Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Idiot of the Week: Todd Pierce

Too many idiots, too little time. My monthly award is going to have to be a weekly award now. Let’s pray it doesn’t become daily. John Scalzi has a very amusing post about Todd Pierce that links to another one, written by Teresa Nielsen Hayden. That post concerned Mr. Pierce, a professor at Clemson University, who gives spectacularly bad advice to aspiring writers to make up publishing credits to get an editor to look at their submissions – and no, I’m not making that up. Since Hayden is an editor herself, she saw fit to criticize Mr. Pierce rather strongly for that advice, and rightfully so. The inimitable Professor Pierce then entered the fray, threatening to file libel suits and generally making quite an ass of himself. It makes one wonder how on earth this man, who seems entirely incapable of offering an honest and rational argument, managed to get a professorship at a major university. Go and read his multiple attempts to dodge the issue and you’ll be laughing at him, trust me.

He has been called out previously for telling new writers to lie, apparently often enough that he has a ready written excuse for his original advice:

The one piece of “bad advice” that I’m regularly called on has to do with cover letters. It comes from a small part of the larger site—a site that has, in short, done much to help many writers. I’ll post my usual reply below. But this piece of advice was dolled out in a course at UC Irvine, as part of the MFA program, and from talking with others, I know it’s also used regularly at the University of Iowa’s MFA Program. I will not list the professors associated with it, because, I am the poster of this advice. Now my usual reply:

“My basic advice is this: do whatever it takes to give yourself the courage and permission to put your work in the mail when you, as an author, feel your work is finished. Is it foolish to claim your work has appeared in Ploughsahres(sic), The New Yorker, GQ, The Missouri Review, The Georgia Review when in fact has not? Yes, of course it is. No doubt. You will be caught, called out, and look foolish. And if anyone is curious, I’ve never lied on any cover letter I’ve written. But if creating a very small literary review with your friends, naming it, and then, in some sense, “publishing” it, helps give you the courage to send your work out on a larger scale, do it. No editor is going to publish a book simply because a short sory appeared in a very small journal of which you are an editor. But might an editor look at the sample pages? Maybe. Possibly. In my world, everything depends on the quality of the writing, the clarity of the story. There is no substitute for this. But if there are people out there who don’t think that dirty deals–of insider favors, etc.–don’t go down on a daily basis in New York publishing, you are foolish and haven’t been following publishing closely at all. One of my greatest pains in life is the realization of the sheer number of insider publishing contracts inked in New York where the books published depend on favors and friendships, not on the quality of the writing in question. Work on your writing. Love your stories, your characters. Write the best damn novels you can. And then do what you can so that these novels will have a life in the real world.”

That’s his portrayal of his previous advice. Now here is the actual previous advice:

Tip Four: Still worried? Never published anything? Lie a little. Yes, lie. A cover letter is a persuasive document designed to do one thing: entice an editor or agent to read your manuscript. Say whatever you have to, within reason, to accomplish this. No publication credits? Write the words “West Coast Fiction Review” on a piece of paper, staple it to one of your stories, and boom, you’ve just been published in West Coast Fiction Review. Is there such a publication? Not that I know of, but it sure sounds impressive. No awards? Ask your best friend–let’s say her name is Martha Green–to give you the 1999 Martha Green Award for Outstanding Achievement in Fiction. What’s the Martha Green Award worth? Not much, unless it entices an editor or agent to read your work.

Now, on his updated page, Pierce prefaces Tip Four with this:

Before I get to Tip Four, which I’ve included in a revised version below, allow me to contextualize it, as it has been misinterpreted repeatedly over the past year or two. The tip is designed to give yourself the courage to put your work in the mail, nothing more.

Now you tell me, does that explanation square with the actual text of the original tip? Nope. Not even close. The original tip says zip, zero, nada, not a damn thing about giving yourself courage. It says that it’s a way to trick editors into reading your submissions. I do believe Mr. Pierce is lying to cover up this bit of amazingly bad advice to young writers, trying to paper over it. And on top of that, he appears to be going into fits of melodrama in response to the well-deserved criticism. Here is the list of his responses so far:

1. I didn’t mean it the way it obviously reads. We’ve already covered that. A simple comparison of the second version and the first shows that this is pretty much total bullshit.

2. You should all be ashamed of yourselves for attacking my character unfairly. Bzzzt. Thank you for playing, but wrong. Your character has been attacked quite fairly.

3. I do a lot of good things for writers and I have a webpage full of good advice for free and you only picked out this one bad thing. This may well be true, but it is as irrelevant as a drunk driver bringing up all the times he drives sober, or saying that since he loves his kids, it’s unfair to criticize him for just this one little thing. Sorry, Todd, but this isn’t gonna fly. The issue is your advice to young writers to invent accomplishments and lie. Period. You may be a great guy outside of that, you may give a thousand other bits of advice that are quite reasonable, but it does not change that fact one bit.

4. Not one person in this thread bothered to e-mail me. Scalzi reprinted an e-mail he sent to Pierce along with Pierce’s response to it. Oops, so much for that lie.

5. Everyone on this site is published by Nielsen Hayden, so they’re biased and taking her side. Well Todd, I’m not published by her, never met her, don’t know her, likely never will. But she’s right, you’re wrong, and her criticism of you was absolutely legitimate.

6. I’m going to sue you for slander. As John Scalzi rightly points out, the suit would be for libel, not slander, and it would have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. Todd Pierce is not going to sue anyone for slander or libel because he would lose and he would lose badly. He has been subjected not to libel but to entirely valid criticism for saying something astonishingly stupid and unethical.

On top of that, even a cursory reading of his responses on that page makes one wonder how on earth he managed to get hired to teach someone else to write. The range of his writing appears to stretch from bad to worse. He seems particularly fond of superfluous punctuation. Since Mr. Pierce seems to be having something of an emotional meltdown over having been so insulted, I have a bit of advice for him: stop giving bad and unethical advice. If you hadn’t said something so stupid, no one would have taken the time to point out how stupid it was and your feelings could have been spared. It’s really that simple.

Comments

  1. #1 Flatlander100
    June 25, 2004

    Ed: There is more of this “self publication” going on out there in academe than most folks suspect. I worked for a time for an ESU [Enormous State University] at which the School of Education was undergoing a periodic outside review to evaluate its program. The reviewers were unhappy that so many of the faculty had few or no publications. [For the sake of argument, we will leave aside the question of whether the stuff that regularly appears in academic Education journals does much to advance education.] Well, the ESU School of Education faculty came up with a solution. They got hold of a mimeo machine and began [you should excuse the expression] “publishing” the ESU Educational Review, happily mimeoing each other’s papers once a month. Voila! Long lists of publications by a previously academically undistinguished faculty. [No, it didn’t work. Subsequent review panels as I recall were neither impressed nor amused.]
    Then in the sciences we have the absolutely off the rails runaway practice of listing twenty, thirty, fifty or more “authors” of a single research article in a scholarly scientific journal. Sometimes I gather the only contribution of one of the authors [admitedly well down on the list] is that some of his grant money was used to pay for the lab, or hire some assistants who actually did some of the research.
    So, to give Mr. Pierce his due, he is, sadly, not alone.
    My question would be: where the hell is the English faculty and the University administration at Clemson in all this? Treating it as a serious breech of professional ethics [which it is], or doing the “wink wink nudge nudge academic freedom” tapdance, the University administrator’s favorite excuse for doing nothing.

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    June 25, 2004

    I’m not at all surprised that it is widespread, and I know the point you make about multiple authors on scientific papers is accurate. The ID crowd loves to talk about Henry “Fritz” Schaefer, a chemist from the University of Georgia, having some 1000 journal publications – which is about one every 3.5 days. Not possible, folks, not by a long shot. He’s just listed as an author on 1000 papers, most of whom he has probably never even read, much less contributed to. And I totally agree with you on the last question. The university certainly ought to be concerned about it and should be handing out disciplinary action.

  3. #3 John Wilkins
    June 27, 2004

    This is part of the “publish or perish” mentality that has been exacerbated by the recent use of citation and publication indices as a measure of quality, when all it really measures is quantity, placing top-ranking publications against the bottom. The academic citation industry has tried to amend this by raking publications, but of course all that does is rely on the temporary views of a small group with vested interests.

    Oh, and of course it is a testimony to the complete lack of standard used by these modern-day Sophists. “Critical studies”, pah!

  4. #4 Dave S
    June 29, 2004

    If I were some slug of a student being hauled before the academic review panel at Clemson for a breach of scholarly ethical conduct ([i]e.g.[/i] plagiarism) the first thing I’d do is to point to Prof. Todd Pierce over in the English department who says that not only is it O.K to outright lie to get ahead, but that one would be almost foolish not to avail oneself of the opportunity. If you can’t trust a faculty member to set you straight on policy, who can you trust? Then I’d let the sparks fly where they may.

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