I write with a constant worry that I’m stealing.
Unconsciously, semiconsciously, subconsciously, stealing the lines and words and phrases of other writers. To a certain extent, of course, I am. There are a finite number of words in English, and therefore a finite number of phrases. Someone, sometime, somewhere, has already written “There are a finite number of words in English.” To a deeper, truer, more meaningful extent, of course, every single thing that is ever written that is not a deliberate plagiarism is whole and fresh and unique, and that’s what keeps us all going.
But when I read a line like this, I really, really wish I had thought of it first:
Laurel had cried all her bones out and was too floppy to worry that she was red-nosed and puffy-eyed in front of a boy.
–Joshilyn Jackson, the girl who stopped swimming, 2008
Seriously? She had cried all her bones out, and was too floppy to care? There’s so much packed into that line that I just want to write a scene where I can steal that line and pretend it was mine. But it wasn’t. And that’s the important part, right there. The moral, ethical, philosophical issue that separates the writer from the plagiarist. I want to pretend it was mine, but it wasn’t is a far cry from I want to pretend it was mine, and no one will notice.
Yes, this is about Quentin Rowan.
The same Quentin Rowan, who, under the pen name of “Q. R. Markham,”
wrote “wrote” a spy novel that was published by Mulholland. (You can search and find a billion references, but that link is to what I think is the best place to start, at the blog of spy-novelist Jeremy Duns, who is standing rather honorably through the whole thing, and whose efforts need to be read.) When the book was pulled from shelves by its publisher because of the revelation of plagiarism (and that should be Plagiarism With a Capital P), I watched rather angrily as too many people in the press tried to put it off as some sort of post-post-modernist comment on the state of publishing in general, or of spy-fiction in particular, or on the very concept of intellectual property. Not because I thought that any of these arguments would actually change anybody’s mind on any of these issues, but because I felt that Mr Rowan would surely seize on them in an attempt to explain himself, and that his effort would largely succeed. We, as a society, love a bad boy best when he is unashamedly bad, after all.
But there’s another post, also from Mr Duns, that should also be read.
In the comments section on Highway Robbery: The Mask of Knowing in Assassin of Secrets, Mr Duns details a fairly extensive email Q and A between himself and Mr Rowan that reads like the confession of an addict. In fact, Mr Rowan himself uses the comparison of plagiary to addiction:
“I can only compare it to other kinds of obsession or addictive behavior like gambling or smoking: in that there was no need to do it initially, but once I’d started I couldn’t stop and my mind kept finding ways to rationalize the behavior. Even though, somewhere deep in the chasms of my thick brain, I knew it would destroy me: it did something for me in the moment.”
I should be clear that I would find the wholesale plagiarism from which this book apparently is stitched together to be immoral and unethical, even if it were done to make some obscure “comment.” I should be clear that I find it immoral and unethical, even if it stems from some subconscious compulsion.
But I have to admit, this is a frightening glimpse into the depths of the human mind.