Ann Regentin has written a brilliantly thoughtful analysis of the work "Me2" thing for the Erotica Readers and Writers site ... I just wish she was talking about me and not my nefarious copycat (sigh):
Several months ago, I got an e-mail to the effect that someone had stolen M. Christian's identity to get a book published about stolen identity [Plagiarism Alert: Me2 novel by 'other' M. Christian]. I read on, at first horrified and then faintly uneasy, but as I had a serious cold at the time, exacerbated by prednisone and immune suppressants, I set aside my unease. I would deal with it when I felt better, but in the meantime, I posted the thing to my blog. It was the least I could do, regardless of what it was.
As you've probably guessed, it was a publicity stunt, a joke that was perhaps more corny than clever, but a book is a book and I did the obvious thing: queried here and there to see if someone would let me do a review.
The response surprised me. ERWA, obviously, gave me a green light, but not after some discontent was heard on the Writers list. A joke, maybe, but in very poor taste. Another place I queried turned the review down flat, with some there suggesting that they might not work with M. Christian at all in the future. At the very least, the publication would remain quiet on this one. Clearly, M. Christian had unwittingly struck a nerve.
Okay, it was a silly joke, but if we're going to tar and feather intelligent men for making silly jokes, we'll have to pluck every chicken in the Midwest. M. Christian is a good writer and an easy man to work with. I can overlook a bit of silly.
Not everyone agreed with me. There were a number of folks who had taken the whole thing at face value and were feeling tricked or even used, and they were angry about it. They just wanted to forget the whole thing.
I decided not to. I decided instead to think about why this story seemed credible in the first place. It was intended as an outrageous joke. It should have been taken as an outrageous joke. So what happened? Is it possible that we're writing in a time when someone could pull off such an identity theft? Are we writing in a time when a publisher would let a book go to print, even promote it, when such a theft might have occurred? Are we writing in a time when a writer in such a position would have little or no legal recourse?
Sadly, yes. That's the conclusion I've come to, anyway, and I have a fair amount of evidence to back me up. I even have some experience along these lines, not so much a matter of chronic problems, but more a question of a few, scattered folks who seemed bent on profiting from my work without actually compensating me in any meaningful way. This isn't a reflection on anyone whose site you'll find listed on my own, by the way. When someone pulls that kind of crap, I don't link to them.
Setting my own experience aside, I have seen evidence of this on a larger scale. The recent writers' strike was, to a great extent, about who gets to profit from new media uses of written material. There has been a sad but steady trickle of journalism scandals, and books published as non-fiction that probably should have been published as novels. There have been lawsuits involving writers like J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown over who had certain ideas first, whether a fictionalized account of a line of historical reasoning counts as plagiarism when an account has already been published as non-fiction and, most recently, about the difference between not-for-profit, online fan work and profiting from a printed version of the same material.
We are also writing in a time when authors are expected to do everything except print the book and put it on the shelves, and expected to do it all equally well. Being an author is less a question of being a good writer than of being a jack-of-all-trades. For example, a recent entry on an agent's blog indicated that as far as he was concerned, writing a novel and writing a query letter require the same set of skills. I have to ask, though, whether he would believe that any advertising copywriter could write a good novel, because a query is really advertising copy, and that's different from a novel. Writing a novel is also different from editing, copy editing, and running an effective publicity campaign. Those tasks were once handled by specialists. These days, not so much.
There are new possibilities now. With changes in how books are printed and distributed, New York isn't the only game in town, and it's no longer necessary to buy a physical press, as Anais Nin did, in order to create or become something different. We can even make money in new ways. An interesting blog, maybe an e-book or related affiliate program, can generate a reasonable amount of spare change, never mind a potential publishing contract
In short, we're living in a time when pretty much anything goes in publishing, including a certain amount of lying and cheating. I don't think, though, that Alyson Press would have done that to M. Christian once word got out, or that M. Christian would have published the sale information of the book in the way he did. Certainly he wouldn't have mentioned it so enthusiastically in earlier interviews and pre-release e-mails. Very different things would have happened had this situation been a real crisis. Unfortunately, the fact that this turned into a tempest in a teacup indicates that we might well have a crisis on our hands, just not one involving M. Christian and Alyson Books.
Sadly, the tempest has obscured an interesting, timely book, [Me2: A Novel of Horror] especially for erotica, even if it isn't necessarily erotica. If identity and personality are open to question or manipulation in an increasingly homogenous world, what does that mean for attraction? Are we falling in love with people, or with images chosen from a million, well-marketed possibilities? Where is the line between image and substance? Which of the two appeals to us more strongly, and what are the possible consequences? M. Christian poses these questions in a disturbing, thought-provoking way.
The book is also relevant to the point of irony where the resulting tempest is concerned, because I think the problems facing publishing are similar to the problems facing our narrator—or is it narrators? It's hard to be sure. Anyway, at the core of the publishing-related difficulties I listed is the desire on the part of nearly everyone involved, including writers themselves, to find or be the next big thing. Unfortunately, success like that isn't as easy to duplicate as writer self-help books claim it is, but the fact that the self-help books keep selling tells us how much we all want this. Agents and publishers set their criteria for both acquisitions and compensation on this desire, trying to minimize risk while maximizing benefit, and writers put up with an environment in which we can begin to believe even for a moment that Alyson Books would let a book go to press with M. Christian's name on it that wasn't written by M. Christian, simply because we want this badly enough.
Ours is a difficult, chancy profession, made worse by the fact that almost everyone can, in some way at least, write and even get published. It doesn't help that where things are published and by whom makes less of a difference than one might like to think. I've seen some darned good writing in personal blogs, and trite trash on the best-seller tables. So has everyone else. These days, being the next big thing isn't just about money, it's also about vindication. Vindication means different thing to different people, but whatever it means, it's usually important enough to sacrifice for.
What gets sacrificed, of course, is where the problem comes in, and it's not just an institutional issue. It's a personal issue, one that everyone in the industry must decide for themselves. There's no easy answer. Every approach has it's advantages and disadvantages, and every writer I know is coping in their own way. We're just going to have to get through this as best we can and see how the industry settles once we get used to what all of this new technology can do.
I'm not proposing changes here, sweeping or otherwise. That's not my job. What I'm suggesting is that we not shoot the messenger. Our discomfort with M. Christian's idea of a joke is what it is because of the context in which the joke was made, not the joke itself. "Wassamatta, your legs broken?" is funny when aimed at one's fit but recalcitrant teenager. It's offensive when aimed at someone whose legs are really broken.
Are the legs of publishing broken? I'm not sure. Certainly, the industry is changing, simply because communications technology is changing, and in the scramble to adapt, an environment has developed in which writers are worried. We see this kind of theft as a viable possibility, which makes it no laughing matter.
The book and the fuss surrounding its release have given me considerable food for thought, in part because I think I've met the narrator, or someone just like him. It's hard to tell, not to mention a disturbing experience.
I'm also writing in a climate of something just beyond unease but not quite into fear. There are stories, sometimes headlines and sometimes rumors, of writers losing control over the rights to their work in ways that rob them of compensation, and for a moment it seemed that M. Christian was one of them. He wasn't, though, and we'd prefer not to think about it anymore.
Clearly, I'm still thinking about it, and I probably will be for a while. Oh, and if you want to find out why I called this "Beside Ourselves", you'll have to read the book!