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In Defense of the Gadfly

You may feel irritated at being suddenly awakened when you are caught napping; and you may think that if you were to strike me dead as you easily might, then you would sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care of you gives you another gadfly.
— Plato's Apology

When I was brainstorming titles for my debut novel, which Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published this past May, I had in mind something intriguing yet bold — a title that screamed Read Me Now! And after weeks of making lists and scouring the thesaurus, I found the five-word masterpiece that I was looking for: The Year of the Gadfly.

This title was exactly what I was hoping for. It was powerful and alluring. Even better, the publisher said that it suggested a "big" book, (industry parlance for "absolutely guaranteed to be a best seller — at least we really, really, hope so!). It was also thematically perfect. The Year of the Gadfly roughly spans 12 months, and it stars a number of gadfly-types, most prominently, a 14-year-old aspiring investigative reporter, whose only friend is the chain-smoking ghost of Edward R. Murrow.

But there was a problem. Let's leave aside the fact that a lot of people are unfamiliar with the word gadfly. (Arguably, not knowing could actually make the title more intriguing.) But if you do know this word, it could easily make you cringe — and I wouldn't blame you.

For one thing, gadfly is an ugly word. Gad sounds too much like cad (i.e., a creep). And it completely lacks the romantic magic of the other fly prefixes, like fire or dragon. When you break the word into its parts — gad and fly — the sounds are utterly without charm. For another thing — and this is no small detail — a gadfly is a synonym for horsefly. Have you ever been bitten by one? I haven't, thankfully, but their bites are known to be horrendously painful. The reason is that their mouths work like scissor blades; they don't just bite you but shred and rip your skin.

Third, there's the way gadfly is used in conversation. Most often, it's an insult.  A gadfly is an annoyingly persistent or bothersome person. He's that guy who drinks too much at the party and won't stop yapping about evil Obamacare (if your party is full of Democrats) or evil Chick-fil-A (if your party is full of Republicans). If your party is full of true independents, then don't worry; it's happening in fantasyland where there are no gadflies to begin with.

And if we trace gadfly back to its origins, the word doesn't fare much better. Take Greek mythology. We all know that Zeus was a womanizer and adulterer. But that's how the gods roll (and it's not like Hera wasn't also shacking up with every shepherd with great abs). On this particular occasion, Zeus started having relations with a mortal named Io and turned her into a cow so Hera wouldn't suspect him. No surprise, Hera found out and decided that the real way to punish her husband was to torture the hapless cow (i.e., woman). And so Hera sicked a gadfly on her. The insect chased Io further and further from her home, until she couldn't find her way back again. It's a crazy and creepy myth and if you're interested, there's a lot more to it, including an incredible monster with 100 eyes. All of this — from the gadfly, to the monster, to Hera's jealousy — plays an important role in The Year of the Gadfly. But you get the point: the gadfly isn't good.

Finally, we come to the gadfly's appearance in classical literature. Here is where the word/symbol/insect is complicated, if not absolved. Socrates was known as the gadfly of Athens, the guy who wouldn't quit busting people's balls. You'd run into him on your way to the store and three hours later, you'd stumble away realizing you'd been goaded into a debate on the true nature of justice and, even worse, shown definitively how much of an idiot you were. When I read the Socratic Dialogues in college, I really hated Socrates. Not so much for his arguments but for the smug way he claimed to know the truth about everything. Of course, I also sympathized with his plight. In daring to openly question authority, he was a kind of precursor to Murrow himself.

When the Athenian government sentenced Socrates to death, he accepted the decision and drank hemlock. It was this decision that angered me most of all. Socrates' friends offered him a foolproof means of escape and he refused to even consider it out of principle. He could have gone on being a gadfly, a much needed voice of dissent. Instead, he kept his integrity but allowed his voice to be silenced. So did that make him a gadfly in the end? I wish I knew.

However you think of the gadfly — either as a word, a figure of speech, a mythological symbol, or a literary allusion — it is inherently unpoetic, frustrating, and painful. At worst, the gadfly is a tool of authority. At best, it is every determined reporter speaking truth to power. But the gadfly will surely not leave you alone. It will dig into your skin, biting deep. At least it did with me. 

Jennifer Miller's debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly, (Harcourt 2012) features a teenage reporter whose only friend is the ghost of Edward R. Murrow. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, Marie Claire, Allure, Salon.com, Fast Company, The Millions and the Daily Beast. Visit her website www.byjennifermiller.com or follow her on Twitter at @propjen.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 20th 2012, 11:09 AM
Comment by: mac
ah, Jennifer. have you not known many gadflies, then? those with wit can be a delight; a night's entertainment, a thorn in the side of pontificating pols or unctuous union leaders while, often, provoking gales of laughter.
as to the past tense of sic i think sicced (it loox wrong) is the preferred tho sicked (this too looks strange) is correct. hmmm. who's being the gadfly now?
Saturday August 25th 2012, 9:36 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Wonderful presentation.
I like to thank the author and will chase her to read her columns from now on like a Gadfly chaser.
Don't worry. I will not bite you!

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