Stephen Hunter is the Pulitzer Prize-winning former chief film critic of the Washington Post. Steve’s most recent collection of film criticism is Now Playing at the Valencia. In July Steve provided us his take on one of the best movies I saw this year.
Steve is also the author of best-selling suspense novels (collected on Amazon here) that include his series featuring Bob Lee Swagger. Today is the publication date of Steve’s new addition to the Swagger series, I, Sniper. We invited Steve to write about his new novel for us and he has kindly obliged:
A novel is many things to its author — child, commercial enterprise, vessel of hope, miracle that it even got finished, miracle that it even got started, bad mistake, great career move, a cry of “I am” to a world that replies “No, you’re not” and so on and so forth — but it’s also a referendum on the novelist’s subconscious. It’s simply too damned much work to come out of the rational part of the brain, and on those late nights when the slate seems as blank as the tank is empty, stuff roars in from the id, sometimes unchecked.
Thus I was astounded to discover to what degree I, Sniper turned out to be a reflection on my own disillusionment with journalism, in whose newsrooms (first at the Baltimore Sun, then at the Washington Post) I toiled so happily for 38 years. The book proper arose from a publisher’s mandate and a personal breakthrough. I had created a character named Bob Lee Swagger, a sort of me with actual courage, who had slugged and blasted his way through a number of adventures, most involving shooting.
He was an ex-marine sniper from Vietnam, with an unusually acute gift for understanding the secret physics of gunfights and other shooting events. He was the vessel also of my love of the warrior, the guy on the tip of the tip of the tip of the spear, and of the killer. That, really, is what state sanctioned force is all about and it offended me profoundly that our therapeutic culture grew so offended by the bloody mess such men inevitably left behind them that it hid their activities behind a screen of euphemism.
I wanted to chronicle — and celebrate — what they actually did, and what it cost them, and how it also expressed them. Bob has now become more of a forensics investigator than a shootist; but he still has the old skills and instincts, and they still come into play at key moments. (In I, Sniper, he goes against a team of four new-age bad guys armed with the latest in technological breakthroughs in computer-driven scopes, and has to prevail over youth, stamina and intel chips by savvy and experience; great fun to write and I’m hoping great fun to read.)
Without belaboring the fact, Bob has become so popular that he can’t be retired. And many of those people who loved him yearned for a classic sniper novel like Point of Impact or Time to Hunt, where it came down to the marksman’s skill, guts and cunning, as matched against his equal in a mile-wide gunfight. I was persuaded, therefore, and I discovered a kind of pleasure as well in constructing another such tale and I believe my reputation as the Fyodor Dostoyevsky of the sniper novel will be validated by the result.
But I felt some compulsion to deal with the industry I had served for so long. I had watched the slow drift of newspaper culture to a kind of sloppy, unstated, certainly unrigorously justified liberalism, even as I was drifting myself toward the conservatism that was my natural personality and destination. Please understand I mean not to impugn either the Sun or the Post or any of the great people I worked with there. I was always treated well, paid well, in some cases beloved. No one ever yelled at me or dissed me; I didn’t come home seething with anger and I’m not sitting here pickled in the cold sweat of bitterness. I got every job I ever wanted, I won some big prizes and I retired happily and without rancor.
Still, I remember a moment at the Post where an editor — a great guy, by the way, and working for him was a privilege — came up to me to tease me because I had been “outed” as someone who’d contributed to a political party in contravention to newspaper rules and industry ethics. I had been one of two of 100 who had donated to the Republican National Committee (they called on a night when I’d been drinking and a credit card came out before I knew; still, I was guilty, guilty, guilty. But as I say, no one every yelled at me.) “Steve,” my editor said, with the rich baritone laugh that made him famous, “we’re so glad you’re here. You give the rest of us cover!”
And that is the truth. I was useful to the Post as a kind of trophy conservative, who could be counted on to bash Michael Moore and Oliver Stone, yet otherwise be quite a benign presence. I could write the occasional piece on guns, giving them a move they never had before. I went along, telling myself that my career was honorable in that I got ideas into the Post that otherwise would not have seen the light of day (career triumph: I got the phrase “the usual left-wing crap” into print!)
But I was never anything but a gewgaw, a novelty on the staff. How can you work there? some people would say. Well, I would reply, they have never EVER tried to force me into a party line or disciplined me for oppositionist thought.
But still, subtly, without rancor or pain, even pleasantly, still more common comically, I felt my disconnection from office culture and my benign exile. It was okay and I am not complaining. However, a lot of what I felt came out in I, Sniper, in which I chronicle a young aggressive reporter of the sort I had so frequently witnessed. He knows, shall we say, which way the wind is blowing and what values he must pursue in order to prosper. Nothing is ever said, but he understands his obligations to the motherpaper (the New York Times, in this case, as I could not bring myself to criticize the Post for this and it was pleasing payback for the Times’ unwillingness to review my books for the last 10 years) .
What he doesn’t realize, and the book documents, is that his mindset makes him vulnerable to manipulation. This is what so many young reporters don’t get. Their commitment to an agenda, subconsciously or not , distorts the way they see reality. Thus when they say “We are not biased,” they honestly believe that. They are reporting what they see, but are oblivious to the fact that they are viewing it from a platform that they take for granted.
Thus, for them, reform is always good, change is always good, its avatars are always noble if not heroic. Anyone who fights against change is always bad, even evil. There are sacred cows: environmentalism, anti-racism, global warming, a whole litany of assumed truths that form the bedrock of how they perceive reality, after their education and their immersion in newsroom culture.
I call it “the Narrative” and it takes on the force of the actual in many journalist’s minds, and it perverts the reporting of the news. I dramatized that in I, Sniper as a liberal Times reporter is steered down a primrose path to destruction by a shrewd PR genius who plays on his natural antipathy to the square Joes of the FBI, to people who carry guns and shoot people, to the whole alien culture of force exemplified by military elites, SWAT operators, door kickers and men who risk their lives for a living.
To him its exotic and perhaps a little sexually suspect. He hasn’t been adequately educated to respect courage, discipline and sacrifice. He looks askance at the rough men who do dark deeds by night but occasionally let slip a subject and a verb out of agreement. In other words, he is totally a creature of the Narrative.
In the end, the book works best, I believe, as a thriller, not a sermon. But I hope, if I can get more than a few journalists to read it, it offers some Big Macs for thought: its lesson, in the end, is one I believe American journalism must learn if it is to survie: Destroy the Narrative.