Beware the Witch-Hunting Impulse

My experience today reading Joe Konrath’s “Writers Code of Ethics” was probably exactly what he intended. From points one through three—never write or pay for reviews of your own work—I was in complete agreement. From points four through six—don’t ask friends or fans to review your work—I was thinking, “wow, that’s pretty strict.”  By point nine—”I will never allow anyone to send out copies of my books to be reviewed”— I was suspicious. Long before I got to his twenty-third and final point of ethics, I realized he had veered into satire.

What spurred Konrath’s gradual escalation into ethical absurdity was a manifesto of sorts by a group of authors condemning other authors behind a recent rash of “sock-puppet,” or faked, and purchased book reviews. His aim, I take it, was not to defend dishonest marketing, but to warn us against mob instincts:

“All of you pointing your fingers and proclaiming your piety? Get back to working on your books, not judging your peers.”

In the recent uproar over the apparent multiple plagiarisms and fabrications by Jonah Lehrer and one instance of plagiarism by Fareed Zakaria, I’ve sensed a disquieting rush to judgment. In each case, the acts are indefensible. But for those of us striving to be ethical, unreservedly condemning them, as Barry Eisler puts it, is a dead end. That lack of reserve leads all too readily to overreactions and unfair accusations.

Viewing ethical mistakes in black and white makes life simple. But we can learn more, and become better people and better writers, by trying to understand the complex intentions and motivations behind those errors.

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