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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 11, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Web Warnings, Blonde Faith, Bad Writing

Hardly a day goes by without a friend forwarding me a joke, a poem, a picture, or links to videos or animations meant to amuse, entertain, move, inform, inflame, or warn me about something.

Often the information is hopelessly out of date; sometimes it's completely false. Yet the information is easily checked. Hoaxbusters shows up as the first choice if you Google "Hoaxes." (The URL is http://hoaxbusters.ciac.org)

While I value many of the forwarded items, and value all of the well-meaning friends who send them, it is my firm belief that the forward button on your email software should be disabled until you can prove you have visited Hoaxbusters.

There's another category, though, that even Hoaxbusters isn't much help with. This is the forwarded message that contains copyrighted content.

You know what I mean: the charming little poem or anecdote or essay that was either written by "Anonymous" or has no attribution at all.

Guess what. "Anonymous" never wrote anything. Everything you forward was written by somebody. And the moment they wrote it, copyright attached to it and you're breaking the law and infringing their rights whenever you forward it to somebody else, especially when you don't even try to find the author.

Not that anybody can track down and prosecute infringers for every forwarded message. In fact, what sane author would want to? Forwarding is a kind of samizdat publication that functions like free advertising -- it's word-of-mouth, and when people think what you wrote is worth sending along to their friends, that should be encouraging. It means people like what you wrote.

Of course, if your name isn't attached, then it isn't doing you much good. Nice to see your writings flourish on the Internet -- but kind of sad when you can't claim it as your own.

My essays are forwarded quite a bit -- but not half often enough! I appreciate it -- as long as my name is attached, and the Rhino Times is cited as the place of first publication.

There's a step beyond forwarding, though. Sometimes, somebody who maintains a website will decide that something they read is so delightful or appropriate or important or cool that they'll post it on their website -- complete with the "anonymous" citation, or no author citation at all.

Now you've gone beyond word of mouth. Now you're publishing someone else's work, gaining whatever benefit you gain from publishing it, without paying the author for the privilege. And unlike forwarding, this infringement can be proved and can lead to lawsuits.

Some friends of ours recently fell into this trap. They run a small website for a niche audience. Along came a forwarded essay called "If My Body Were a Car." It reached our friends without attribution; they liked it and thought their readers would like it, too.

They were right. Their readers liked it.

But the author didn't.

It happens that "If My Body Were a Car" was written by Linda S. Amstutz, a moderately talented but extremely greedy, litigious, and self-righteous author. She makes no allowances for well-meaning mistakes. Her agent regularly Googles phrases from that essay and fires off a letter to every website that cites it, demanding $750 immediately as payment for publishing the essay.

Our friends don't make money from their website -- it's a labor of love. $750 is a cruelly harsh payment that they simply can't afford. Of course they immediately took down the essay and apologized -- but Amstutz doesn't want apologies. She wants money.

Now, her essay was originally published in Ozark Senior Living magazine. You can bet that she did not receive $750 for first publication. She may not have been paid at all.

Furthermore, $750 is a ridiculously high price for reprint rights for essays. I have stories reprinted all the time -- sometimes award-winning stories twenty times the length of "If My Body Were a Car," and for which I was originally paid many times $750. But the reprint rights usually go for $300 or less, and that's fair.

Besides the money, you see, I get to have that story out there collecting new readers for me.

If Amstutz demanded, not $750, but a tenth of that (or less, for non-profit, small-circulation websites), along with the requirement that they cite her as author and mention the place of first publication, then I would consider her an example of good practice.

After all, when people illegally post instances of my novels or stories online without permission, I take immediate steps to stop them. If I didn't, then I'd run the risk of losing copyright. An unprotected copyright soon ceases to have any legal meaning.

But I am content when the offending website removes my work. Only if they were actually profiting from their infringement would I seek monetary damages -- and, so far, there has been no such case.

The web is full of people who don't understand that websites are publications. Nobody gave them a course in copyright law before they put stuff up online. Most of them are decent folks who, as soon as someone tells them they're doing something wrong, will immediately correct their error.

But Amstutz is not interested in understanding human failings. Instead, she has seized upon a means of terrifying people into paying her ridiculous amounts of money.

It's as if you went into a store, inadvertently broke a vase worth $75, only to find that the store manager is going to make you pay $750 on the spot, or else you'll be hauled off to jail for vandalism and fined $30,000.

Yep. $30,000. Because that's what Mary Taylor Smith, Amstutz's agent, misleadingly tells you you'll have to pay. Here's her exact language: "The minimum damages for copyright infringement in a court of law is $750 and is punishable up to $30,000, plus attorney fees and court costs."

Yes, but that $30,000 is a maximum. There is zero chance that a rational court would charge a mom-and-pop non-profit website anywhere near that amount for infringing the copyright of a piece of writing that probably earned $100 or less on first publication. Especially when they took the essay down the moment they realized it was a copyright infringement.

Now, my friends are definitely in the wrong here. I make my living from exploiting the copyrights on my own writings -- I'm not on their side. How hard would it have been for them to Google a key phrase from the essay before posting it?

But ... oops ... Linda Amstutz's warning website is not the first listing you find. It isn't even on the first page of Google results. Instead, you get website after website that is also infringing. Including, believe it or not, the State Bar Association of North Dakota, where Amstutz's message asserting her rights appears repeatedly ... and yet the essay continues to show up.

Apparently the North Dakota State Bar Association doesn't believe in copyright. Or doesn't monitor their own site. Or, perhaps, knows perfectly well that if Amstutz actually sued them, she'd have a terrible time proving damages and would never prevail against all the lawyers of North Dakota.

The t-shirt on the Café Press website cites Amstutz as the author -- presumably she is being paid a royalty for the sales of that shirt.

It is not until midway down the second page of Google results that you find the site http://www.braceguard.com/ifmybodywereacar.htm, where Amstutz brags about just how much money she intends to extort from anyone who trips over her essay.

Because that's what it seems like to me: extortion. Yes, republishing her essay is an infringement of copyright. But most people who do it are ignorant of what they're doing. Amstutz preys on these people, hovering to see who falls into the trap, and then threatening them and bullying them to pay her far more than the reprint rights are worth, under threat of maximum fines they would never have to pay.

There are plenty of people like this in the world -- vultures who prey on people who make mistakes. I'll wager that Amstutz makes far more money from legal extortion than she makes as a writer. She has left writing far behind. Now she's just a bully, like a big kid threatening little kids so they'll turn over their lunch money.

What do you learn from this?

1. Try to find out who the author is before you forward anything.

2. If you can't find out who the author is, don't forward it.

3. Never publish anything on a website if you don't know who wrote it and haven't gotten their permission to reprint it.

4. Posting something on a forum is publication -- and you expose that website to legal woes if you post something.

5. You are not entitled to "share" what other people wrote.

But remember this, too: Amstutz's essay has a few clever phrases, and that's all that is copyrighted. The basic idea of comparing your body to a car is actually old -- she was far from the first to do it. I saw similar essays and observations in Reader's Digest when I was a little kid.

No, I'm not accusing her of plagiarism -- that involves using the exact language somebody else wrote, not their idea.

I'm just saying that her essay is not so brilliantly original that people can't live without reading it. Why pass it on? Why publish it on your website? It's not worth it.

If we all stop quoting it, she'll quickly return to obscurity where she belongs.

Meanwhile, when you're forwarding something, or posting it, think first: Would I pay $750 for the privilege of forwarding or posting this? Would I even pay $10? If it doesn't have even that much value to you, then why bother duplicating it and sending it on?

Just remember that there are legal predators out there who make their living from catching people making dumb mistakes. Be careful. You can run a red light in most states for less than Linda Amstutz intends to extort from you. Other authors will probably catch on to how much money they can make from sending threatening letters. It's a dangerous world out there, for careless people.

Here's a solution, if you simply must pass things along and can't determine the authorship. Don't forward anything. Find a place where it's posted on the web and then link to that site. As far as I know, you can't be sued for linking to a website, even if what is displayed there is illegal.


Oh, and Linda S Amstutz, if you should think of suing me for calling you "greedy" and for characterizing your actions as "extortion," those are defensible opinions, presented as opinions, and if you try to sue me my lawyers will eat you for lunch.


One more thing: I hereby grant you permission to forward any of my columns as much as you like, free of charge, as long as you include the information that I wrote it and it was first published in the Rhinoceros Times of Greensboro, North Carolina.

If you want to post one of my essays on your site, ask me for permission, and I'll probably grant it, again free of charge.

You don't even have to ask in order to link to where my essays are posted on the web. Because, unlike Amstutz, I recognize what a compliment it is when people want to share something I've written.


If you aren't already reading Walter Mosley, do yourself a favor. Pick up his latest Easy Rawlins novel, Blonde Faith, and you'll soon be going back to read all the previous novels.

Not that Mosley is a fun read. It's a grim world that Easy Rawlins inhabits. Yes, the latest novel takes place a few years after the Watts riots of the 1960s, but that doesn't mean that everything's better for a black man trying to make an honest living in Los Angeles.

Yet Mosley does not let his novels become racial diatribes. The injustices and frustrations faced by African-Americans are there, because that's reality, and Mosley is a good novelist who doesn't sugarcoat the truth.

At the same time, these novels tell a personal story. They're not about race, they're about Easy Rawlins. He's a black man, but the emphasis is on the man, not the color -- that is, his life takes the shape it does, not because he's black, but because he's the man he is, attempting to seize control of his life and make it into a shape he can bear.

In Blonde Faith, Rawlins has a client and a mystery to solve, but his biggest dilemma is that a year ago, when he found out his almost-wife Bonnie had had an affair with an African prince who saved a child she cared about, Rawlins threw her out of the house.

Since then he has not been able to humble himself enough to ask her to come back -- or even call her. It's tearing him apart, but he also can't bring himself to act. A man who faces terrible danger all the time in his work hasn't the courage to face the woman he loves.

Instead, he nurses his pain and loneliness in a cycle of self-destruction.

I don't care what race you are: Easy Rawlins is a human character of great power and interest. If you are a mystery reader but have stayed away from Mosley because he writes "black" novels and you're not black -- well, what can I say?

Chances are you're not brave, clever, or handsome (I'm certainly not), yet you and I have no problem reading about detectives who are all three. Why does reading about a detective who's brave, clever, handsome, and black seem so much more alien to you?

Mosley is a treasure of American literature. Don't shut your eyes to his best work.

But I do warn you: The Easy Rawlins novels are not as decorous as some people prefer. People do bad things, and say bad words -- not so much that it becomes oppressive, but if your reading has been sheltered, you might find these books offensive. In my personal judgment, Mosley's choices are all defensible and morally sound, but I can't decide for everyone.)


In the December 2007 Atlantic Monthly, B.R. Myers writes an exquisitely savage review of Tree of Smoke, b Denis Johnson ("A Bright Shining Lie," p. 99).

Myers begins by quoting Philip Roth ("America's most revered living writer," Myers calls him) in praise of Johnson's novel: "prose of amazing power and stylishness."

Myers then proceeds to give example after example of Johnson as an incoherent, inept, pretentious, bad writer of a tedious story.

The review is completely convincing. Denis Johnson is indeed very, very bad, and for precisely the reasons Myers mentions.

In passing, Myers mentions that one of Johnson's worst traits seems to be "a spot-on impersonation of Annie Proulx." Myers comments that "This prose style grated horribly on me when I first read [Proulx's] The Shipping News. It has since become so common I suspect someone is teaching it" (p. 102).

Yes, Mr. Myers. Absolutely. Of course it's being taught -- by almost every teacher of writing in America's universities. It's taught because Proulx was taken so seriously as the cool new edgy writer. All the young writing students immediately perused her style to see how they could imitate it.

So bad is the teaching of writing in American colleges that students are allowed to believe that style can be learned (it can't), while story, structure, and clarity -- the things that must be learned -- are virtually ignored.

The shock is that Myers seems so shocked. Hasn't he been paying attention?

Philip Roth is, in Myers's view, our most revered living writer -- because along with dazzling us with his style, he still told and (usually) tells an intrinsically fascinating story. That is, his novels were about something other than the cleverness of Philip Roth.

But that ethic is gone from American literary writing, with only a few exceptions. Even Richard Russo (who, along with Anne Tyler, better deserves the praise Myers gives to Roth) has given us a sad, empty novel with his latest, Bridge of Sighs, which begins well enough but soon collapses into a tedious account of a stock character in empty pretentious writing: the suffering artist.

In short, the disease is spreading even to writers who have proven they know better. Because that is what our critics praise! Apparently Myers has only recently caught on to the nakedness of the emperor; most American readers have been aware of it all along.

That's why we don't buy those literary novels. The critics think this means the masses are "illiterate," but the opposite is true: The popular audience is literate, and insists that it will only read books by writers who are also literate.

It took radical stylistic excess to waken Myers to the emptiness and obfuscatory handwavium of Johnson's novel; but the emptiness and trickery and incoherence have been a steadily increasing attribute of literary writing for decades now.

Myers was apparently oblivious to the mindless stock elements that comprised Jonathan Franzen's famous Oprah-book-club novel; he ridicules Franzen's stupid blurb about Johnson's book ("The God I want to believe in has a voice and a sense of humor like Denis Johnson") without seeming to realize that this statement is exactly at the level of Franzen's fiction writing.

Oh, well. However long it takes, eventually even "in-group" critics like Myers come to realize just how bad our "best" writing is. That's still a long way from noticing how good the best of our "bad" writing can be -- it will take another generation for that to happen.

It is a generational thing. Books that are despised by the litterati today but are beloved by a generation of ordinary readers will be the very books that are taught in universities when that generation grows up and starts teaching college. Eventually this whole sad business of worshiping style above substance, praising arcane in-writing while despising clear out-writing, will pass away, and the books that once loomed large will be forgotten.

Meanwhile, though, it's refreshing whenever someone like Myers actually realizes that some of the most-praised books are truly awful, and then says so, clearly and forcefully, in public.

I'm sure Myers would hasten to assure people that at least he would never praise awful stuff like the things I write. But that's fine. I don't ask him to love my work. It's enough if he exposes the paucity of intelligence and talent in the worst of li-fi. All we really need to do is break the stranglehold that "literary" fiction has in the American critical establishment. The readers will sort out what's good from the wreckage of that hollow colossus.

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