I was stunned, flabbergasted and gob-smacked to read in the latest Red Herrings, the bulletin of the Crime Writers’ Association, an article by Geraldine Evans, concerning something I should perhaps already have known about. Geraldine is an Indie writer who discovered quite by chance that someone called Karl Jones had flagrantly copied almost word for word at least two of her novels and remarketed them as his own. He did take the trouble to change the names of the characters, the name of the series, and the titles of the books, and for that minimal effort, he is perhaps to be congratulated. Ms Evans only discovered this piece of arrant and impudent thievery from fans who emailed her. Unfortunately, she is by no means the only victim of such felonies.
Plagiarism is not a new crime. Authors, politicians, music-makers, have all been accused of stealing someone else’s work. I don’t remember, but I’m not sure I haven’t done it myself in a limited fashion … that is, jotted down in my notebook a phrase, a simile, maybe even half a sentence, from a book I’ve been reading, that particularly struck the eye, and then later used a version of it in my own writings. I’m talking a few words here, not great gobbets of prose. Not whole paragraphs. Not entire pages. And certainly not complete books. I long ago schooled myself to put inverted commas round such ‘borrowings’ and to make sure to identify the original author, so that if I ever used the stuff I noted down, I would at least revamp it. But that is part of the writer’s journey. We are like magpies, darting with open beak at some felicitous piece of work, wishing we could have written something as good, hoping that someday we might. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, we all know that. All writers are avid readers and reading the work of others is the way we ourselves learn. But sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between imitation and downright theft.
John Sutherland, professor of English at University College, London, identifies a difference between an innocent and a guilty plagiarist. Among the former are people like me, with my careless notebook. And Hugh MacDiarmid, the Scottish poet, who included in one of his epic poems various prose extracts from a Welsh writer. MacDiarmid agreed that these were not his own work, but ascribed the fact to years-old unattributed note-taking. Like me, he is what Professor Sutherland calls a sloppy note-takers, in other words, someone who can’t remember where they got their information or idea from in the first place. Sutherland even mentions authors with photographic memories who, all unconsciously, plant chunks of things they’ve read elsewhere into their own work – though frankly I find that theory a little far-fetched.
But unconscious memory can account for another kind of plagiarism – that of ideas. PD James, that doyenne of crime writing, was accused of copying the plot of a whodunit set in a publishing house from Cecil Day-Lewis for her novel Original Sin. She stoutly refuted the notion of any deliberate attempt to plagiarise. Indeed, I feel that stealing ideas is a bit like stealing a car and then selling it on. By the time you’ve added new tyres and hub-caps, had it re-sprayed in a different colour, put in new upholstery, attached bits of chrome all over it and hung a pair of fuzzy dice from the rear-view mirror, the car is no longer the one you stole but has become yours. But it may well be that I have plagiarised this simile from Baroness James herself.
I well remember the fuss when David Lodge pointed the finger at an innocent Mills & Boon writer called Pauline Harris, who shared an agent with him, claiming that she must have seen his manuscript for Nice Work and had stolen key parts of it for her own M & B romance novel. He wrote an article in which he highlighted resemblances between the two books. Mills and Boon immediately sacked Harris from their list of regular writers, which shows a fine sense of loyalty; Harris lost her comfortable source of income and sank into a deep depression. But not before she sued for libel, stating that she had never read Professor Lodge’s book, and was able to show that she had in fact delivered her manuscript before his book came out. She won a substantial amount of damages – and Professor Lodge was forced to retract his accusations. Later, some critic pointed out that both books shared key elements of Mrs Gaskell’s North and South.
I also remember reading a novel called The Cement Garden, and thinking, Hang about, I’ve read this before. Ian McEwan vigorously denied any deliberate plagiarism of Julian Gloag’s earlier novel, Our Mother’s House, but the similarities are striking and may well have been caused by what Sutherland called ‘unconscious memory’.
And there was, of course, the famous case in the US of Alex Haley and his ‘faction’ Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which brought him prizes, fame and money and established him as a leading literary figure of the day. He was sued by Harold Courlander, another African-American novelist, who accused Mr. Haley of copying from his own book, The African. In court it was proved that Haley had access to and substantially copied from this novel. Courlander’s deposition stated that “without The African, Roots would have been a very different and less successful novel, and indeed it is doubtful that Mr. Haley could have written Roots without The African … Mr. Haley copied language, thoughts, attitudes, incidents, situations, plot and character.” Courlander was proven right and large sums of money changed hands.
For Geraldine Evans, large sums of money are unlikely to be forthcoming, even if she did decide to pursue her plagiarist through the courts. She is convinced that her literary stalker will have taken devious steps to hide any profit he might have made from his thefts. Nor does she want to waste time on dealing with the ramifications of a court-case, let alone coping with the cost of a solicitor’s fees, when what she really wants to do is to get on with writing her next crime novel. What rankled in particular was the fact that the thief’s rankings for the two books he had stolen from her were better than her originals!
But as every schoolboy knows, while copying from one is plagiarism, copying from many is research. And it may well be that I have plagiarised some of the information included in this piece.
So sue me!