...
It turned out Crowley's taste in love objects was well known in Washington, but [his lawyer]--as was his custom--tried the case vigorously in the press months before the trial, repeatedly characterizing Alex and the child's mother as "fantasizing feminist fundamentalists" who had made up the whole thing from "their sick, twisted imaginations." This, despite a well-documented hospital examination of the child. (Crowley's penis was small, but he had still caused significant tears to the toddler's rectum.)
The next page contains fleeting references to Crowley as a "weasel" and a "dickhead," and, later, "that political reporter who likes little boys." But that's it--Crowley comes and goes without affecting the plot. He is not a character so much as a voodoo doll. Knowing that Crichton had used prior books to attack very real-seeming people, I was suspicious. Who was this Mick Crowley? A Google search turned up an Irish Workers Party politician in Knocknaheeny, Ireland. But Crowley's tireless advocacy for County Cork's disabled seemed to make him an unlikely target of Crichton's ire. And that's when it dawned on me: I happen to be a Washington political journalist. And, yes, I did attend Yale University. And, come to think of it, I had recently written a critical 3,700-word cover story about Crichton. In lieu of a letter to the editor, Crichton had fictionalized me as a child rapist. And, perhaps worse, falsely branded me a pharmaceutical-industry profiteer.
The road to this literary hit-and-run began back in March, when I wrote an article about Crichton pegged to his 2004 best-seller, State of Fear. The 624-page thriller presented global warming theory as the work of a fiendish cabal of liberal environmentalists, celebrities, journalists, academics, and politicians. Crichton's populist disdain for these "experts" dovetailed neatly, I argued, with the Bush administration's antiintellectual streak--and it was the reason that Karl Rove had invited Crichton for a chat with George W. Bush at the Oval Office and a right-wing senator had asked him to testify before his committee. Crichton discussed his White House visit with me, and our talk was friendly--though Crichton was clearly nervous about being linked to Bush. How ironic, then, that he wound up responding to my critique with a move worthy of Rove's playbook.
Indeed, much like a crude political operative, Crichton savages his cultural villains with sadistic glee. In Jurassic Park, a sleazy lawyer is consumed by a t-Rex while sitting on the toilet. State of Fear prominently featured a fatuous Hollywood liberal, remarkably similar to Martin Sheen, who winds up consumed by cannibals. But, despite his generally worshipful treatment in the press, Crichton loathes no creature like the journalist. His 1996 novel, Airframe, ostensibly about aviation disasters, was in fact a diatribe about the news media's cynicism and stupidity. Next, meanwhile, is peppered with sneering jibes at The New York Times. It's a strange crusade for the son of a journalist.
Thus far, no one seems to have publicly drawn the connection between Mick Crowley and Michael Crowley. In her November 28 review of Next, the Times's Janet Maslin nearly did, noting the presence of some oddly mean-spirited caricatures--including, as Maslin put it, "a Washington political columnist and spoiled heir who turns out to have raped a 2-year-old." But, while Maslin generously called these characters "ham-handed," she didn't make the link. Others have, including a friend who called breathlessly from New York. When I accused him of a prank, he replied, "How could I possibly make that up?" True, I thought. My friend was not nearly demented enough.
I confess to having mixed feelings about my sliver of literary immortality. It's impossible not to be grossed out on some level--particularly by the creepy image of the smoldering Crichton, alone in his darkened study, imagining in pornographic detail the rape of a small child. It's uplifting, however, to learn that Next's sales have proved disappointing by Crichton's standards, continuing what an industry newsletter dubs Crichton's "recent pattern of erosion." And I'm looking forward to the choice Crichton will have to make, when asked about the basis for Mick Crowley, between a comically dishonest denial and a confession of his shocking depravity.
Crichton launched his noxious attack from behind the shield of the small penis rule because, I'm sure, he's embarrassed by what he has done. In researching my article, I found a man who has long yearned for intellectual stature beyond the realm of killer dinosaurs and talking monkeys. And Crichton must know that turning a critic into a poorly endowed child rapist won't exactly aid his cause. Ultimately, then, I find myself strangely flattered. To explain why, let me propose a corollary to the small penis rule. 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.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.