The impenetrable skin of the plagiarist

The world can be divided in lots of ways; my favourite has always been “there are two types of people: those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don’t.” I have no idea why this appeals to me.

A more useful sociological divide might be between those who are easily embarrassed by their mistakes and bad behaviour, and those who are not. I once asked a former boss of mine how she managed to sleep at night with everything that was on her plate, and she looked at me as if she couldn’t understand the question. “I leave the office at the end of the day, and I don’t think about anything to do with work until the next morning,” she said. I was a little in awe. I spend most of the evening worrying about what I might have done, and who I might have done it to, during the day.

So it comes as a mystery to me, a truly arcane one, how someone can behave very badly, be caught out on it, and then deny it. I still wonder what was going through Jonathan Aitken’s mind when he purported to be carrying his Sword of Truth. Was he scared? Embarrassed? Excited? Or some complicated combination of the above? Or was he able to simply separate himself into two parts, putting the one who did the bad thing into a little box which he could then deny the existence of?

All of which is a long preamble to the plagiarism which, like the poor and Cliff Richard, is always with us. This post is a tardy homage to the long diligent work of spy thriller writer Jeremy Duns. If you don’t follow Jeremy on Twitter, or read his blog (both of which you should), here’s a pr?cis of what he’s been up to. In early November, he wrote a great post about being taken in by the plagiarist Q.R.Markham, whose novel Assassin of Secrets?was whipped off the shelves by its publisher when it was revealed that Markham had gleefully, creatively and magnificently plagiarised John Gardner, Robert Ludlum and Charles McCarry (the last of whom you may not have heard of, but he’s very good). Markham (real name Quentin Rowan) has recently claimed to be “addicted to plagiarism”, which sounds a bit like being addicted to Ctrl-V, or transcribing old interviews, or writing envelopes. It sounds, shall we say, unlikely.

But this was only the amuse-bouche?for what was to come, because in reading about plagiarism Jeremy came across the claim?in another blog post?that St Martin’s Press author Lenore Hart had plagiarised Cothburn O’Neal’s The Very Young Mrs Poe in her novel The Raven’s Bride. That original blog post came up with dozens of examples of clear plagiarism, and Jeremy added a few of his own. Commenters (including he whom The Word always calls?the estimable Archie Valparaiso) added many more of their own. Go and look at it. It is as clear as day.

So here we have an author of two decades standing (and a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania to boot) caught, pretty much red-handed, nicking extensive passages from another author’s work and passing it off as her own. Now, if this had been me (and I would emphasise it wouldn’t?have been me, but bear with me), I would have been screaming oh shit oh shit oh shit?and probably running away and hiding, or at least changing my name and moving to a cave.

But Ms. Hart? Not a bit of it. Ms Hart embarked on a campaign of such relentless obfuscation that she almost inverted the English language itself. She first wrote an 18,000 word response. I don’t know where this is, but Jeremy refers to it as “bonkers”, and just the word count implies more than a small level of eccentricity. 18,000 words is almost a fifth of a good-sized novel.

For a while, Jeremy engaged Ms Hart in a debate on Facebook, which she subsequently deleted, although I’m sure people were taking screengrabs. It was… instructive. Not once did Ms Hart engage with the accusation being made of her; indeed, at one point I think she was arguing (for it was hard to be sure) that, in a Google age, plagiarism was ipso facto?at once inevitable and non-existent. I think?that’s what she was saying.

And then this, the brass-neckedness of which makes me both furious and somehow whimsical all at the same time. Her publisher, St Martin’s Press, issues a statement saying they’ve investigated, that they’ve decided no plagiarism has taken place (and, please, read Jeremy’s blog and judge for yourself) and that is the end of the matter. Apart from this zinger, which the Associated Press found in an interview with Ms Hart from back in April?when the accusations of plagiarism were first made:

In an interview in May with the online magazine, Hart acknowledged reading O’Neal’s book, but only after she had turned in a “corrected draft” of her novel.

“I was engaged with it in some places and bored in others,” she said, adding her “apologies to the late Mr. O’Neal.”

“A lot of his exposition is rendered in summary punctuated with lots of long, rather too lofty conversations,” she said. “The two novels might feel similar for other reasons: We both write about the same real people and real events, not fictional ones either of us had created out of thin air. We both told the story of HER life.”

Sit back, and admire the majesty. You plagiarise a novel, you’re found out, you deny it – and then you knee the deceased novelist in the groin area by saying his book was a bit crap.

What else can you say? Other than this: Ms Hart has been found out, and this story isn’t over. St Martin’s Press are presumably not enjoying the experience of people crawling all over their Twitter feed and Facebook page saying how disappointing their response is. We have Jeremy Duns to thank for the diligence, and Web technologies to thank for the tools, which brought this to light.

But all I really want to know: what was she thinking? And what is she thinking now?

That picture isn’t the new iPlagiarist software by Lenore Hart Industries. It was actually a 2007 art project in which a machine copied the Bible. It was supposed to say something about religion and scientific rationalism. But it also functions as a handy metaphor for plagiarism.




2 thoughts on “The impenetrable skin of the plagiarist

  1. Yes, indeed, thanks to Ms. Hart and St. Martin’s, I’m now fully aware of how Alice felt when she first fell down the rabbit hole. Thanks for the vivid recap of where things stand to date. Great post.


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