Thursday, January 20, 2005

Ethics or Manners?

As many folks seem more upset about my approach to Tom Bissell's questionable borrowings, than to the borrowings themselves, I have here a short essay I recently wrote:

The thing to know about the trendy hip people at the exclusive penthouse party known as "literature" is that nothing for them is more important than manners. One of their number could be devoid of all talent (as most of them are), but that's beside the point. How hip is he? What clothes does he wear? Are his jeans faux faded-- or faded for real? Does he smell? Meanwhile, Dostoevsky and Rimbaud stand outside the door, but can't be let in; they're unwashed and unshaven, no clothes from Lord & Taylor: not presentable at all.

A famous Literary Figure at the hip party could be a known serial killer (looking suspiciously like Bret Ellis), well-dressed and hip, martini glass rakishly tilted, holding forth (in Agni of course) on, of all things, law and order. You point to him and say, "But you're a serial killer!" The crowd is outraged. Not at him, for his serial killing, but at you, for speaking of the matter in polite company. "It's . . . it's . . . ," a rich dowager blusters, "it's not done!" Outrageous! Throw the bum out!

The same mentality applies to their taste in literature. What matters isn't if the work contains emotion and truth, but whether the "proper" person wrote it, and if the work is correctly polished and clean; what clothes it's wearing.


Anonymous said...

So it turns out he cited his sources and you went after him anyway? What's up with that? (See

King said...

Sorry, but Bissell DID NOT cite his source in the Harper's article, which is what we're talking about-- and Harper's failure to acknowledge the source then, or the omission of the source since.

This matter was first introduced on Amazon a year ago. Did Bissell put the source info in the paperback edition because of this? (Remember, there was quite a controversy at the time over the Amazon charges on both sides.) IS THE FESHBACH SOURCE CITED IN THE HARD COVER EDITION? If not, then we have good evidence that the introduction of the matter did have positive results.

Anonymous said...

Great essay. It brought to mind the Guare play "Six Degrees of Separation" and the messages concerning privledge and class. It also brought to mind a particular incident that happened to me as an MFA student. I shall entitle this, "I, Plagiarist," because, in this little essay, I am condemning myself.

As a kind of ode to my favorite "hot" writer (whom I shall call S.) at the time (mid 90s), I once blantantly plagiarized S's prose in my own story for a creative writing workshop. I was (and still am not) proud of what I did (it was my way of acknowledging S's great prose style, I thought), but since I was considered a "promising" writer by the MFA faculty, I knew I wouldn't be punished or even admonished for what I did. Another student in the workshop, however, had the guts to confront me and the teacher after class to complain. He showed the teacher the actual short story from which I copied (without proper attribution, like Bissell, mind you) and the teacher just smiled and did nothing. I can't tell you how embarrassing of an incident that was, not because of the obvious ethical concerns, but because I had to see another peer, a struggling, apprentice artist like myself (who didn't have the "promising" tag attached to him like I did), point out that what I did was so obviously wrong. If he didn't confront me like that, then I would have went home that evening praising my own cleverness in lifting someone else's material. Honestly, I took his criticism to heart. I was humbled, humiliated, even though my teacher dismissed the charge so matter-of-factly. It was at that point I quickly realized that I would get free passes from not only this teacher but from the rest of the MFA faculty the rest of my term there. And, needless to say, I did. To say I quickly became cynical about MFA writing programs right then and there is an understatement. I was mortified. I even apologized to the teacher days later, offering to make a statement to the rest of the workshop students for my grievous error, but she told me it wasn't necessary. In retrospect, I probably should have done just that anyway, despite what she said.

I tell this little (okay, long) story only because you are so correct, sir: no matter how many people will try and dismiss Bissell's "questionable borrowings," what he did was just SO WRONG. What I don't understand is how little attention the story has gotten. I, for one, am scarred for what I did. And I continued to play the MFA literary game to the hilt after I graduated, getting some of my work published because of who I knew. But guess what: I never fulfilled my promise as a writer. I still gamely write, but I've decided to try and succeed based on my own talents, not because of who I hung out with or who I knew.

Keep up the good work, King. I am an ex-MFAer who likes what you do and your neverending belief in integrity.

Anonymous said...

What's up with the smart ass comments? There are some typical McSweeney's style responses here. Let's just make some clever insulting jokes and hope that our adolescent outbursts will drown out the issue. That's what I call snickering from a great height. How cute and clever and Dave Eggers dull. But it's not surprising: the day after the election, McSweeney's only offering was "New Food."