Any university student will hear a variation on the “plagiarism talk” several times over the course of their academic careers. Some profs will give a cursory mention of where you can find your department’s outline of what constitutes plagiarism; others make it an event.
Once, I accompanied a Carillon writer who was writing an article on the topic when he went to interview English associate prof Susan Johnston. For an impromptu photo shoot, she delivered an abridged version of her plagiarism lecture – which has legendarily topped out at 22 minutes, as far as I know – to a crowd of just me. Suddenly, I felt like I had to confess for a Garfield joke I nicked back in the third grade.
In the world of literature, the matter isn’t so clear. A theft in the service of art is seemingly excusable, if it can be marked down to a deliberate act of appropriation.
The most recent case is that of Quentin Rowan, who under the pen name Q.R. Markham, wrote Assassin of Secrets, a recently published spy novel. It received some good reviews, until bloggers started noticing passages that felt familiar.
It turns out Rowan had taken at will from spy novels past. I would list some side-by-side examples, but it would be difficult to know what to choose. Edward Champion of Reluctant Habits, for example, has gone through the first 35 pages of Assassin of Secrets and found 33 passages indisputably taken from elsewhere.
The argument some are putting out there is a version of what I mentioned above. The spy genre is so trope heavy and well-plumbed by this point that perhaps by his subversive act Rowan is pointing how worn out those tropes are. By recognizing all these passages, everyone can work towards a rejuvenation of the genre.
I wouldn’t bet on this interpretation holding any weight much longer. For one, Rowan’s publisher, Mulholland Books, has pulled the book and Rowan has deleted the Tumblr account he listed below his author description on the back cover. It seems like both are busy turtle-shelling – hardly the act of a bold literary voice.
I get the feeling arguments for Rowan in this occasion stem mostly from contrarianism. One of the last ways to write a truly transgressive novel is to steal it. Breaking the contract between author and reader that what is presented is an original work is the final trick an author can play.
But what of the authors that Rowan’s plundered? If you’ve ever heard a post-Ian Fleming author talk about writing a new James Bond book, they approach it with a lot of reverence and excitement. I can’t imagine Raymond Benson or John Gardner, two of the writers Rowan stole from, would feel great about their enthusiasm getting lifted for someone else’s use.
Or how about Charles McCarry, a man who worked for the C.I.A. before writing his novels – a man who probably came by some of his insight in the genre firsthand?
One of the most telling bits of writing on this whole matter came from Jeremy Duns, a spy novelist that Rowan corresponded with. Duns read, enjoyed, and even wound up writing a blurb for Assassin of Secrets’ cover, all before knowing how the book was composed. Rowan’s duping of Duns amounts to a grievous personal betrayal. Yep. Rowan is a huge dick.
The great book critic Paul Constant of the Stranger said of the matter, “I believe that artists should be cheerfully transparent about the sources of their creativity.” Agreed. A work of thefts should only be a comment when everyone recognizes the comment is being made. Otherwise, harm is not only being done to the original authors, but ultimately to the readers. Authors like Rowan are only ensuring their place as a literary footnote.
To be clear, none of these are incredibly new ideas. Johnston even brings up the idea of the personal harm done to those whose work is being stolen. So maybe I’m not the person to be giving this talk.
Paging Susan Johnston: someone needs your plagiarism lecture.