Another plagiarism scandal is detailed on the excellent blog of Jeremy Duns. In this case, Ms Hart is accused of culling from a novel by Cothburn O’Neal. Both books tell the story of the child bride of Edgar Allen Poe. One of the most damning elements I think is that both books share similar scenes, and sequences of scenes, that are not part of the historical record but were in fact invented by the author of the first book. Have a look in the comments section for all the details. Hmm. I do not find the denials very convincing.
Last month’s Q R Markem affair was jaw dropping, Duns blew the whistle on this. Markem copied pages at a time, and from authors famous in his genre. He did ‘fess up though. (See the emails to Duns reproduced in the comments section of this post).
I was talking over the case with a couple of writer friends, and we all discussed those faint lurches of fear you can get when an excellent line drops into your head, and you really don’t know if it’s original or not. Personally, I know I have borrowed and stolen from other writers, sometimes unwittingly. I remember when I got my edit notes back from Flora on Instruments of Darkness, she mentioned I’d used the phrase ‘grim little smile’ five times. I changed them all, terribly embarrassed to have so overused a phrase and told my mum. It was my example of ‘things you keep missing even though you’ve read the damn manuscript a million times’. Since then she keeps finding the phrase in Georgette Heyer. It’s obviously where I got it from, though I had no idea of that until Mum starting pointing it out and laughing. It’s a truth universally acknoweldged (see what I did there?) that when you are rummaging around in your mental attic you will occasionally find other people’s toys. (Actually, I just put the phrase into Google and it seems roughly, ooh, every writer in the world has used it. It’s just a grim little cliche.)
More embarrassingly, a reader pointed out to me that Madeline Bray, who appears in Instruments, is a character in Nicholas Nickleby. Lord, how I groaned at that one. I had decided on the name Bray and my brain supplied Madeline as a first name that seemed to fit. Of course it did, Dickens is brilliant at names. Stupid brain. Any writer, I tell myself, is going to be guilty of unconscious borrowings like that, unless of course they are much smarter than me, which is entirely possible.
Then there is the odd phrase I know I’ve stolen, but I think of it as homage. I introduce a character in Anatomy as ‘not a very sensible man’. It’s a conscious echoing of Austen’s ‘Mr Collins was not a sensible man…’ It was a sort of wink to fellow Austen lovers, but it’s also common descriptive in the period and has the right sort of tone. When I consciously borrow anything more than that – I use some of Walpole’s imagery for descriptions of the weather in 1783 in Island of Bones – I acknowledge it in the historical note.
But the sort of plagarism that is on display in the cases quoted in the first para? Or here? I just don’t get it. I have heard it described as laziness, but that doesn’t wash. How much work must it be to go through dozens of books to steal paragraphs you can paste into your own narrative? Look at it this way: How much must you hate yourself as a writer to do this? How devoid of creativity, talent or skill must you feel to do something so stupid, self-desctructive? I shiver at the lack of self respect involved in doggedly typing out someone else’s work, paragraph by paragraph and inserting into your own manuscript. These people all have talent of their own, I’m sure, so were they just too scared to go and stand out in public in their own clothes? If so, that’s sad. So my point, finally, is that while I see the danger of picking up other people’s phrases like burrs, and though I would feel deeply angry if my work were stolen, when I read these stories, I can’t help pitying the plagiarist.