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Monday, July 15, 2013

The Five Stages of Plagiarism: In Which I Rattle a Little about Word-Theft

It's probably just the clustering illusion or some other freak cognitive thing, but two relatively high profile cases of plagiarism just came to my attention today. (I'm not saying they broke today, just that I noticed them today.) First, Lianne "Spiderbaby" MacDougall, Quentin Tarantino's girlfriend and horror critic, was caught cobbling her articles together from pretty much everywhere. From the comparative links, it looks as though she started out snagging sentences here and there, weaving them together into a coherent article, but by the time she was caught, had moved into full-on fuck it mode, and was copy-pasting other articles in their entirety. But no matter the manner of the plagiarism, it appears to be systemic to her writing output for a very, very long time. Second, turbo-plagiarist Jonah Lehrer has, for completely inscrutable reasons given that two out of three of his previous books have been recalled and pulped due to plagiarism (at presumably considerable expense), been given a new book deal. What is the punchline to this book deal? Allegations of plagiarism have surfaced for the proposal of the book he has yet to write. I strongly recommend checking out Tom Scocca's hatecast on the matter, as his ire is beautifully articulated.

It was a fun rabbit hole to fall into this afternoon, charting the ways the scandals break and various reactions to the plagiarism. There's a plagiarism playbook out there, which runs something like the Kubler-Ross model of grieving:

1. Denial. "I've never even read the book I supposedly plagiarized from."

e.g. Alex Haley, after getting busted for plagiarizing from The African when he wrote Roots.) I didn't know large swaths of Roots were plagiarized, even though the suit happened in 1987 and the trial, despite the out-of-court conclusion, is pretty definitive. I liked the deposition by an old classmate that he'd actually given Haley his copy of The African years before he published Roots. How bad do you have to piss off your classmates for them to do that?

2. "Mistakes were made" style apologies.

Lehrer, after getting busted the first time for self-plagiarism and manufacturing Bob Dylan quotes, describes how he barfed "into a recycling bin" (Reduce, reuse, recycle!) He then goes on to describe his systemic plagiarism as a "lie, a desperate attempt to conceal my mistakes." Uh, no. there was nothing desperate about the ongoing theft. That wasn't a mistake, or an unfortunate case of cryptomnesia. When copy-paste is involved, it's not an echo or a memory unwittingly recalled. 

3. Acting like the plagiarist is somehow more sinned against than sinning.

From an email from Spiderbaby to a blogger who was one of the first to detail the thefts: 

Hi - my name is Lianne. 
I'm asking that you please stop writing about me online and let me address the issue. I'm writing an apology for my blog now that I will make available for everyone. I'm undergoing some issues right now and I'm receiving emailed death threats (and have been for the last month) which is why I haven't commented at all on any of this.
The email goes on to reiterate the above statements three times, like she couldn't figure out how to say what she was going to say and then say it. You can get out of practice with writing, apparently. I am aware that it's a pretty big nightmare to be a woman in certain fan communities, and that rape and death threats are par for the course when women, well, when women do anything. I don't think that is an appropriate response to plagiarism. But let's decouple the actions of fan culture shitheads from the problems of being a plagiarist. No, she shouldn't get death threats for being a plagiarist - and it's notable that the fuckwit Lehrer keeps getting book deals when she gets told to die, in your fucked-up gendered response category - but sweeping her actions under the rug won't make the shitheads go away, and it doesn't dispute the facts at hand.

4. It's not theft, it's post-modern "mixing"! You old people don't understand.

Teen phenom Helene Hegemann gets busted for lifting copiously from another writer's novel, claims that “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” Which, allow me to make a jerk-off motion with my hand. I mean, heavy hitters such as Lethem have published avowedly lifted works such as The Ecstasy of Influence: a plagiarism in Harper's, which cobbled together an essay on appropriations and authenticity in art by stealing every single line. This smells faintly of vinegar and water - or as we would say in French, douche - but at least it's upfront, and more importantly, the theft is an important meta-factual part of the argument of the the essay. Lethem's not stealing because millennials don't understand personal property the same way, lol, but because theft and originality are like a steak dinner and the dog under the table - they are always going to be in the same room. One's going to end up inside the other eventually. 

5. Ca$hing in like a boss! 

I've already mentioned Lehrer, who seems entirely unrepentant, and will continue shaking his stolen tailfeathers as long as idiots in publishing are willing to keep handing him money. I honestly don't even understand the thought process of these editors, who say a bunch of mealy-mouthed stuff about "second chances". We're on at least the fourth chance with Lehrer, after two books have been recalled and he got hugely fired from the New Yorker. It seems like a bad bet to keep letting him "write", and seems like a questionable thing to do when Big Six publishers are besieged by Amazon and shifting business models and whatever. (Not that Amazon is dealing with plagiarism any better. Welcome to the Way It Is.)

But then there's Q.R. Markham, nom de plume of the Brooklyn bookseller Quentin Rowan, whose debut spy novel, Assassin of Secrets, was recalled within weeks of its release by Little, Brown, due to the fact that it was a quilt of dozens of other fictions patched together. Rowan ended up the subject of a painfully lame New Yorker profile. Sample lines:

 "As writers from T. S. Eliot to Harold Bloom have pointed out, ideas are doomed to be rehashed. This wasn’t always regarded as a problem. Roman writers subscribed to the idea of imitatio: they viewed their role as emulating and reworking earlier masterpieces."

I mean, come on. That is such unbelievable bullshit. Sure, it's totally true that a literature, in the sense of works understood by its writers and readers to be in the same stylistic ballpark, are going to riff ideas and images off of one another - genre as a scaffold of shared experience - but this isn't anywhere near copy-and-pasting someone's work without any fucking attribution. Maybe I've been unduly influenced by the thousands of FBI warnings I've been subjected to when watching movies, but the right to copy is a real thing. It's called copyright, motherfuckers.

Maybe I'm being insincere in my outrage though, because I want to put on the boxing gloves when people dismiss 50 Shades of Grey as plagiarism, because while that book is totally shit, and it started life as fan fiction, it's mostly shitty in its own special shitty way, and, as far as I can tell, James wasn't copy-pasting huge swaths of Twilight. She was just taking a bad idea (one that did not originate with Meyer, I'll note) and made it worse. Good job. Maybe I'm being too narrow in my definition of plagiarism, which I've mostly built using hazy understandings of copyright law and fair use, but I seriously cannot credit any criticism of 50 Shades based on Twilight being super original in its stalker-hero and average-yet-special protagonist. I can credit criticism for tons of other reasons, just not that one.

Anyway, the New Yorker article ends with Markham/Rowan chatting excitedly about how some fool publisher had decided to publish his next, presumably-not-stolen novel. Cha-ching! Let's win from our fail, brothers and sisters! I'm cheered to see that book in question, Never Say Goodbye, has one one-star rating on Goodreads, no one has written a review, and only eight people have shelved it. (Although I would like to know wtf with the publication date of September 11, because there are lot of reasons why that might be problematic. Whatever.) One can only hope Lehrer's new clusterfail of a book will sink without as little comment, but I suspect that will not be the case.

So. I meant to write a post about my own experience with Internet plagiarists, specifically the adorable Texas educator who trolled a bunch of reviews on Goodreads, including one of mine, which resulted in the discovery of dozens of his plagiarized reviews - stolen from such out-of-the-way reviewers as Roger Ebert - and the resultant crowd-sourcing of the links necessary to take his stolen shit down. It's a long story, and one full of lolcats, and maybe I'll tell it tomorrow. That experience very much made me think about the psychology of plagiarism, which is such an odd thing, and something I barely touch on in my link-fest here. (I'll just say that writing about plagiarism makes me twitchy about linking to anything that might even remotely be source material, because, Lord, do I not want to get caught not citing sources in a post about not citing sources.) Goodnight, friends, maybe we'll talk about this some more later.


  1. Ooh, you should see this:

    Artists always use reference material, think Normal Rockwell's self-portrait and how it was covered with various pictures of himself. But what this guy did was wholesale steal images and just rework them slightly.

  2. Some of those look like very serious cut-and-pastes, but a couple look like kind of stock pulp stances? I have a hard time assessing art plagiarism because I can't parse the technical details. It's a lot easier to tell if there's theft in writing, because I can run it through a google search, and it's almost objective how close the wording is. There are even programs online to check for plagiarism which I've mucked around with in the past (looking at VirJohn's stuff, donchaknow), though most are fee-based.

    So, you might know the answer to this: who is on the hook, legally speaking, if a client pays a designer to design something, and then the designer steals from other artists? So the artist who was stolen from finds the theft, and then wants to be reimbursed for their work - who do they send the angry email to? Does the client have to take their art down now? Or is that something that has to be worked out between the three of them? The client got the shaft there too.