A brief chat about Chuck Wendig, the Internet Archive, and bad information spread in good faith

Because I’ve got a bug up my butt about this again, let’s briefly dig into a social media myth that Will Not Die:

“Chuck Wendig is suing the Internet Archive!”

No. No, he is not.

There are two important bits of background here.

First, the Internet Archive. If you know them, you probably know them because of the “Wayback Machine” that archives millions of web sites. They do a lot of other archive-ish stuff, though, including collecting and scanning books. A while ago, they decided to create a digital “library” of those books: anyone could “check out” as many copies of those books at one time as the IA had physical copies of. This is more or less the way digital lending works from your local library: they pay for, say, three copies of a given ebook title, and now three library users can “check out” that book at once.

Well, that’s the “more” part of “more or less”; the “less” part is that the IA was doing that with physical books and technically lending digital copies is not the same thing under copyright law. Even so, publishers mostly looked the other way.


At the start of the Great Pandemic, the IA decided they were now running the “National Emergency Library” and lifted the per-copy limit. If they had ten copies or a book or two or one, it didn’t matter, however many people wanted to check out a copy at once could. And the IA sent out press releases about this. They wanted everybody to know!

I’m not going to argue about the ethics of modern copyright law, but as a legal matter, this is not a gray area, kids. It just isn’t. The Internet Archive was all but sending out notarized letters to publishers saying “we dare you jerky jerks to come after us with everything you’ve got,” and golly gee, they got sued by the Authors’ Guild and several publishers. Who could possibly have predicted that outcome other than, you know, fucking everyone.

You will notice, perhaps, that the IA was not sued by individual authors over this. They were sued by publishers and a writing guild.

Second, Chuck Wendig. Wendig is a science fiction, horror-ish author who runs a popular blog and has a freewheeling, gonzo, over-the-top style—I’d argue more in his non-fiction than his fiction—that, well, you could call polarizing. (I enjoy it, most of the time, but I could see how many might be driven far away at high speed.) He also wrote a couple Star Wars novels, famously introducing the saga’s first major gay character in Star Wars: Aftermath.

And this was not popular with a predictable loud subset of reactionary fans, who carried a hate-on for Wendig that culminated in the trolls getting him fired from Marvel’s “Shadow of Vader” comic book, ostensibly because of his “vulgarity” in expressing what Quartz calls, with delightful understatement, “his unabashedly left-wing political views.”

So if Wendig didn’t sue the IA over the Emergency Library, how did he get involved in all this?

Well, he called it a “pirate site,” which he pretty quickly apologized for, but also wrote a much longer statement on the subject. (He’s also deleted it since, probably due to ongoing harassment.)

The problem with bypassing copyright and disrupting the chain of royalties that lead from books to authors is that it endangers our ability to continue to produce art—and though we are all in the midst of a crisis, most artists are on the razor’s edge in terms of being able to support themselves. Artists get no safety net. We don’t get unemployment and aren’t likely to be able to participate in any worker bailouts. Health insurance alone is a gutpunch cost, not to mention the healthcare costs that insurance wouldn’t even cover. I’m lucky enough (currently, at least), that I can weather a bit of that storm more easily, but most can’t, particularly young authors, debut authors, and marginalized authors who are already fighting for a seat at the table. I’m also not alone in calling this site out—others like Alexander Chee, NK Jemisin, Neil Gaiman, and Seanan McGuire have noted their concerns over this.

I am all for access to information and entertainment, and remind folks that libraries here already allow you to take out e-books, even while their brick-and-mortar locations are closed. I used to work for a library system here in Pennsylvania, and libraries all around the country deserve their time to shine in this crisis, as we realize what vital institutions they are, both intellectually and as a service to the community.

Come on, how could anyone read that and, in anything even approaching good faith, take major offense at it? This is empathetic to authors and libraries. Yes, it’s (gasp) making a claim that copyright does have value, and maybe you don’t see that. But I hope you at least see why a lot of authors feel they should be the ones to make the choice about how their books get distributed. I’m not against giving my own work away for free, but I am against you telling me that you’re going to give my work away for free and I have no choice in the matter.

In fact, I don’t think the people who started this “Wendig sues the IA, film at 11” bullshit did so in good faith. I think many people spreading it are doing it in good faith, but bluntly, I think they’re being used by trolls relying on it being way easier to click “like” or “retweet” than to do fact-checking. (Frankly, I despair at how often I see left-leaning friends gleefully retweeting the most dubious shit that confirms their biases, but that’s a bridge I won’t burn today.)

While this whole nonsense is months old, I’m seeing another new thread floating around today fisking an older book of writing advice from Wendig, inviting us all to mock how weird and bad his writing is and how awful his advice must be and oh yes remember he sued the Internet Archive!, and I’m out of patience nuggets for this one. If that’s your image of Chuck Wendig and what he’s like and what he writes, let me offer a different one, from “Follow the River, No Matter Its Rapids, No Matter Its Turns”:

It’s a lot right now.

I think if we can agree on anything, anything at all between us, it’s that everything is a whole lot. It’s too much. If you’re not screaming into a couch cushion soaked with gin right now, who even are you?

But here’s what I’m thinking.

I’m thinking all of this is a river. It’s a dark, fast river. It crawls serpentine through the earth, through the forests. Sometimes it moves slow, other times it’s all rapids. Sometimes it is eerily serene, and sometimes it’s rough enough to knock your teeth into your knees and draw blood. It’s waterfalls and eddies, it’s deep and it’s cold. Like all rivers, it can soothe you, and it can betray you.

This river, the river we’re in and on now—it’s harder, meaner, a river after a flood, a river whose waters are not sated, who will not abate. It’s mudded up and frothing like the muzzle of a rabid wolf.

You can fight against that river.

We often do, in writing. We often go against our own moods, against the news of the world, against bad reviews and against poisoned thinking. Our work is often an act of anchoring our boots against the soft slick weeds and the water-smoothed stones and move against the current.

Upstream, stories can be born.

Sometimes, though, I think you gotta do the other thing.

Sometimes, you go the other way.

You go with the flow.

You run with the river, not against it.

And what that means, practically speaking, is you let it happen. What you’re feeling, what you’re seeing, sometimes those elements demand to be seen in the work. Sometimes the river is the channel that feeds the narrative sea, and that means you need to put it in there, out there, all over it. You don’t escape. You confront. You ride the turns, you rough out the rapids, you take all your fear and your anger and your confusion and you put it on the page. And not even in a way of trying to write something that’s marketable or sellable—but just trying to speak honestly about who you are, about the world in which we’re living, and about your grappling with all of it. It’s not even about writing a cogent book or a collective piece. It can be about taking the time to punch that keyboard and scream onto the page—if only to clear the water and find time to climb back onto shore to write something else. It can be the thing you’re writing, or it can be a way to get to the thing you’re writing.

I don’t mean to suggest this as good “advice”—it’s certainly no requirement. You have to do what feels best and right—and, further, what feels most productive in the direction you need to be going. I’m only saying that, if it’s that much of a slog, if the slow churning march upriver and against the current feels like you’re fighting too hard and losing to the pressure, turn around and go the other way. Sometimes we want to, even need to, write about what’s going on inside our heads and our hearts. Sometimes we can’t ignore the room on fire. Sometimes we can’t get out of the river or go against it. And in those cases, let the waters take you. Write what needs to be written. Write what the river tells you to write. Follow the water, and see where you go.

You may still hate that writing, but if you do, who even are you?

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