Morality and the Modern Writer

Happy New Year!

I’m going to dive right into 2019 by raising the tricky and controversial topic of what I’m calling ‘morality and the modern writer’. I’d been mulling over aspects of this issue ever since the MWA controversy over Linda Fairstein, when yesterday (quite serendipitously) the NYT published an article entitled ‘Must Writers be Moral?’. This article got me thinking (again) about how we deal with, and differentiate between, the actions and ‘morality’ of an artist as opposed to their work. In the Fairstein controversy, the MWA withdrew her Grand Master award following an outcry over her involvement in the infamous Central Park Five case. While I don’t intend to discuss this particular case in any detail, it highlights the very public way we are now seeing the line between art and artist play out in society today.

The NYT article (a link to which is provided here) adds a further dimension to the discussion by highlighting the increasingly widespread use of ‘morality’ clauses in publishing agreements today (something, I must admit, I was completely unaware of!). The article details the use of clauses that release publishers from their obligation to publish a book if (in the words of a Penguin Random House contract) “past or future conduct of the author inconsistent with the author’s reputation at the time this agreement is executed comes to light and results in sustained, widespread public condemnation of the author that materially diminishes the sales potential of the work.” Some contracts go even further, requiring authors to return advances should their contract be terminated. As this article outlines, even though publishers’ concern over the marketability of their authors is understandable, the issue of ‘immorality’ can be a slippery concept (especially if the publisher has sole discretion over determining an alleged infringement) and, when it comes to public condemnation, often a moving target. Some prominent writers, such as Masha Gessen, have refused to sign these clauses arguing that there is too much ambiguity involved in these kinds of ‘morality’ clauses, not to mention concerns over censorship as well as public vitriol.

In 2018 there were some very public book cancellations (most notably Milo Yiannopoulos) and scandals involving authors such as Junot Diaz that reflect the post #MeToo era. While I don’t want to engage in a heated discussion about these particular controversies, I am trying to get my head around the distinction (especially when it comes to ‘morality’) between the artist/writer and their work. Any student of literature knows that many famous writers were hardly angels – instead history is strewn with womanizers, drunks, addicts, racists, anti-semites, misogynists..and the list goes on. So how do we separate the person from his or her work? Should we judge an artist solely on their works or is the work inextricably linked to them as people (and thus, their behavior and attitudes)? In the current publishing environment it seems that writers are being held up to scrutiny in both their professional as well as their private lives.

So TKZers, what do you think about these so-called ‘morality’ clauses in publishing contracts? How do you view the distinction between a ‘writer’ and his or her ‘work’? Is such a distinction even relevant in today’s social media age?



30 thoughts on “Morality and the Modern Writer

  1. In this time of instant access to information and social media, writers and other artists are held to a higher standard. The problem, as you pointed out so well, is that the standard is an arbitrary one.

    As with all issues of political correctness, the smart writer is forced to present a persona on social media that might or might not reflect the truth of the writer’s life.

    In real life, the same smart writer must strive not to be caught thinking, saying or doing anything with which anyone else might disagree.

    The problem is, anyone might “disagree with” or “be offended by” any action, past or present, at any time.

    I’m a retired Marine. There’s nothing intrinsically right or wrong about that, yet there are folks out there who won’t read my work because of what they imagine I did when I held that particular day job and what they assume that means about who I am now. There are others who seek out my work for the same reason.

    Yet the fact remains that a good story (meaning a story that is to a particular reader’s taste) is a good story, period, despite how the writer chooses to live his or her life away from the keyboard.

    I personally applaud Masha Gessen’s decision not to sign such a contract even if it means walking away and finding another publisher or going the indie published route.

    Above all else, writers should be true to themselves. They should write the stories they want to write in the way they want to write them. Readers who enjoy a writer’s stories will continue to find and read them. And those who don’t?

    I can’t speak for others, but don’t lie awake nights worried about readers who choose not to read my work (nor plumbers who prefer not to fix my pipes or mechanics who would rather not repair my car, etc.).

    I’m a writer. I just write.

    • I do not feel the need to sign a morality contract with publishing companies and corporations whose behavior and standards are virtually closed to us. I can imagine that the producer whom everyone now knows about, forced some of the women with whom he why-we-know-about-him’d, were forced to sign morality contracts when he or his production company signed them.

  2. In the past readers were not always aware of artist behavior and beliefs beyond the page. In recent years the internet has changed that completely. Readers are much more likely to know (or learn) if an artist has said or done something racist, homophobic, misogynistic, etc. Now that we have access to that information, that behavior becomes part of the determination of whether readers will “vote” for that person with their money. I do not personally chose to support books/works by an individual who demonstrates those behaviors and understand why a publisher would want the opportunity to take action if something comes to light, although the publishers concern may be more about losing money than not supporting an individual who believes X.

    • Katherine, I’m sure publishers are concerned about their bottom line as well as the publicity surrounding certain author behavior. You’re right though – in the past the public probably weren’t aware of an author’s private life/behavior – now everything is out there (whether an author likes it or not!).

    • The crowds of enraged villagers carrying torches and pitchforks, preparing to chase the monster through the countryside, are forming, aren’t they?

      Whether or not the monster is proven or unproven to actually be a monster. But perhaps we can shame the runner into being a monster–or at least throw monster stones at him until others come around to our way of thinking.

      • In a capitalistic society we vote with money. You in many (not all) circumstances have the ability to say what you want even if it’s disturbing. Others likewise have the ability to not buy the book because of this disturbing statement, any other reason, or NO reason at all.

        No one can force me, or you, to spend money on a book (at least not outside a school setting). Marketing’s purpose is to give people a reason to spend their money on your product. Some people will buy what you’re selling no matter what you’re doing beyond the pages of the book. Some won’t.

        I have on many occasions decided not to buy something (book, movie, transportation, etc.) based on behavior outside of the individual product but have rarely told anyone that I made the decision based on that. No pitchforks for me. 🙂 Wait, that’s not totally true. There’s a guy on twitter who proudly proclaims he’s a hebephile(which I recently learned is a pedephile, just a more specific statement regarding what age he attacks) and minor attracted. His statements on twitter are disturbing and he is open about being a criminal (pedephilia is illegal). I reported him to twitter twice, then resorted to publicly tweeting at twitter in an attempt to get an explanation for why he didn’t violate terms of service. I’ve received no response.

        So, I guess your pitchfolk thing is apt. I have and will continue to try to protect children from pedephiles.

  3. I have a similar, yet more specific, clause in my contract. Rather than ambiguous wording, it states “if the author publicly attacks another author or the publisher, the publisher, at its discretion, has the right to void the contract.” Which I didn’t have a problem signing. They simply want us to act professional.

    As for your question, I do think we’re linked to our books and, therefore, need to conduct ourselves accordingly, especially in public. Many other professions ask the same of their employees. Why not authors? But if a publisher wants these types of clauses, then they need to use specific wording so everyone is on the same page.

    • This wording certainly seems far less ambiguous and I agree that authors should be held to similar standards in other professions:) Also it’s completely understandable that a publisher would want the discretion to terminate a contract is an author is out there publicly attacking other authors or the publisher!

    • But that clause also muzzles authors when a publisher starts doing illegal shit like not paying authors, etc., which happens a lot in small publishing as well as big publishing.

    • So if it transpires that Unnamed Author is a child rapist with puppy heads on pikes in the backyard are you not allowed speak negatively about him/her? I wouldn’t be able to help myself.

      • I think its designed (hopefully) to avoid online ‘flame wars’ but it can be a fine line – my preference is to avoid confrontation in a public forum but I can understand your concern.

  4. If this is the new standard, then the publishing industry has officially surrendered to Twitter-shaming, where facts no longer matter. Let’s look carefully at this quoted clause: “past or future conduct of the author inconsistent with the author’s reputation at the time this agreement is executed comes to light and results in sustained, widespread public condemnation of the author that materially diminishes the sales potential of the work.”

    “Past or future”: By this standard, historical context does not matter. For those of you who entered the work force in the ’80s or before, think back to those office Christmas parties. I was in my ’20s at one of these when a senior executive of the major defense contractor I worked for sat in my lap, wiggled her backside, gave a little rub and said, “What, you don’t like me?” She meant no offense, and I took none. She was easily 20 years my senior, and she was playing for the laugh. That stuff happened all the time. I’m not saying it was right or wrong, just that it was they way things were. But if that past activity somehow is revealed through an ancient picture and goes viral, executives at the publishing company can terminate the contract for doing that which they all remember doing themselves. Oh, the hypocrisy!

    “Comes to light”: Translation: we don’t care that you did terrible things. Hell, we *know* you did terrible things because we were there at the party with you. But if anybody finds out, we’re going to pretend that we’ve always hated you.

    “Results in sustained, widespread condemnation . . . that materially diminishes the sales potential of the work”: Translation: Sorry, author, we know that all the accusations are B.S. We know that you were only doing your job when that happened, but the political cycle is against you now and we don’t have the moral courage to do the right thing and stick up for you. We’re going to throw you to the wolves because it’ll get us some good press.

    I fear that this is all the ultimate result of the zero tolerance era in which today’s young executives grew up. The trend toward social media McCarthyism is frightening. If the trend continues–if artists and writers and publishers don’t begin pushing back–I fear that there will be no future Jonathan Swifts, Benjamin Franklins, Thomas Jeffersons, Ernest Hemingways, Dorothy Parkers or Truman Capotes.

    • I agree with John. Social media insults can arise from anything and nothing at all. In the era of fake bots, the attack can escalate for no reason. This can still result in a publisher feeling that their revenue is threatened. Whether anything is proven, perception becomes enough.

      Free speech is a remarkable liberty that can have a double-edge. I would hope that a publisher would make any “morality” clause specific enough that it would’ve give them an out for unproven allegations, despite any boycott, but the author must make sure not to sign a contract with such language in it, that doesn’t protect their rights as well.

      As Sue points out, if the clause is specific to an author’s behavior that is controllable, that’s one thing. But a vague clause encompassing someone’s notion of “morals” should be something authors push back on.

    • John –
      I have often wished TKZ had a “like” tally function for comments.
      I would’ve checked that for your comment and hope that a large number of others would’ve been moved to do so as well.
      There is wisdom in your words.

  5. This is a truly frightening article not just because of morality clauses but because it encourage trial by mob, by the Facebook and Twitter mob. I’m an old white guy. Maybe I did something years ago that I don’t even remember that suddenly offends the weak-minded cowards crouching behind their smart phones. Boom, I’m a target because they don’t like my opinion. Even if there is no proof, it appears that I couldn’t even fight back. God forbid that I actually believe something the crouching Twitters don’t like.
    This is another good reason to self-publish.(or not publish at all)
    This is another good reason to stay away from social media.
    Having said that, I’ll crawl back in my little hole and shiver in the darkness.

  6. I looked up the Mission Statement on the The Mystery Writers of America website. The first two sentences are quoted below. (The rest of the mission statement isn’t applicable to this discussion.)

    “Mystery Writers of America is the premier organization for mystery writers, professionals allied to the crime writing field, aspiring crime writers, and those who are devoted to the genre. MWA is dedicated to promoting higher regard for crime writing and recognition and respect for those who write within the genre.”

    Do you think MWA has adhered to its mission?

  7. I think that we’re looking at a situation where “should be” is being trumped by “Actually is.”

    To elaborate, a writer and their work are two separate things. I am not my work, but it is a part of me. I am not my characters, I am not my settings, and I am not living any of the stories I write. I write the book that I would want to read. I love doing it.

    The publishers are in a tough spot. The reality is that a #Metoo moment, or any other scandal will produce a strong mob reaction and sales will suffer. Similarly, the publisher’s reputation will suffer as a result. People do not separate the work from the person and they demand their pound of flesh for any perceived transgression. This is just the sad, awful truth of our reality.

    I’ve self-published in the past because I wanted to retain creative control and I was happy with the process. I am happy with the result and sales were fine.

    Now I’m in a tough situation. I’m proud of my latest manuscript. It’s my best effort to date and it works on every level. There is no limit to the commercial possibilities of such a story. I want the marketing muscle and distribution that a traditional publisher can bring.

    Do I sign a contract with the morality clause? I’m willing to forgo an advance if they’ll take it out. If they won’t … I’m afraid I will be signing it.

    • A little off topic, but trad pubs don’t do much marketing. Even established mid-list trad pubbed authors do most of their own marketing. And as for distribution, trad pub takes your books no place you can’t go with indie publishing.

      And while we’re talking contract clauses, also watch out for exhanging all rights for the life of the copyright for whatever advance they offer (if any), the wording of no-compete clauses, etc.

      I will personally never go back to trad pub until the contracts are vastly improved.

      • Harvey, for what it’s worth all boilerplate publishing contracts are predatory, but I’ve always been able to negotiate away the onerous parts.

  8. Big publishing have used clauses about the quality of the work to mean that a work which won’t make a profit can be tossed out, no matter how well written it is. Giving them an ambiguous morality clause is the same slippery slope of profit before morality or anything else.

    At the same time, they are more than willing to publish bestselling authors who do unprofessional and illegal things like massive plagiarism.

    At the same time, I worry about social standards hind-sight which applies current “standards” according to the individuals who are loud enough to early eras and authors. At this rate, there will be no authors from the past being taught in schools because of some supposed sin they committed according to the new moralists.

  9. This is such a can of worms that I would need to write an essay to fully address it. Generally speaking, I have Real Problems with the whole concept of ruining someone’s life over a tweet, or name the social media post of your choice. It doesn’t take much of an internet search to find numerous examples of just regular people who have lost jobs, careers, internships, school admissions, etc. over an ill thought post. This is ridiculous. IMO a lot of these postings that have raised such a fuss may be regrettable, but aren’t the end of the world. Having a book contract cancelled for offending the Twitterverse is insane.

    People aren’t perfect. This includes artists of any stripe. I don’t expect total strangers to necessarily live according to my personal moral code. There are a lot of people who see the world very differently than I do. Some of them write books, make movies, paint, play music, etc. But there is a line. I don’t know that it’s consistent, and it’s certainly not the same for other people. For example, I have never seen a Woody Allen movie since he married his daughter. I’ve never read much Lovecraft, and avoid reading him because of his repellant racial attitudes. I would avoid a known plagiarist, although I read Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento when I was a teen (and even I at that age could figure out that book was more fiction than fact). As Allen has made a fair number of movies since his marriage and Lovecraft books still sell it’s obvious others have different views.

    So, you know, it’s complicated. I read that NYT article yesterday. I rolled my eyes.

  10. I know that a lot of people will not agree with me, but I consume media (TV, movies, books, etc.) due to my enjoyment of the material. The creators’ personal lives and beliefs have no bearing on what I choose to entertain myself with.

    I have no problem speaking out against what Bill Cosby did for years. However, his guilt does not make his BILL COSBY, HIMSELF material any less funny. That was a great album.

    If I do not partake in any artist, it is because I do not enjoy their work. If I am to be expected to choose my entertainment based upon the moral character of the person creating it, then there’s a lot of crappy stuff out there made by good people I have to tolerate just to appease someone’s conscience.

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