Columns > Published on December 12th, 2011

Five Lame Excuses for Plagiarism

Plagiarism is wonderful. Or to be more precise, hearing about plagiarism is wonderful. Apart from stories about debut novelists getting a huge advance for a book which goes on to sell as well as Heinz’s new green version of ketchup, few tales warm a writer’s heart more than hearing about someone who has hit the literary big time, won all kinds of prizes, had their butt generally kissed by the establishment, and then gone on to be discovered as a big fat fraud.

But there is a side to plagiarism which is even more entertaining than the story itself. Some plagiarists maintain a dignified silence and, like Alex Haley, author of Roots, hand a large wad of cash to the injured party. But others, less wise, attempt to explain or justify their naked theft of other people’s ideas. Here follows five of the limpest and least convincing explanations for using stuff that isn’t yours.

Lame excuse #1: I have a photographic memory

Kaavya Viswanathan landed a two book deal at the age of 17 with Little, Brown (a name which is going to crop up again in this article) with her debut chick-lit book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. Press releases burbled about ‘the intelligence and seriousness’ of the Harvard sophomore’s writing, her ‘remarkable range of capabilities’ and (from her agent) how the book sold for ‘oodles and boodles’ of money. Viswanathan explained how she had written the novel after receiving help from book packager Alloy Entertainment to come up with a commercially viable idea. Once the concept was secure, the writing just flowed.

And writing does flow when you’re actually channeling someone else’s prose. In a case of Et Tu Brute? The Harvard Crimson broke the news that substantial chunks of Opal closely resembled passages in a series of similar books by chick-lit author Megan McCafferty. Media meltdown followed, fanned at least in part by the fawning pre-release publicity and the movie deal Viswanathan had signed with Dreamworks for the book.

Engulfed by a tide of accusations (including the claim she had also plagiarized Salman Rushdie), the author eventually mounted a defense so stunning in its ineptitude you have to believe it came from the same person who came up with ‘oodles and boodles’. Vaswanatha admitted she had read McCafferty’s books in High School, but that the copying was unintentional and caused by her photographic memory, which led her to inadvertently "internalizing" some of the phrasing. A case of "How Kaavya Viswanathan Turned Accusations of Cheating into a Claim that she is a Genius" perhaps? No one thought to explain to Viswanathan beforehand that when you’re caught doing something wrong, it’s better to say sorry than tell everyone it’s because you’re unbelievably clever.

Lame Excuse #2: I deserve to be famous

Q.R. Markham (the pen name of Quentin Rowan) was by his own admission nothing more than a ‘dabbler’ in writing when a poem he produced in High School made it to the 1996 Best American Poetry anthology. In an e-mail to (real) spy novel writer Jeremy Duns, Markham says:

... I took this anthology business as a sign that I was meant to be a famous writer.

All he had to do, Markham thought, was produce a book as good as that poem and the glittering prizes would follow. Except writing a whole book proved to be harder than he expected, so instead of coming up with his own words, he decided to reveal a wholly unsuspected talent for scrapbooking.

Markham’s debut novel – a spy caper laboring under the title Assassin of Secrets  – turned out to be nothing more than a patchwork quilt of other people’s work. Markham had dispensed with the notion of contributing a single sentence of his own. Instead he took whole paragraphs from other books and spent a serious amount of ingenuity making them fit together into a passable, coherent whole. Clearly a genius at cobbling together threadbare ideas and making them seem fresh, if it hadn’t been for that pesky poem, Markham could have had a bright future writing soaps.

Duns himself was initially taken in by Markham’s work (as was Little, Brown who offered him a two book deal), entering into a correspondence with the "author" over their favorite novels in the genre and little suspecting that Markham was probably on the hunt for more graves to rob. He even went so far as to praise Markham’s work as “post modern” in its Inception-like way of inserting a dream sequence into the middle of a fight to the death. Post modernism, in other words, can be achieved by taking two writers with different styles and alternating their prose. If Markham achieved “post modernism” with Ian Fleming and the much less well-known Charles McCarry, imagine the heights of literary achievement which could be reached by doing the same with Dickens and Easton Ellis.

Lame Excuse #3: We both used the same source material

Author Lenore Hart knows about research. According to her website she has a track record in historical fiction, a genre which demands arguably the highest degree of accuracy and attention to detail. In 2009 she published a novel continuing the story of Huckleberry Finn--from the point of view of Becky Thatcher--and it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to think that Hart was on the lookout for other interesting characters with a direct line to our collective historical subconscious to use as the basis for a novel. She hit pay dirt in the person of Virginia Poe, who was only 13 when she married her much older first cousin, Edgar. Now, Edgar Allan Poe attracts the kind of cultish following only surpassed by the fervor of those who worship at the altar of Jane Austen, and Hart found it too tempting to pass up the opportunity to write a fictionalized account of this relationship. Her book, The Raven’s Bride, was published by (guess who?) Little, Brown earlier this year to generally positive reviews.

But Hart wasn’t the only author to spot the potential of Virginia Poe as novel fodder. As it turned out a writer called Cothburn O’Neal had written a book on exactly the same subject back in 1953 and the obsessive nature of the followers of Poe proved to be Hart’s undoing when a website dedicated to the man and his works, The World of Edgar Allan Poe, reported several similarities between Cothburn and Hart’s work.
Despite the convincing similarities in the extracts the blog compared, Hart’s reaction was not to fess up, but to say the following on her Facebook page:

"...if you also know the sources – biographical and primary, including works by Poe contemporaries who transcribed events and recreated conversations – then you certainly might say I and the previous author are both guilty of sticking to our sources.

So that’s settled then. Both O’Neill and Hart had plagiarized the same references when putting their work together. Except they hadn’t. At least not according to the same blogger who fingered Hart in the first place. This is that person’s comment on the case:

You certainly might say anything you want, but the truth is that, as there is very little historical documentation about Virginia Poe, Cothburn O’Neal fabricated much of his book from whole cloth. As I have said before, he invented several incidents which were reproduced in Hart’s novel—incidents which do not appear in any “sources.” I am curious to know if Hart can produce any specific examples where I criticized her for merely “sticking to our sources.”

Thus far, that challenge has gone unanswered by Ms Hart.

Lame excuse #4: I’m far too busy to check everything

As this article in the NY Times explains, up until 1994, Stephen Ambrose was a well respected but little read historian. Then he decided to stop writing big worthy books about Nixon and Eisenhower and start writing racy, breathless accounts of historical events from the point of view of ordinary people. It was a formula which proved instantly popular: D-Day, the first of his stable of this type of popular fiction, sold in the millions. From there it was onwards and upwards, all the way through Band of Brothers and lots of other pop-history crowd pleasers right until a colleague of Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard noticed that Ambrose’s book The Wild Blue contained whole paragraphs of unattributed quotes from a work by fellow historian Thomas Childers called Wings of Morning.

When the news broke, Ambrose took the traditional position of those caught bang to rights and denied everything. Then as the jaws of the trap closed and both the NY Times and uncovered more evidence of blatant theft, Ambrose changed his story. Being the busy little fortune-earning bee that he was, there was no time in his packed schedule to make sure that every single quote had – erm – quotation marks around it. Instead he preferred to footnote borrowed material and place the source in the bibliography. And because he was so terribly busy coining it in writing, it could happen that a footnote got mislaid here and there.

Which sounds fine except that Ambrose did the same thing in not one but at least five of his books and as the same Slate article points out, using footnotes instead of quotes let Ambrose create the impression to anyone but a very careful reader that the prose was actually his. The final nail in the coffin of Ambrose’s defense is that two of the cases occurred in work published before he was famous, including 1975’s Crazy Horse and Custer, back when he had all the time in the world to check he had correctly attributed all his material.

Lame excuse #5: I’m probably an amalgam of several people anyway

If you think the Poe-ites and Jane-ites can be a trifle over-protective of their idol, it’s worth remembering that these examples of adulation pale in comparison to what GBS once dubbed ‘bardolatry’ – the excessive worship of the works of William Shakespeare. It wasn’t until the 19th century that Shakespeare began to achieve his current status of The Best Poet Ever in the Whole History of Mankind. For centuries he was ranked as serviceable but unexciting – a kind of Microsoft of the literary world. That all changed when the likes of Coleridge and Keats recognized a kindred romantic spirit in the person of the Bard and initiated a period of hero worship which we still toil under now. But after the hype always the backlash. The more popular Shakespeare became, the more literary experts became concerned about the huge gap between the playwright’s humble origins and his eventual accomplishments. This nagging doubt was fuelled by a pamphlet written by an obscure contemporary of Will’s which basically accuses him of stealing all his best stuff from other people.

Oh dear. English Literature teachers were in despair. How could they force Romeo and Juliet down the unwilling throats of their classes if they didn’t even know who had written this pile of turgid crap?1

Luckily for fans of impenetrable rubbish disguised as Art, academia rode to the rescue in the shape of literature professor Brian Vickers and plagiarism detection software. Using a technique which looks for matching strings of words, Professor Vickers analyzed various works attributed to Shakespeare and concluded that at least five of the plays in the corpus are actually co-authored. With a theory which invokes the shade of Stephen Ambrose, Vickers puts this down to fierce competition between London theaters which led to high demand for fresh material and playwrights working in groups to meet it. If we believe Vickers’ explanation, unlike Ambrose, Shakespeare didn’t steal when the pressure was on to meet a deadline. He made a business decision and subcontracted.

What lesson can be drawn from these sad tales of ambition exceeding talent, of unrealistic hype and of sheer blatant greed (apart from the observation that the Little, Brown editors appear to make a habit of missing the blindingly obvious)? It has to be that if by some horrible misfortune you should be caught stealing, there are only two ways to react: say nothing at all, or say sorry. And never, ever do it again.

1. Oh yes, I did say Romeo and Juliet is crap and before someone tries to invoke Baz Luhrmann, I’ve endured Zeffirelli’s film version and not even Bruce Robinson in tights could save that from being terminally boring.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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