Crichton brandishes pen against 'thought police' in new novel 'Disclosure'

January 25, 1994|By Josh Getlin | Josh Getlin,Los Angeles Times

Michael Crichton looks like a winner but feels like a dinosaur.

True, he stands to make millions from his new novel, "Disclosure," just as he did with "Jurassic Park," "Rising Sun" and other blockbusters. Yet to hear him talk, he and other free-thinkers face extinction in a fight for survival with feminists and the pooh-bahs of political correctness.

"There's absolutely a chill in the workplace these days," Mr. Crichton says, picking lint off his Armani suit and scowling down at Central Park, 43 floors below his hotel suite. "Everyone talks about it and no one likes it.

"You can't make any kind of a joke at work. You can't make any kind of a personal comment, and it has a little neo-Nazi flavor," he adds. "It's the thought police, and people are unhappy. They're not going to put up with it."

This will come as news to those who battle gender-based job discrimination. But Mr. Crichton pulls no punches, blaming some women for most of the trouble. They've twisted modern feminism into a doctrine of special privilege, he claims, polluting relations between the sexes and putting everyone on edge.

At least that's the message of "Disclosure," a provocative story of sexual harassment and New Age computer high jinks that has Hollywood written all over it. Indeed, the book was recently sold to Warner Bros. for a whopping $3.5 million, and it reads more like a script treatment than a novel. Mr. Crichton's latest stars a ruthless woman who beats out her former lover for a coveted executive job. Savoring victory, she tries to destroy him by filing phony sexual harassment charges. He fights back to clear his name.

The author, 51, says it took him eight weeks to write the first draft of "Disclosure" in a bungalow near his Santa Monica, Calif., home.

Why does Mr. Crichton make a woman his villain, some reviewers have asked, when most sexual harassment cases are filed by women against men? In 1992, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, only 968 men filed sexual harassment charges out 10,577 complaints.

Meanwhile, there are shots at Mr. Crichton's literary depth: "It will be the very rare person who rereads 'Disclosure,' " sniffed the Wall Street Journal.

So what else is new? Some critics charged that his previous novel, "Rising Sun," crudely bashed the Japanese, and Mr. Crichton has responded with anger, saying such barbs are unfair. Yet his chest-beating, polemical books seem to invite them. Like his characters, he loves being outspoken.

Q: What prompted you to focus on sexual harassment as a topic?

A: I was looking for a long time for some way to talk about the relationship of the sexes in this country. And this seemed to be the right story, this reversed story. It's a very difficult problem, and I had never faced it before.

Q: You've said the plot is based on a real-life occurrence related by a friend. How much did you change the actual incident for the novel?

A: I didn't want to change it at all. But of course one is required [legally] to change it, so the problem was to find things that would be equivalent. I had to disguise the real situation but tried to keep the values the same. I don't think I should say much beyond that.

Q: How did you go about researching the book?

A: I read extensively in the academic literature on the subject and I thought that would be my preparation. Now, I thought, I'll go speak to people in different corporations, none of whom wanted to be associated with me! I said, "Would you like to be thanked in the book?" And they said, "Absolutely not!" None of the attorneys. I think it shows the sensitivity on this.

Q: Did anything surprise you in your research at high-tech computer firms?

A: The first thing I discovered is that these people had no knowledge of the [scientific or academic] literature. They had no knowledge of various feminist positions on these issues . . . and they didn't want to know. Their lives are very fast-paced and they had a kind of rough-and-ready pragmatic approach to gender issues. They're young companies, and there's a tremendous amount of sexual activity. Although the companies all have rules about what you can and can't do with other people, the companies can't [control] it. The human resources people act like they're in charge of some rabbit warren.

Q: Was there a change in your self-awareness as you wrote the book?

A: Yes, very dramatic. My intention was to address what I thought of as unacknowledged biases and assumptions in our society. And I discovered to my amazement while I was working that I had plenty of my own. I had a good deal of difficult feelings about this protagonist as I was writing.

*

When "Disclosure" begins, Tom Sanders is a computer executive in his early 40s who expects to get a long-awaited promotion. By the end, he's lucky to have his job and the respect of his wife, a tough-talking attorney.

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