anonymity, part 2: cautionary tale

In the spring of 2004, a weblog called made its anonymous appearance. Foetry was not about reviewing poetry, as you might guess, but instead it set out to be the watchdog of the poetry prize and award-giving universe, under the banner: Exposing fraudulent contests. Tracking the sycophants. Naming names. (Every time I read that, I hear the theme music from Superman in my head.)

The claim was that there was rampant cronyism and plain old cheating of a fraudulent and criminal nature going on in the way poetry prizes were awarded. The anonymous blogger set out to expose the wrong-doers, and went about it with gusto.

The furor in the poetry world was tremendous, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Entry fees for contests are all many poetry publications have in way of serious income, but the process has to be fair and transparent. Maybe Foetry was a good idea, but the execution (and I use that word purposefully) was troubling. Suspicions about the motivations of the editor only grew with every new trumpeting of a conspiracy uncovered.

Accusations were broad, loud, and often defied both logic and evidence (detailed examples from an article that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education). Many of the accusations were small, but a few were big and messy and litigious. (And how do I know this? Because (here comes the revelation) I know a couple people who were targeted and accused by Foetry, and I know where the facts were misstated or plain wrong. And as it turned out, once the Foetry editor was outed, I know him, as well. Or at least, I’ve met him and I knew his wife pretty well at one time.

Then he got outted.

Alan Cordle is 36, pale and round with thick glasses and soft fleshy cheeks. He smiles often and speaks in a wispy voice, which suits his day job as a librarian at Portland Community College. (San Francisco Chronicle by Tomas Alex Tizon, Los Angeles Times, Sunday, July 10, 2005)

And here’s where the cautionary tale comes in. This mild-mannered university librarian is married to a poet. Not an unsuccessful poet, but somebody whose career was bobbing along at half mast. The librarian was angry on behalf of the poet, and so Foetry came into existence. (There is so much stuff about this whole kerfuffle on the internet, it would be tiresome of me to repeat it all, so here, some links if you’re interested in the gritty details: the archives of the now defunct Foetry weblog; a detailed article at the San Francisco Chronicle; a summary piece from the New York Times Book section; commentary from the Kenyon Review (a major literary publication); and a discussion of the underlying issues. )

Let me cut to the moral of the story, as I see it. The idea behind Foetry was not bad or unreasonable, but the motivations that brought it into being are suspect. The librarian knew that if he were honest about his identity, everything he had to say would be viewed as huffing and puffing in indignation about honors denied to his wife. Of course, he still might have announced his connections right at the start, and if he had then gone on and done scrupulous work, he could have proved his point anyway. But because he was anonymous, he got over confident and sloppy. He let himself go. Unfounded accusations shrilly voiced do not inspire confidence. They just make people really angry, and angry people who consider themselves wronged want to face their accuser. That’s one of those basic rights we take for granted.

So the angry parties went after the anonymous editor, and the anonymous editor got outed, and his conflict of interest cost him whatever credibility he had left. If he did have strong evidence of major wrong doing, who was going to pay attention at that point?

The editor’s anonymity is what garnered so much attention to begin with, because it raised questions in people’s minds. Was this a Big Name Insider, a Whistle-Blower? That titillating possibility got Foetry a lot of press. Was that the whole idea to start with?

The only thing that seems sure to me is this: anonymity was entirely the wrong way to go about this. If you’re going to express an opinion, it’s best to put your name on it front and center. If you’re going to toss around accusations, then you have no choice, if you want to be taken seriously, but to identify yourself and clearly state any conflict of interest.

Better to avoid anonymity, if at all possible.