Ethical Creativity

What does it mean to be ethically creative? There are so many answers to that question, and it ties strongly into a number of current national and international conversations.

Historically, anyone creative has been expected to be strange, “touched”, perhaps even divinely inspired. We still toss around phrases like “Feeding the Muse” and “channeling creativity.” Writers, artists, actors, musicians with strong personalities are expected to act irrationally, and the more famous they get, the more removed from everyday conversations, the more erratic behavior becomes expected, celebrated, and encouraged.

I feel very boring and plain as a person. I don’t have any wild drinking, drugging, womanizing, trashing hotel room type of habits. Maybe I’m just not famous enough yet. But why should that be a benchmark at all? Is unrestrained shitty behavior actually required to be a writer?

Well, no. But it’s not as simple as a one word answer. I feel as though, for promotional purposes, I’m supposed to show up in public as weird. Dress up outrageously, color my hair like a vibrant peacock, put on brash makeup, make strange yarn crafts on the side, do a Jack Sparrow imitation…. okay, maybe not that last, because no way I could pull it off. Not that I do any of the others, besides dying my hair… anyway. Moving on….

Is it ethical for me to present as more exciting as I really am, in order to impress people into buying my books? Is it true to myself to be louder and more charming than I would normally act? How ethical is the expectation that creatives “put on a stage face”, at the end of the day? Am I actually being a shinier version of my everyday self, or am I crossing the line into being a fake?

I think about this a lot. It’s a significant part of my anxiety at conventions, that I’m constantly weighing myself against myself, if you see what I mean. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only public-facing creative who goes through this internal debate.

I also find it insanely ironic that I wind myself up over relatively innocuous questions like this, while other creatives prance merrily along a trail of destruction, broken trust, broken hearts, and apparently don’t give enough of a flying fuck to make any form of real apology, let alone change their behavior. And they rarely face lasting consequences. So how ethical is that? How ethical is it for us, as fellow creatives, to allow the “oh, he’s a writer, they’re all a little crazy” to serve as cover for harassment, gaslighting, manipulation, and straight up assault?

You may not know what I’m talking about. That’s okay, I’m about to lay a few incidents out very clearly. You read them, you think about the question I’m posing here, you come up with your own answer.

First I’m going to talk about a recent case, involving the owner of Borderlands Books in San Francisco, California. This came to my attention via Twitter, and via a podcast called The Horror Show With Brian Keene. I’ll be honest: I’d never heard of the podcast or or Keene before this. I also don’t listen to podcasts in general. But I listened to this one, because I’d heard of Borderlands Books and was alarmed by the taglines I was seeing about the incident in question.

I got a lot more than I expected. It’s a pretty intense episode. Brian gets seriously pissed off. The work “fuck” is used a lot. Rightfully so. (And certainly my readers will know I don’t shy away from that word myself.)

The owner of Borderlands Books, Alan Beatts, has been credibly accused of sexually assaulting not only an ex girlfriend, but his own daughter. The evidence and public outrage is solid enough that a number of outlets are cutting all ties with Borderlands. This is a big deal; in my understanding, Borderlands is a pretty significant indie bookstore.

The section of the podcast that details the accusations and evidence is extremely tough listening. I’m pretty sturdy with this stuff, but it shook me badly. The podcast also looks at unrelated incidents involving Matt Hayward, a former associate of The Horror Show, and that part isn’t an easy listen either. Here’s the link to the episode I’m talking about. If you don’t want to listen to a podcast, there’s an article that lays it out well here.

I’ll be completely honest: listening to that podcast made me reevaluate a lot of things, myself. It is directly responsible for my decision to step back from rage tweeting on social media and put my energy into creating something more tangibly useful. Because a lot of people, even now, either don’t know or don’t believe that this shit is happening. And that has to change.

Another recent story hit me rather closer to home, because I’ve met, had drinks with, enjoyed the writing of, and like the author in question. I’m talking about Elizabeth Bear. She and her husband have been accused of grooming a young woman, Alexandria Rowland, with whom Bear’s husband, Scott Lynch, had a brief relationship.

This is one I really don’t know what to do with, to be honest, because there’s so much he said/she said and questions all the way around. I have no right to ask or get the answers to my questions; Rowland has posted a long and detailed account of her allegations. Lynch and Bear have responded on Twitter with, essentially, “Yeah, the situation was fucked up, we fucked up, but all three of us contributed to the trainwreck, and there was never any grooming involved. Also, Rowland was trying to use us to advance her career and several of her allegations are factually inaccurate.”

It’s messy. It’s hard. I don’t know what to believe. I don’t know how much Bear being a friendly face at conventions, that I really love her writing, not to mention her being a white woman, is influencing my reluctance to believe Rowland’s story. God knows, Bear has made some missteps in the past, but they’re not in line with this sort of accusation. This is an ongoing story, in my opinion, to keep an ear on and see what develops.

If you haven’t heard about J.K. Rowling’s messiness, I suspect you’ve been living under a rock — or maybe immersed in a creative project that doesn’t allow for outside news input. In that case, here’s a brief recap: JKR has been showing her entire ass in increasingly unpleasant swathes regarding transgender people. JKR’s explanation of the current situation can be found here. Good deconstructions of what she’s done and said can be found here and here and here. There are many others.

It took me a while to come to a decision on this one, mostly because I just needed time to read all the back and forth, but I’ve now packed up all of her books (I have the entire series in hardcover, not a small investment) and intend to give them to a charity drive. I didn’t do this just because of the latest problem; it’s been coming for a while now, as my early fan fervor died down, replaced by a more critical examination of her writing.

And of course there was June in general, when multiple authors — Paul Krueger, Sam Sykes, Myke Cole, Scott Allie, Warren Ellis, and others — were hauled across the coals for being shitty human beings. Here’s an overview. A longer, more detailed examination can be found here. Again, I really liked Krueger’s writing, and I believe I’ve met a couple of the other authors, at the very least.

It’s significant that I wasn’t surprised by any of the above allegations, except by the ones against Bear. I expect men in positions of power, regardless of industry, to abuse that power as a matter of course. And my only real surprise regarding Bear is that she’s being held up as a person with poor, even dangerous, professional ethics, all because of what sounds like an entirely personal trainwreck. Again, still on the fence there.

But … looking back to the beginning of this post: what the fuck am I agonizing about again?

Will any of these men who’ve harmed friends, family, fans, and the industry they work in, have long lasting consequences for their behavior, now that it’s been laid out? Past experience points to no. There will be a period of a few weeks, maybe a few months, and then the public will forget or elide the incident, a half-assed apology will be polished into a brave promise to be better, and the offender will be right back in the spotlight.

Meanwhile, the harm remains. The distrust of men with power deepens. Even fewer women will be willing to come forward with their stories. Vulnerable populations will be reluctant to venture out to conventions and events that invite these predatory assholes as guests. The conventions will then fill up with people who approve of and encourage the bad behavior, because they’re artists/writers/actors/creatives, everyone knows they’re a little crazy, and the women complaining are just in it for attention

What would our industries look like if we actually demanded ethical behavior from our creative heroes? How can we make that happen? Where can we, each of us, draw our boundaries and make our refusal to accept this shit known, and make it stick?

Is it possible to be a truly ordinary person and produce extraordinary creative works? Will we, as a fanbase/genre audience/nation/world, ever destroy that false narrative of creative necessarily = unethical behavior ?

Post your thoughts in the blog or Twitter comments. Let’s talk about this.

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