I’m taking a quick break from my usual stories about Louisiana, public education, school vouchers, and politics, because I think it’s provocative, infuriating, and, hopefully, teachable and because, for many reasons, this story bothered me.

Last year, Kate Losse published a memoir, The Boy Kings, about her work during the first years of Facebook. Losse was the fifty-first employee hired by Facebook, which would certainly provide her with real insight into the company. Notably, Losse’s book was published more than two years after The Accidental Billionaires, whose film adaption, The Social Network, was named Best Picture of the Year at the Golden Globes.

Based solely on the reviews she inspired on Amazon.com (because I’ve never actually read it), I’m led to believe that’s a pretty damn good and insightful memoir.

But, to be sure, at least one commenter, who alleges to have worked with Losse at Facebook, suggests that the book takes great liberties with the facts. Quoting:

For the most part, I found that she took extreme latitude in her storytelling with a great deal of embellishments and exaggerations; some events actually never occurred or occurred in a very, very different way. For many of her former coworkers this was really disappointing to see.

I would enjoy a less fictionalized story of the early days at Facebook, preferably without the sophomoric meandering writing style and forced “heady” metaphors. If you want sensationalized fiction of the story, read “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich. If you want non-fiction, “The Facebook Effect” by David Kirkpatrick is good. (Editor’s note: “The Facebook Effect is quite good). Unfortunately this book’s format sits between in a mess of truths and un-truths that are unfair both to the author and all the characters within.

Others thought that Ms. Losse often came across as insubordinate, condescending, and angry; she was a newly-minted college graduate in English, working for one of the biggest tech companies in the world. But the book’s descriptions, Ms. Losse’s own subsequent writing, and the reviews allegedly written by at least one of her former colleagues suggest that Ms. Losse believed, mistakenly, she was hamstrung by an institutional culture that reinforced white, male privilege. Indeed, many of the top employees at Facebook are women, most notably Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operations Officer.

Today, the author Dave Eggers is publishing his latest work of fiction titled The CircleThe Circle focuses on the life of a young woman working at a hypothetical social media technology company.

Before Kate Losse had ever read Eggers’s novel, she publicly accused him of essentially stealing from her memoir. Eggers, soon thereafter, released a statement claiming that he had never read Losses’s book, though I’m sure he will now.

For her part, Losse made a rather pathetic attempt to substantiate her claims: The name of Eggers’s main character has the same number of syllables as her character; Losse argues it’s the same cadence, but really, it’s drivel. She says both stories are about a woman working in customer service departments; both of them exchanged dialogue with a character with a first name beginning in “J.”

But the truth is: She’s not really accusing Eggers of ripping off her memoir. Again, she’s never read his book, and he’s never read hers. Instead, a week before his book hits the shelves, she is arguing, very publicly and insistently, that she’s the victim of patriarchal white male privilege. Dave Eggers is powerful because he’s a white man. Meanwhile, she’s a published writer whose, in my opinion, cynical, exploitive, and ignorant grandstanding about feeling victimized (all the while plugging her book) seems nakedly self-aggrandizing.

Consider this:

Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 3.21.38 AM

On the left, the cover of the movie Where the Wild Things Are, a movie adapted for the screen by none other than Dave Eggers. And on the right, three years later, the cover of Ms. Losse’s book. Who, exactly, is appropriating from whom? It is also worth pointing out: Ms. Losse’s subtitle, “A journey into the heart of the social network,” two years after The Social Network became an international smash hit.

Ms. Losse also writes. Quoting:

How could a woman doing anything be important? The assumption the media makes in these instances is that something is not important unless a familiar, male white face does it. So, when Dave Eggers decided to write his story about a young woman working her way up through Facebook, the Wall Street Journal called it a treatment of “the essential issues of the day.” From all appearances, it is an unnervingly similar book, and I wrote it first (and I imagine mine is more authentic and better written, because I actually lived and worked in this world and am also a good writer). The difference is that Eggers is a famous man and I am not.

Remember, she imagines her book is better than his because she “lived and worked in this world and am also a good writer,” and she thinks the difference, ultimately, is that “Eggers is a famous man.” Again, she never even read Eggers’s book.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a feminist, but Losse’s criticism isn’t about feminism; it’s about professional jealousy, and, at its core, it’s informed by an almost absurdly self-aggrandizing belief that her book is “more authentic and better written;” ironically, she attempts to deconstruct the notion of white male privilege in order to argue that her art, her book is better than anything any man could do with a story of a woman working at a large tech company. To me, she reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the academic discourse on privilege, entitlement, feminism, and racism, which should all be focused on empathy, institutional knowledge, and equality.

Toward the end of her piece, Losse writes:

What’s being broken, stolen, and ultimately capitalized upon is the lives and work of the “others”, and these others are you, me and everyone we know: everyone but the very powerful. Our lives and content are being used and recycled— whether we have written books that people more powerful than us can rework and redistribute or not.

As a rabid and unrepentant lover of good literature, this struck me as particularly naive and (dare I say?) privileged. I’d be insulted if it weren’t so dumb, if it didn’t dramatically expose Ms. Losse as someone whose understanding of literature was informed by identity politics instead of an appreciation of art for the sake of art.

Until Ms. Losse’s piece, I had never considered Dave Eggers to be necessarily “powerful,” but even if he is, it’s important to consider, why, exactly, he became known. When he was 21 years old, Eggers lost both of his parents within 38 days of one another; it was obviously devastating, and as a result, he suddenly found himself as the new father figure for his 8-year-old brother. Six years later, Eggers wrote a book about it, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a book that is still considered one of the greatest and most poignant memoirs in American literary history. He parlayed his success from his first memoir and launched McSweeneys, a monthly “book” that provided a platform for some of America’s most talented new fiction writers and poets. Then, he launched The Believer, which is, arguably, the best literary fiction magazine in the country. And then he wrote four or five more books, all of which were nominated for top literary prizes, and for some, like his nonfiction account of Hurricane Katrina, he donated his profits to charity.

If he is in any way powerful, he earned it.

Finally, it is worth noting this about Ms. Losse’s conspiracy concerning female writers: The wealthiest living writer in the world is a woman, J.K. Rowling; she is worth more than Stephen King, Tom Clancy, and John Grisham combined. According to surveys, the greatest novel in American history is To Kill a Mockingbird, written by a woman. Agatha Christie sold over 100 million books. Toni Morrison was the last American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Right now, the second bestselling book on Amazon is by a Japanese boy with autism.

A few years ago, a gay man won the Pen/Faulkner and then, after adapting his book for the movies, his film won Best Picture at the Oscars. His book was about the lives of three different women.

Ultimately, readers don’t care if you’re young or old, black or white, gay or straight; they don’t care if you’re telling your own story, if you’re telling someone else’s story, or if you’re entirely making it up. Readers care only about one thing: Is it good?

2 thoughts

  1. I agree with your basic thesis: that Losse’s cynicism gives an air of professional jealousy and a publicity stunt. Two small items that might provide greater context:

    1) Decreeing Eggers’ accolades as “earned” is an essential part of the issue. 70% of book reviews are of books by male authors. I don’t negate that Eggers’ work is worthy of acclaim, but he is more likely to receive public praise for his works by virtue of his gender.
    (Source: VIDA, much, much more info here: http://www.vidaweb.org/vida-count-2012-mic-check-redux)

    2) Interesting note: the #2 book on Amazon got a very big plug from Jon Stewart, who even thanked his audience this week for buying the book.

    Thanks for the thoughtful take. I appreciated the read.

  2. I read Kate Losse’s memoir a few months ago, and just recently finished The Circle. I found this post by googling “Kate Losse the circle” – I searched this term because I was so struck by the similarities between the two stories (at least in the first part). The Medium post is gone, so I wasn’t able to read Losse’s take on this situation. I think the similarity of the name is a rather silly argument (syllables? come on), but the story of Mae’s relationship with Francis in “The Circle” is so entirely like the relationship Losse describes between herself and one of the company’s engineers that I immediately recognized Losse’s story in Eggers’s novel – and I had not heard anything about these plagiarism accusations before I began reading. Once I finished reading, I was very surprised to see that Losse and her book were not in Eggers’s acknowledgements, so I wanted to see if anyone else had noticed the similarities. Of course, Eggers did not entirely rip off her story – where Losse got uncomfortable with the Facebook mission and ended up leaving the company, Eggers explored what could happen if the skeptic was converted into a true believer.

    As for your assertion that readers don’t care about the identity of the author, only whether the story is good – that may be so. But readers (and consumers) do not have time to read every single book that is good. I know I don’t. So I read the ones I hear about – the ones I see in bookstores, the ones I see ads and reviews for, the ones whose authors are hailed as geniuses. And I think that publicity is not necessarily distributed in equitable accordance with talent/merit. I think it’s very ironic that the two female authors you use to make your case about gender equality in publishing have very androgynous names – or at least names that don’t immediately register as female. I think “Harper” could truly go either way, and J.K. Rowling was famously instructed by her agent to use her initials rather than her given name, Joanna. Her agent said that little boys would be less likely to read a book written by a woman. Honestly, I think the more probable scenario is that parents may assume that only a masculine book written by a man would capture their son’s attention, and so that’s what they buy and give them.

    In many, many forms of entertainment (books and movies come to mind) execs assume (and I imagine have some kind of data to back it up) that women will consume media that is aimed at a male audience, but men will not consume media that is aimed at a female audience. (And when I say “aimed at a male audience” I mean it features male protagonists, has likely been written by a man, and falls into genres that are considered “masculine” – such as the raunchy college comedy or the violent superhero flick or the war epic; and the inverse goes for women.) So rather than lose half their audience by investing equally in both types of productions, they spend more money making “masculine” entertainment. This is the actual justification that the execs themselves use when they are called out for doing more to promote and produce media by and “for” men. It’s not a conscious conspiracy to keep women down; on their end it just looks like a business decision. But one has to ask, what kinds of things must film/publishing executives, as well as the consuming public, believe in order for this “business decision” to make sense? Perhaps things like – it’s degrading and emasculating for men to be exposed to, or be interested in, issues that matter to women; whatever women like and enjoy, men have to find annoying (or like the opposite thing); interests and topics coded as “masculine” are more universally acceptable and popular than interests and topics coded as “feminine.” Are these things true? Maybe, maybe not. But we certainly act like we believe them. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there may be no organized “conspiracy” to oppress women (or any other group) but that such oppression may be the natural consequences of all of our collectively transmitted and individually accepted assumptions about gender and identity. One of Eggers’s characters in the novel says something to this effect – how the Circlers are, individually, pretty much well-intentioned, but that in the aggregate, their behavior allows some really evil, scary things to happen.

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