The Fallacy of Neutrality and The Matter of Romance
Over the past few days, some have lamented the fact that it was the Smart Bitches who broke the Cassie Edwards story, because they are not "neutral" enough where Edwards is concerned.
I don’t think anyone could argue seriously that the Smart Bitches are neutral about Cassie Edwards (although if you take a look at Candy’s statistics, the legends surrounding the extent of their attention to her are pretty obviously exaggerated). But my question is why should they have to be neutral about Edwards – about anything, actually – to have legitimacy as the source of the Edwards revelations? No one with an opinion is neutral. No one. To be neutral is to be disengaged. And seriously, do we want people to be neutral about plagiarism? Does anyone think that news reporters are disengaged with the issues about which they write? That they don’t have opinions about those issues? How about the ACLU or Ken Starr? I wasn’t thrilled when Ken Starr pursued the Clinton/Lewinsky relationship, but by no means did Starr orchestrate Clinton’s decision to play doctor with Lewinsky in the Oval Office. One might argue that it was a measure of Clinton’s arrogance that he never considered the possibility that he would be caught.
In any case, I think it is rarely neutral people who initially break scandals, even if the appearance of neutrality exists in our mainstream press. The Washington Post did not get its best information from people who were disengaged in Watergate. Dispassionate people don’t care enough to put themselves on the line to expose something people will find shocking and for which they will suffer backlash.
Neutrality, especially in the world of blogging, is a fallacy, and it is counter to the very purpose of a blog. One cannot have a conversation without the exchange of opinions. When I read a blog, I want to know where the blogger is coming from. I want to know where people stand. I am a very opinionated person. People criticizing the Smart Bitches are being very opinionated. If The New York Times had broken this story, does anyone believe that they would not do so with a certain opinion about genre Romance? Would people be complaining about their lack of neutrality when it comes to the genre? Who could have broken this story without being suspect in some way?
There are instances in which I disregard what bloggers say based on their stated or apparent biases. I disregard the opinions of these bloggers or a particular version of a story. Which is where I think we need to distinguish between facts and stories. Facts are stated in the comparison tables on the Smart Bitches site. Stories are told when people speculate on why those similarities exist – why Edwards did what she did, etc. Have either Candy or Sarah been speculating about what they found in these Cassie Edwards books? No. The information they presented on the Edwards books is objective information. I understand how people can think that the attention they have paid to Cassie Edwards’s books (and it is to her books) in the past is unfair. But dismissing what the Smart Bitches have uncovered doesn’t seem any more reasonable to me than anything the SBs have said in the past about Cassie Edwards’s books.
As to what other people say in the comments, are Candy and Sarah responsible for the opinions of their commenters? If they moderated comments would that make them look more neutral or less, do you think. Do the comments that follow the online editions of mainstream news stories on sites like USA Today make those stories any less legitimate? Have people read some of those comments? So why are the Smart Bitches under this kind of "neutrality scrutiny"? Is the AP suspect for picking up the story and including the judgment of a leading plagiarism expert, John M. Barrie, that “Ms. Edwards’ unattributed use of other peoples’ work as her own definitely constitutes plagiarism"? That statement goes much further than Sarah and Candy have in their own posts and comments.
More generally, is it a greater good to have someone who has written more than 100 books continue to use uncredited material in her work? How would that make the Romance community look?
All of this brings me to a second but related point about why it matters that this happened in the Romance community. I know that some have been insisting very strongly that this is not just a Romance issue, but a publishing issue in general. As true as I think that is, I also think it is important to keep in mind that the initial "official" response from Signet insisted on a different standard between academia and commercial fiction, saying "Although it may be common in academic circles to meticulously footnote every source and provide citations or bibliographies, even though not required by copyright law, such a practice is virtually unheard of for a popular novel aimed at the consumer market." Cassie Edwards relied on that same alleged distinction in her own statement that "When you write historical romances, you’re not asked to do that." All I kept thinking when I read these two statements was "well, what about those whose work was appropriated and plunked down in those "popular novel[s]"? And where was one source or footnote in the Edwards books? Anyone still in doubt about the "unheard of" nature of source attribution should consult this site (link provided by a commenter on the SB site).
Are we really at the point where we can accept the idea that in commercial fiction we need to show less respect for the work of scholars who, within their own community, are the equivalent of popular novel writers? In that sense, I agree that this is not just a Romance issue. But in the same way that the combination of Cassie Edwards’s novels and Google Books seems to have handed this story to the Smart Bitches, does the Romance community want to hand the mainstream public and press the perception that we don’t value scholarship or intellectual honesty?
It seems to me that if we want to protect the integrity of Romance authors, we must extend the same to authors and scholars and writers in other genres and communities. The Romance writing and publishing communities may not be able to police anyone else, but they can police themselves, and I’m frankly afraid that if we all give in to the idea that this is a general problem in publishing there will be no incentive for anyone within Romance to take care of business within the genre and the community. Because we all know it’s easier to let someone else take care of a problem we don’t see as our own. Especially when there doesn’t seem to be a common articulated standard of source attribution and plagiarism within the Romance community.
So precisely because many see this as a black eye on Romance, I think it is a Romance problem, even if other genres and writing communities share in it. As long as a major publisher and author can claim that there is no standard of attribution or a different standard of attribution from that of other writing communities, in my opinion that’s a problem for Romance authors and readers. Because if Signet had been publishing Charles Bird Grinnell’s original work, I bet they would have a whole different view of the standard Cassie Edwards claims is acceptable in historical Romance. If I wrote a bestselling Romance novel comprised of five or ten unattributed, unquoted sentences each from every published Romance novels, I doubt any Romance author whose work appeared in that manuscript would be defending my "fair use" of their work. And I doubt many readers and authors would feel particularly neutral about it, either.