Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Ethics: What to Do?

Terry Shames here, fresh from Left Coast Crime.

Our topic this week is complicated: Regarding AJ Finn (Dan Mallory) and his blatant lies, how important is an author’s personal ethics in your regard for his or her work? Knowing about Mallory’s lies, would you still read his book?

For me, the question of personal ethics/entertainment started with The White Hotel, by D.M. Thomas, a book I loved. A year after its publication, I was shocked to read the controversy over whether Thomas had lifted whole sections of  the book from Anatoli Kuznetsov’s Baba Yar. The question: Did he plagiarize from the book or was it “merely” an artistic inspiration. For me, regardless of the answer, the book felt tainted.

In the years since then, I have read numerous books that seemed closely parallel to others, and even seen passages that were highly suggestive of others’ work. But rarely does it rise to the level of plagiarism. Does plagiarism have to be intentional to be plagiarism? Does a careless incorporation of a seed from someone else’s book sink to that level? Does having a 6’5” ex-military protagonist who roams around the country righting wrongs mean you have plagiarized Lee Child? Probably not, but there is an odd flinching that happens when it comes too close. The “flinch” is probably a little different for every reader.

Then there was Woody Allen. When he divorced his wife in order to marry his daughter, I was appalled, ashamed that I had enjoyed his work so much, and shy of continuing to support him as an entertainer. He made no bones about being narcissistic, snarky, and selfish. He boldly declared his right to be exactly who he was. No apologies. I have never really reconciled this conundrum. Although I have gone to Allen’s movies since then, I never have gotten away from a certain squeamish sense when I think about him and his work.

So plagiarism is not the only ethical blunder that can bring me up short in deciding whether to enjoy an artist’s work. Knowing that someone is a blatant racist, sexist, or is known for cruelty, is among some of the things that make me cringe away from a book. I have personal knowledge of a widely-acclaimed poet’s cruelty toward his son. His poetry is stunning, and yet when I read it, I have a desire to shy away from it. Where does that boundary lie? There are plenty of examples of male authors who have violated women, and it’s hard for me to get past that. A popular mystery writer once said something so appalling to me that I had to walk away. Since then, I’ve never been able to read one of her books. It’s personal. I suppose there are some writers I admire who may have private lives that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. And maybe I don’t want to know!

Which brings me to Dan Mallory. Once I can get past my teeth-gnashing fury that he got a $2 Million contract for what is essentially rumored to be a boiler-plate novel (I have not read the book), I can’t help having a bit of conflict about him. All the evidence points to him being a pathological liar, and if that’s true, it’s a mental illness, and I’m not sure how much responsibility he shoulders. But what if his lies were a brilliant tactic to get ahead? I admire that, the same way I admire some of the more nasty tactics of a Mafia don. “Admire” is the wrong word, perhaps. I’m not sure what the right word is, because the word would have to contain my utter disdain for the lack of ethics, the disregard for rules of conduct in a civil society, and the lack of humanity in addition to my awe at their inspired criminality. Mallory seems like the kind of man who would go out of his way to kick someone who was down.


Mallory’s ability to make millions off of a ho-hum books leads back to his being employed in the very industry that boosted him. The industry that all of us are engaged in as writers and as readers. The publishers he worked for were careless at best, and colluded  at worst, in allowing this man to perpetrate his lies. Bottom line? What they were interested in was…the bottom line. This goes so much deeper than simply the moral turpitude of a single writer. It lifts the lid off a pot of publishing stew that includes questionable business behavior. I have no illusion that today’s emphasis on salability is a new phenomenon. But I do think there used to be a healthy mix of love of books that steered the publishers. With rare exceptions, this is now the norm, and the callous attitude that led to Mallory’s success.

So if the publishing world is partly to blame for Mallory’s success in getting away with his scam, where does that leave readers? Do we have to  give up reading books by traditional publishers for fear that we’ll be feeding that trickery? Do we ignore the personal behavior of authors and simply judge books on their own merits? Do we, as writers, turn down an offer from a suspect publisher? I think the least we can do is try to be ethical in our own behavior and hope for the best in the books we read. Beyond that, it’s a stew.


Dietrich Kalteis said...

A very interesting post, Terry. And it was good to see you at LCC.

Terry said...

Thank you Dieter, Wish we had had a chance to do more than ships passing in the night. Great conference! Canadians know how to put on a con!

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