Wednesday, 9 November 2011

How To Destory Your Writing Career

Plagiarism. The big no no of writing, whether that's a mid-term essay, a song or a story, nicking someone else's work and pretending it's your own is a sure fire way to get admitted into the fiery pit of condemnation. Odd then that it appears to have pulled off for one writer until a few days after his novel was published, when intrepid readers got more than a strong sense of deja vu. Q.R. Markham (real name Quentin Rowan), saw his spy novel "Assassin of Secrets" recently published in America, with much acclaim and positive comments from reviewers and the publisher Little, Brown & Company. On Tuesday the book was pulled by that same publisher when it came to light that parts of the book were copied verbatim from other spy and thriller novels. Things got even worse today, as the scale of the plagiarism is becoming clear, and even earlier works from this same author have now been found to be plagiarised versions of other people's work. If you thought you were having a bad day, Mr. Rowan is having a far worse one.

I saw this story on the Guardian site, via a Tweet from @Ed_Kurtz_Bleeds and almost couldn't stop myself from reading as much about it as possible. There's something about the audacity and scale of the copying that actually impresses me; this guy didn't just rip off one or two books, he's taken sentences from at least dozens of novels and put them all together into his own story. A blogger, who has a copy of the book in question, is going through it from page one and checking for copied text. They're up to page 35 and have already found loads, at least one on every page. Some of my favourite examples so far:

"Markham, Page 13: “His step had an unusual silence to it. It was late morning in October of the year 1968 and the warm, still air had turned heavy with moisture, causing others in the long hallway to walk with a slow shuffle, a sort of somber march.”

Taken from Page 1 of James Bamford’s Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency: “His step had an unusual urgency to it. Not fast, but anxious, like a child heading out to recess who had been warned not to run. It was late morning and the warm, still air had turned heavy with moisture, causing others on the long hallway to walk with a slow shuffle, a sort of somber march.”"

What I like about this is that at first you're all like, "Yeah it's similar but it's not exactly copied... holy shit he just copied and pasted the last sentence!"

"Markham, Page 14:“Yet somehow, at forty-eight years old, Virginia-born Brewster had spent his entire adult life studying, practicing, defining the black arts of espionage and counterintelligence. Six years earlier, during the autumn of 1962, Brewster had been appointed the chief and sole employee of a secret new organization responsible for monitoring — ‘watchdogging,’ in the new president’s words — all of the other intelligence services: the CIA in particular.”

Taken from Bamford, Page 1: “At thirty-eight years old, the Russian-born William Frederick Friedman had spent most of his adult life studying, practicing, defining the black art of code-breaking. The year before, he had been appointed the chief and sole employee of a secret new Army organization responsible for analyzing and cracking foreign codes and ciphers. Now, at last, his one-man Signal Intelligence Service actually had employees, three of them, who were attempting to keep pace close behind.""

Here you can see how he lifts and changes the text just enough to fit with his story - though I think he does a poorer job than the original.

"Markham, P. 23: “…they called it that, never the ‘Soviet intelligence service’ or ‘the KGB,’ because in Brewster’s opinion there was no such thing as the Soviet Union, only the Russian empire operating under an assumed name.”

From Charles McCarry, Second Sight: “…never ‘the Soviet intelligence service’ or ‘the KGB,’ because in their opinion there was no such thing as the Soviet Union, only the Russian empire operating under an assumed name.”"

Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V, change one word, voila; my writing day.

If you want a full list I recommend checking out the blog in question, as no doubt it will be added to in the days to come. And now the blogger has also found 'similarities' with some of Rowan's earlier stuff, even a post he did for the Huffington. Sadly it's been removed now but earlier it was still live and I almost laughed myself off my chair when I saw the first headline for his spy top five was "Faking It".

There is a serious side to this though; not only has he been potentially making money off of other writer's work, he also dragged another, oblivious writer into it by getting Jeremy Duns to help him and to give a front cover recommendation for the UK release (which has now been cancelled). Mr Duns himself is a little hard on himself on his own post about all this, but then it's a natural response to feel duped when someone presents themselves as a genuine article, only to be revealed as a liar.

Why I am I writing all this? Because I think the story of this deception is fascinating, and worthy of a novel in and of itself. I look at how much work Rowan must have put in, taking all those sentences and passages from other's work, threading it into his own story, changing the names and I think, "why not just write it yourself? It would have been less work". It makes me wonder if there's something more to this, that maybe this is a writer who had no confidence in his own abilities, or if he genuinely saw nothing wrong with it, never thinking anyone would notice. The fact is he seems to have done this for a long time, and I can easily imagine that after getting away with it for years in his other posts, articles and essays, that he thought "why not? No one's noticed so far". There's been a lot of criticism of the publishers and editors in this, which I think is uncalled for. The way Rowan did this actually meant it would have been hard for any editor to notice the copied bits, as they're from a lot of novels. The odds of any one person being that familiar with them all, to notice when someone else quotes them verbatim, would be incredibly slim. And unless a few people had suspicions and talked to each other (as the readers did, expressing it in a forum, and making clear that there was definitely something smelly in Kansas) then no one was going to be any the wiser.

Lastly I want to say that I think this is a disgusting thing for any so-called writer to do. I have no problem with people quoting other's work, citing their sources, but to present it as your own, to take credit and money for it; that's just stealing. A few commentators have tried to defend Rowan, saying maybe he had no choice, that publishers weren't interested until he copied from established authors, even some claiming they don't see how anyone is hurt by this. But writers work long and hard on their craft, on their stories. They sweat them out, rinse them off, and rebuild them from the ground up, all to produce a story good enough for publication. For someone to come along and just pilfer those hard earned words... well, it's just not cricket.

The irony of all this is, if the dude had done this with permission, the book would likely have done very well, as a pastiche on a genre that is known for being a bit 'samey'. Now, his writing career is likely in ruins, and I would imagine legal proceedings are soon to follow. But personally I want to hear from the man himself. So far there's been no word from him (that I've found), but here are some excerpts from an interview he did last week. There's something about these cases of plagiarism, faking it, that intrigues me. What was the mind set? What did they think would happen? Did they think? Did they ever plan for it coming out, or did they think it would be fine?

Now that would be a story worth telling.

*Scurries off to check book shelves for "inspiration"*

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