This is a long post… so feel free to scroll past if you don’t have time to kill. This week, I ran smack into an ethical dilemma and it was all thanks to this short email from a complete stranger:
Charles Willeford’s GRIMHAVEN. Looks like you expressed interest in it in a blog a couple of years ago. Still interested?
Yes, I replied, of course I was interested. GRIMHAVEN is Willeford’s unpublished Hoke Mosely novel, his dark and self-destructive follow-up to MIAMI BLUES, his break-out hit. GRIMHAVEN reportedly turned Hoke into a sociopath who murders his children. Willeford’s agent wisely counseled him that it would be career suicide to submit that book to his publisher and that, instead, he should bury it and write something that would capitalize on the success of MIAMI BLUES, rather than piss all over it. Willeford took the advice and wrote three more great Hoke novels before his death. But like all Willeford fans, I’ve been intensely curious about the book. The few people I know who’ve read it say it’s Willeford at his best and worst.
So hell yes, I want to read it.
A day or two later, I got another email from the stranger. This time the note was longer, chatty, friendly, and full of tantalizing comments about the book ("it’s a viscerally sickening read, alright (I’ve got two girls), even if it has a certain internal consistency and simplicity").
He went on to talk about how he bought a xeroxed copy of the manuscript some years ago from a "bootlegger" for a mere $20 and that he came across "some asshole" selling the same photocopy for $200 on the Internet.
But I figure that it’s something the world should have, so I scanned and OCRed it, and after being distracted from it for about six months I’m finishing up the proofreading. Right now I’ve got 200 tiffs and 200 individual-page text files, and once the proofing is done I’ll concatenate it into a single text file. So the question is this: What’s the best way to get it out to the people who want to find it? Is there a torrent tracker favoured by traffickers of bootleg manuscripts?
Yes, I wanted to read GRIMHAVEN…but the idea that someone would take an unpublished manuscript that didn’t belong to him and distribute it all over the planet made me queasy…as did the idea that he thought that I would help him do it.
But why shouldn’t he think so? After all, didn’t I jump out of my seat when he offered me the book? Didn’t that make me just the kind of guy he thought I was? While I was wrestling with these uncomfortable questions, another email showed up from him:
This version of Charles Willeford’s "Grimhaven" was produced from a photocopy of his original manuscript bought on the open market […] According to http://www.broward.org/library/bienes/lii12101.htm
(the Willeford Archive at the Broward County Library):
Grimhaven: a novel. [photocopy of typescript] 212 leaves, no date. NOTE: as per Betsy Willeford: "Ms. of the "black Hoke Mosely", never published, sold to a small but ruthless group of collectors in the form of Xerox copies. May not be copied in the library by patrons who’ll wholesale it on the Internet."
It’s not clear from this what Mrs. Willeford’s objection is based on – that is, whether she doesn’t want anyone profiting from it or doesn’t want it distributed at all. The former position I agree with (particularly if she’s resolved to never have it officially
published); the latter I cannot. But I’m far from a "ruthless collector", and, in fact, I don’t normally read mystery or crime fiction. Rather, I’m a reader of broad interests who went on a Hoke Moseley binge in 2005, wanted to read Grimhaven, and having found a copy at a reasonable price (probably less than it would have cost as a new hardcover, actually) felt it should be made more readily available to others of similar interest. If you don’t agree with me, well, don’t read it. But now you have the choice, and nobody will profit inappropriately from it.
And there, attached to the email, was the entire manuscript of GRIMHAVEN. I couldn’t wait to read it…but then something stopped me.
I felt like a man about to cheat on his wife.
How could I argue about the creative rights of authors… and rail against fanfiction…and yet read a manuscript that clearly the rights holder — Betsy Willeford — doesn’t want distributed?
It doesn’t matter whether my mysterious new friend agrees with Mrs. Willeford’s objection or not… it’s not his book. So, with great reluctance, I deleted the file unread. I also sent him an email telling him that I’d deleted it and why I had done it:
As a writer, I have to respect the artistic choices of the author and his estate. If they don’t want the manuscript disseminated, then it shouldn’t be. It doesn’t belong to you. It doesn’t belong to me. Neither you nor I have the right to distribute an unpublished manuscript that we didn’t write and have no claim to. As much as I want to read GRIMHAVEN, ethically and morally I can’t bring myself to do it this way. I’m an author. I would be betraying the creative rights of another writer and the wishes of his heirs, the rightful owners of the manuscript that you’ve sent me. So, I’ve deleted the manuscript you sent me and I urge you not to continue in your efforts to distribute a manuscript you do not own. The bottom line: what you’re doing is wrong. Keep the manuscript to yourself.
He wrote back to me right away. He wrote, in part:
I had a vague inkling that you might come down on that side of this argument. I’ve been hearing it for 25 years or so in the context of music bootlegs, I’ve discussed it at length with musicians on both sides, and throughout I’ve maintained that "the people have a right to hear", particularly if there’s no profiteering involved. I still feel that way in this case, and believe that the historical and artistic record is of the greatest importance, certainly in the absence of a *clear* indication of the nature of the author’s (or his estate’s) objection.
It was that last line that bugged me the most. Mrs. Willeford doesn’t want the manuscript copied or distributed. That’s pretty damn *clear* to me. And she doesn’t have to justify herself to him or anybody else. It’s her decision…and hers alone. Whether or not bootleggers "profit" monetarily from disregarding her wishes has nothing to do with it. That’s a lame rationalization, the same one fanficcers use. The issue is respecting an artist’s creative right to control his work… particularly, in this case, an unpublished work. If it’s the "historical" literary value he’s truly worried about, the manuscript is available for scholars to view at the library with the rest of Willeford’s papers. So I wrote to him again. I said, in part:
The public has no absolute "right" to read a manuscript that an author doesn’t want read (or, in this case, will only allow to be read under certain conditions). It belongs to him and his heirs, not you. And it is their decision, and theirs alone, legally and ethically, whether the manuscript can be distributed or not.
Naturally he disagreed with me, but in a friendly way. No harm done. And yet… this exchange still troubles me. I think it’s because I was so quick to say yes when offered the manuscript.
I have to wonder… would I have hesitated to read the book if he hadn’t expressed his desire to widely distribute it? If it was just our little secret, one Willeford fan to another? I think my desire and curiosity would have gotten the better of me. I would have read it. And what does that say about me and my integrity?