Why Everyone Is Upset About The Muumuu House Contest: A Cautionary Tale
To start: I don't care about the $200 and books and lifetime subscription and stuff. It is hard enough to do anything in this world, really, as we have all learned from this. I do not begrudge a man his spoils, and anyway there's no way I can see to "prove" that any wrongdoing/scamming was involved here.

Here is the sequence of events. Brandon Scott Gorell wanted to run a short story contest for kicks, and charged an entry fee/gathered donations from various publishers/pals to make the contest interesting. Tao Lin, for the eight reasons reiterated here, decided to enter the contest under an assumed name. BSG figured that this would happen, and made no secret of the fact that the contest guidelines wouldn't prevent him from doing this. As actual contestants mention in this comment thread, those contestants who were familiar with the whole Muumuu House thing figured Tao Lin was going to enter and win anyway, so nothing was a huge surprise about this.

I only knew about this whole thing because Xerxes Verdammt, of "I write for the Fiction Circus" fame, submitted a story to the contest called "The Porn Peddler." I think it is better than Tao Lin's story—I stand by my belief that "Seven-Day Caribbean Cruise" is kind of a phoned-in story in the imitable Tao Lin style, and that Tao Lin has done better work within this style—but then I would think that, and the whole point of the contest was to figure out what BSG thinks is a good story. Those who thought it was worth $7 to get vetted/not vetted by BSG, or who thought that the idea of the contest was funny, paid their $7.

So why did people get so mad about the results?

First: the fact that it was not originally admitted that the story was Tao Lin's. This shifted the perception of events from "ha ha, fail" to "cover-up at Muumuu House" once the initial suggestion that Tao Lin had written the story came up. Sarah Schneider responding to the original revelation that Tao Lin wrote the story with "please stop making up lies about my story" and Tao Lin initially dodging the question entirely maybe did not help to promote the image that a scam or cover-up was not happening. This is a common problem of covering up the authorship of a story: you get accused of being responsible for a cover-up.

Second: the weird defensiveness on the part of BSG and Tao Lin once the admission about authorship was made. Both stated over and over that (a) the guidelines said this situation could happen, (b) writing should be judged on its own merits, rather than on the merits of the writer, ergo (a & b --> c) there is no problem with the result.

To this was added (d) you are stupid for being upset (e.g. BSG's comments: "my decision seems to challenge people's worldviews, or something / it seems really simple to me, though", "'how many times to i have to say' that i chose the winner based on how much i enjoyed the story", "feels like i'm trying to explain something to a 4th grader", and "can you just explain the way i did not follow the contest guidelines / i'm going to write that two more times, to ensure that see this question / can you just explain the way i did not follow the contest guidelines / can you just explain the way i did not follow the contest guidelines"

To put the argument in these weird mechanistic terms, to say "can you just explain the way I did not follow the guidelines etc. etc.," "the guidelines are transparent and fair and were followed," "Nomad is the perfect being all imperfect beings will be perfected," is frustrating because I guess people like the feeling of talking to human beings, acknowledging that some kind of emotional experience was happening in the people who thought this event was both funny and suspicious. One reason many people dislike the Muumuu House style is because it's entirely founded on the tactic of writing about human emotion and relationships in completely mechanistic terms, all about eliminating emotion in favor of an objective worldview, vis:

"I look at products with concrete (non-'artistic') functions and I try, firstly, to view the product (such as any medicine or vitamin or soap or cleaner or food, etc.) concretely and without preconception in order to see 'what it really does,' deliberately not believing the stated functions, to some degree"

Adding the "are you stupid/did you even watch my video" levels of implication to this style, which is pretty much straight up Sartrean "bad faith," did not help.

Third: people kind of like giving Tao Lin shit, turns out. This probably has to do with the perception that his success is wholly undeserved.

I do not believe that Tao Lin's success is wholly undeserved. (a) He works pretty fucking hard at promoting his and his friends' work, (b) his fiction at its best is pretty good at communicating the way people in which actually live, and (c) copping the style in which people write blogs and hasty instant messages to one another and running with that style is straight-up brilliant.

But it is a fact that a lot of Tao Lin's initial fame came from sending emails to people until they mentioned him out of sheer irritation, and later thought that his book was kind of okay. This breeds resentment, which is why sowing the wind is not the recommended strategy for breaking into the fiction rackets. You deserve the success you get based on the way in which you achieve that success. Tao Lin's success was initially based on irritating people/Gawker until they paid attention to him, and so, surprise, people perceive him as the kind of guy who will do irritating things like, I don't know, entering a short story contest with a monetary prize that was judged by someone with whom you are in a business relationship.

But surely this is innocent! As BSG says, there is no conflict of interest, because the conflict of interest was announced in the guidelines! It's true that the blatant conflict of interest here was mentioned prominently from the get-go. So why did Tao Lin think that it was a good idea to even put himself in this position?

Tao Lin had to have been conscious of the "shitstorm" that he was inviting for entering this contest under another person's name in exchange for (a) cash, (b) publicity for his girlfriend, and (c) the opportunity to pull a Tom Sawyer at his own literary post-mortem.

It is entirely accurate to state that articles that are "good copy" are the articles that are written, posted, and picked up by other people; it is also entirely accurate to state that Tao Lin is pretty much always "good copy." His entire strategy for getting hits and/or readers is and always had been to make himself "good copy," and thus people give him a lot of shit.

It is also entirely accurate to state that our initial article was not in every point accurate. Specifically:

It's not true that Tao Lin is refusing to refund the money to contestants. He did offer to refund the money pretty early on in the comment sprawl. If you take the trouble to ask him, he will refund the money you paid to enter. If you do not take the trouble to ask him, he will keep the money you paid to enter. The Fiction Circus regrets its error in wording.

It's also not true that this is Tao Lin's own contest. As BSG and Tao Lin have both stated time and again, it is BSG's contest, to which Tao Lin and Muumuu House have contributed in the following ways: promotion of the contest on his blog, promotion of BSG as a Muumuu House writer, and donation of a literary style to BSG. In other words, Tao Lin's linking to BSG's blog almost certainly brought some substantial multiple of $7 beyond what BSG, had he decided to run this exact same contest two years ago before he had any association with Muumuu House or with Tao Lin, brought into the contest's pot. Per this interview: "What most young writers don't understand, as they sit in class or in the candle lit corner of their room and read Burroughs or Hemingway or Lowell, is that the most important part of being a writer is marketing. It is a business just like any other, and networking, promotion, and buzz, are three very important words."

According to Wikipedia, a conflict of interest occurs:

[in] any situation in which an individual or corporation (either private or governmental) is in a position to exploit a professional or official capacity in some way for their personal or corporate benefit. Depending upon the law or rules related to a particular organization, the existence of a conflict of interest may not, in and of itself, be evidence of wrongdoing. In fact, for many professionals, it is virtually impossible to avoid having conflicts of interest from time to time. A conflict of interests can, however, become a legal matter for example when an individual tries (and/or succeeds in) influencing the outcome of a decision, for personal benefit.

So it is not technically Tao Lin's contest, but a contest which was perceived by many as being Tao Lin's contest because most of the people who found out about it found out about it directly through Tao Lin. The Fiction Circus regrets its error in wording.

Despite these errors, though, there are points in the original article which BSG and Tao Lin's rebuttals don't take into account. One is the following:

Could the same person seeking to avoid the "shitstorm" he foresaw if he were to win his own contest not foresee the "shitstorm" that would occur if he won his own contest by entering under his girlfriend's name, damaging her reputation as a person who (a) can't win on her own merits and (b) is willing to serve as a puppet for her famous boyfriend?

Obviously Tao Lin knew that what happened would happen: that people would assume that because of BSG's close association with Muumuu House, Tao Lin was involved in the competition. So it's pretty disingenuous, all told, to at first (a) plan to avoid a "shitstorm" and then (b) when the "shitstorm" happens, tell people that they should have expected that "shitstorm" and that if they would just read carefully then they would understand that everything was really above-board here. Saying that "I wanted to win the $100-$200 I thought I could win from the contest" is also maybe not the best way to win friends, since BSG until some point yesterday was still repeating that "Sarah won the contest." Tao Lin just won the money, I guess.

But honestly, I don't believe anyone here is "guilty" of anything worse than knowing that they could probably win $200 because they know/are in a business relationship with the judge of the contest, and then taking that chance, and then taking slightly longer than is maybe normal to come clean about the fact that they had taken that chance, and then going off about how the media promotes unreality. No one here is "guilty" of anything other than either (a) assuming that people would be less angry/delighted than they were about the appearance of an obvious conflict of interest, or (b) knowing exactly how angry/delighted people would be about the appearance of this obvious conflict and deciding to go for it anyway, then attempting to take the high ground when the obvious conflict was pointed out. No one here is "guilty" of anything other than assuming that if you tell people "I will rob you," then it is okay if they say "Oh okay" and then you rob them. (Not that BSG said that he would rob anyone, nor did he actually rob anyone in any way that can logically or factually be proved based on a bunch of goddamned blog comments.)

This is a cautionary tale about why the whole "friends and affiliates of x contest organizer are not eligible to win x contest" tradition exists, complicated by the fact that everyone is predisposed to believe the worst of Tao Lin. Even though Tao Lin has brought a lot of this on himself, it is still maybe not fair to automatically assume that he is operating as a criminal or scam artist in every situation in which he's involved. Thus I want to go on record: Leave Tao Lin alone! I mean it! He's a human!

I would also like to go on record saying that scale does matter, and that even though if this exact situation had played out about $2 million plus free books/publicity I would be pretty mad, I can't really get mad about Tao Lin walking away from this with $200 extra. It's hard enough to make money in this world as a writer, the sum is trivial, and BSG's guidelines made it pretty clear what the outcome here would almost certainly be. Per a phone conversation w/Miracle Jones about this subject earlier: if Luigi ran a "best plumber" contest and Mario entered, really, who do you expect to win?

In conclusion, I would like to say thanks to Brandon Scott Gorell for giving the Fiction Circus billing above the actual story in question. Really the point of literary fame/media attention should be promoting fiction that you like and believe in. BSG states that this was in the end the point of the contest—to give a bunch of stuff plus publicity and a long personal critique to a story that he really liked—and I believe him. Tao Lin states that he thought he could win $100-200 plus free publicity for his girlfriend, and I believe him.

Posted by future on Wed, 27 May 2009 00:57:55 -0400 -- permanent link

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