Questions of Ethics/Intentions, Part One
When Rich/Powerful People Bully Someone Less Powerful in Defense of Your Bad Behavior, You’re Probably the Bad Art Friend
Let’s begin with some background and biases; it’s difficult to ascertain forest and trees absent at least some context.
About a week after the original article was published, a friend texted: “Have you read the Bad Art Friend piece yet?”
I’m a writer and lawyer, and the article was about writers involved in litigation, but I hadn’t read it yet. I’m not linking to the article because a. it’s not a great article and b. the online conversation around it has frequently been toxic. Behind a Door neither seeks nor welcomes toxicity. Search “NYT bad art friend” if you want.
Immediately after beginning the story, I texted my friend.
“Reading the first sentence, I feel both seen and warned ☺️”
The article begins by describing of one of the main characters as sunny, earnest, and open. People have said the same of me. The New York Times writer goes on to say that some people find this character endearing, while others find her “extra.” No doubt this is also true of me… but I’m old enough now to notice the patronization and feel concern.
Mid-way through, I texted my friend.
“Both of these women are not looking good.”
My friend texted back.
“I know, but the sunny one is ultimately vindicated! Turns out there are tons of legal documents that illuminate how biased the article is against her.”
That’s some background, and one of my biases—I relate to Sunny. Being sunny, open, and earnest is a frequently delightful way to live, though less so when surrounded by wolves.
A bit more background and another bias: my primary literary mentor, a guy who abused me, also convinced me the Nobel laureate, George Seferis, had it right when he wrote, I want nothing more than to speak simply, to be granted that grace.
So, now you also know that I’m (physically, metaphysically) aware of the complexities of literary relationships, and that I believe plain speech is a virtue.
It can be useful to speak simply, to pare things back. Revealing basic elements can provide a path toward understanding, toward something like truth.
The Bad Art Friend drama is, among other things, a story about power. We each have power—different sorts, in different amounts, at different times. I’m interested in the ways we choose to use whichever powers we may have.
Let’s break the drama down. According to the New York Times, a character I’ll call Sunny did a difficult, Cool Thing. She also created a private Facebook group, including several dozen people she believed she could trust, where she wrote about doing the Cool Thing. Most people don’t do things as altruistic as the Cool Thing; Sunny’s a writer; and more people are inclined to do the Cool Thing when they read about others who’ve done it. That Sunny made a private group where she wrote about doing the Cool Thing isn’t particularly weird.
Unfortunately, the other main character in the article—a colleague of Sunny’s who was included in the private Facebook group, a character I’ll call Mean—didn’t see it that way.
Mean thought Sunny was full of herself. Tall Poppy Syndrome—when envy prompts bitterness and/or attempts to sabotage—is insecure and petty, but it’s at least arguably reasonable, given its ubiquity.
Less reasonable was when Mean copied and pasted words that Sunny wrote into one of Mean’s own short stories.
I mean, I don’t know Mean copied and pasted the words. I just know the words in Mean’s story were literally and exactly the same words that Sunny wrote in her private Facebook group. Mean may have typed them, letter by letter. We’ll likely never know.
Mean stole some words from Sunny, put them in a short story, and called them her own. When Sunny learned of the theft, she asked Mean to explain. Mean (according to documents Mean failed to realize she’d have to disclose when she sued Sunny—about which more in a sec) declined to explain. Instead, she repeatedly messaged her private online group, a bunch of mostly powerful and sometimes wealthy writers, about how much she hated Sunny.
When Mean declined to explain, and Mean’s story with the words she stole from Sunny began to be published (because that’s what happens sometimes, when you have rich/powerful writer friends), Sunny started reaching out.
Sunny reached out to their mutual employer, an influential and nationally-recognized non-profit for writers. Sadly, Sunny was unaware of Mean’s private online group, which included multiple members of their employer’s leadership team. When Sunny’s employer failed to support her, Sunny quit. (Lawyers and H.R. folks: I hear you sighing omg; wait til you hear how litigation actually started.)
Sunny reached out to places where Mean’s story was being published, inquiring first about their plagiarism policies, and then, if the story seemed to have violated a policy, requesting the story be removed.
When Sunny’s reaching out became bothersome to them, Mean and her private online group decided Mean’s next best move was to sue Sunny.
Like much of what I’ve already written, that litigation began when Mean sued Sunny was not made clear in the original New York Times article. As mentioned, rich and powerful people are involved, and the New York Times is a lifelong fangirl for wealth and power. Nonetheless, that is what happened: rather than, e.g., removing Sunny’s writing from her story and moving on, Mean sued Sunny for defamation.
Eventually, Mean reluctantly did change some of the words she stole from Sunny. I’m not guessing at her reluctance—those documents she didn’t realize she’d have to put into the legal record reveal all sorts of things, including Mean’s awareness of her theft, and her saying something like, “I really don’t want to have to change [the words]; they’re just too good.”
Sunny ultimately countersued, to get a. her rights to her own words enforced and b. her legal fees paid.
One of the most important newspapers in the world published a disingenuously complex, gossipy, biased article about Sunny and Mean. In the original version of the article, Sunny comes out looking like a needy jerk, which is weird because when you review the legal record, actual documentation repeatedly reveals that Sunny was thoughtful and cautious, while Mean was busy asking her online group for advice re: successfully stealing from, manipulating, and bullying Sunny.
Twitter (of course) found the legal record and, appalled in its peculiar Twitter way, raised a Twitter kerfuffle, which prompted a remarkable number of people with secure writing jobs and flush bank accounts to use their powerful publications and platforms to come to Mean’s defense. The paper of record published a mealy-mouthed and probably sexist follow-up that did little to clear up the blatant biases of the original piece.
A whole bunch of other people sat around, agape, trying to parse the gaslighting.
Some ideas gleaned from breaking down the drama, probably useful when considering Bad Art Friends:
Claiming someone else’s words as your own is stealing. Stealing is dumb, and sometimes illegal. Meanness may be human, but so is stupidity; it’s best to attempt to avoid both. Power likes power and will close ranks at the slightest provocation, as it prefers to consolidate rather than share. Writers (and others) within powerful organizations have incentives to lie and the cleverest among them will lie via omission, obfuscation, and manipulation; questioning authority is a useful practice. The internet is forever, and it is not private. Avoid litigation when possible; if it is necessary, it behooves you to remember that discovery is a bitch.
Finally, good writing is impossible without vulnerability, honesty, and generosity, and most writing communities are real bad for all that.
This is your co-founder and co-editor of Behind a Door signing off, with a prayer to the literary heavens that I remember these lessons.
Behind a Door will continue this series on ethics and intentions in future issues.
code review: M. Miller
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