Thursday, July 28, 2016

Bad behavior all around: on grumbling authors, agents who charge writers for pitches, and aspiring publishing people who shame writers

Because David Benjamin's post is still public, I'll share the link: My Latest Rejection, #319: Jennifer Johnson-Blalock. But if you're tempted to join the people who're mobbing him, please finish this post first. I'll make it as brief as I can.

I learned about this story in the wrong way. First I saw Steve Brust sharing a link to this tweet by John Scalzi:
In the comments, someone provided a link to a screen capture of the post and the existing comments at How to get yourself blacklisted, a blog by Passive Guy who "hopes to work at a publishing house one day".

Mention a blacklist, and my hackles rise—I was born during the Red Scare and grew up very aware of all the blacklisted leftists of the time. We didn't believe in blacklists. Dave Van Ronk tells this story:
"Years later, I was talking with him [Oscar Brand] and expressed my disgust that that he, or maybe someone else, had put on a show with Burl Ives, who had outraged us all by naming a string of names in front of HUAC. Oscar just quietly said, “Dave, we on the left do not blacklist.” Put me right in my place."
So I read David Benjamin's post as the writing of someone who was under attack for committing a social mistake, which means I read it about as charitably as anyone could, and I still winced at some of things he said about the agent in question. I doubt Benjamin himself would deny that the post is mean-spirited.

But I also had some sympathy for him. Scalzi's tweet left out a very important fact: Benjamin didn't just get rejected. He paid $50 for the privilege in what I consider a scam. Traditionally, money flows from agents to writers. Reverse the direction in any pay-to-play scheme and serious ethical issues arise. This doesn't mean agents should never take money for doing anything other than agenting—being paid to teach classes and give speeches about publishing is fine. But once you're engaging in one-on-one sessions at rates like $50 for ten minutes, to my mind, you've crossed a line. The US minimum wage is $7.25; if you're getting paid in ten minutes as much as a minimum wage worker is paid in seven hours, you should be doing more than exploiting the hopes of aspiring writers, and you should not be surprised when disappointed writers vent.

I have no idea how popular Benjamin's blog was, but the fact that his rant is his most popular post suggests he did not expect it to get the attention he's gotten. He seems to have been doing what humans do, grumbling among friends without realizing that on the internet, you're always one public post away from social suicide.

Because the internet is vindictive, Passive Guy at How to get yourself blacklisted is providing screen grabs to make sure Benjamin cannot try to escape punishment. I think Benjamin's right to leave his post public; I advised that in How to survive a mobbing (that mostly happens online).

But Passive Guy is wrong to join in the Name and Shame Game. Publishing etiquette includes the principle that you don't shame people lightly. (You save those stories for the bar.)

Scalzi was right not to name Benjamin or link to anything that did name him. I'm naming him because (1) he hasn't taken the post down after a day of mobbing, and (2) the poor bastard can use some defenders because people who hear of the uproar will google his name.

I admit, I'm not the best defender because I agree that his insulting of the $50 for 10 minutes agent went far beyond her not providing him with anything useful in return for his time and money.

But humans vent with people they consider their friends, when they think they're in the equivalent of a corner of the bar where no one else is listening. People who have not been mobbed online or who do not have massively popular sites do not expect to get mobbed for griping.

Yes, it would be lovely if we were all saints, but we're not, so the best we can do is have pity for those who fuck up.

Part of the pity should go to the agent who took part in the pay-to-play scheme. It's become commonplace; there's no reason for her to feel bad for doing what many do not question. But now that this has happened, the best thing, so far as I'm concerned, would be for her to simply refuse to do more.