Coming to this blog for up-to-the-minute analysis of the day's events would be like asking your Magic 8 Ball who shot J.R. Timely I am not, nor am I particularly analytical (unless perhaps you'd like to debate the merits of post-revival Doctor Who, in which case I have a thesis or two I'd be happy to lay on you -- like, was Russell T Davies trying to turn the Doctor into Jesus or what?).
Yet every so often I'm dragged kicking and screaming into the here and now. Usually it's to promote something. Occasionally it's because I want to share a recent(ish) experience. And once or twice it's been because I actually felt inspired to turn off Doctor Who, roll up my sleeves and get frakkin' topical on y'all.
Well, once or twice is now twice or thrice. Prepare yourself for a blog post that's been ripped from the headlines. Last week's headlines, mind you. And not big ones. Maybe 24 point on, like, page 12. But headlines!
Such as this one from the Wall Street Journal -- Spy Thriller: 'An Instant Classic' Vanishes Amid Plagiarism Charges. You can either click on the link if you're unfamiliar with the Quentin Rowan/Q.R. Markham saga or skim through the rather haphazard overview that follows shortly. (If you are familiar with -- and already sick of -- the Rowan/Markham thing, skip down to where it says "And the beginning." Or just forget about me and go see what Marmaduke's up to today.)
So. There was this dude. Quentin Rowan. And his first novel came out this month under the pseudonym "Q.R. Markham." It was this retro spy thing called Assassin of Secrets and it got great blurbs from top-notch thriller writers like Jeremy Duns and Greg Rucka and Duane Swizzlebizpovichinski. The critics loved it, and though the initial print run was only 6,500 -- roughly the number of James Patterson books the printers throw away every day because the dust jacket's been over-trimmed half a millimeter -- it seemed destined for a few best-of-the-year lists and perhaps even some award nominations. Hurrah! Well done, Mr. Rowan!
Only not. It was actually well done, Mr. McCarry, and well done, Mr. Gardner, and well done, Mr. Ludlum, etc. etc. etc. (and etc. etc. etc. some more). The only thing Rowan had done well was pick passages to steal from at least 13 other books and then stitch them into something cohesive. Which is quite a feat -- like quilting up a beautiful Old Glory out of the scraps you found in the dumpster behind Jo-Ann Fabric. But still, you don't pull that off and then say, "Like my new flag? I designed it myself." No. Because there's this woman named Betsy Ross who's going to kick your thieving ass, and I for one will be cheering her on.
Let us all now pause to imagine a gray-haired matron in a bonnet and shawl bitch-slapping this guy until he cries.
Ahhhhh. I like it.
Back to our story. Some sharp-eyed readers noticed Rowan's cribs and Duns spotted their discussions online and alerted Rowan's publisher and the publisher pulled the book and that's when we got all those 24-point headlines on page 12. The End.
And the beginning. Because very quickly the headlines started to change. Instead of "Unscrupulous Jackass Brings Chaos, Embarrassment Upon Publisher, Colleagues," we got this: 'Assassin of Secrets': Plagiarism scandal or cutting-edge work of genius? And this: Brooklyn Plagiarism Scandal Is a Hoax. And this: The New Yorker Thinks This A-Hole Has "Done a Bang-Up Job" Critiquing the Creative Vacuum at the Center of the Modern Thriller. (Actually, that last one wasn't a headline, it's more of a synopsis. The real headline was too boring.) If you scroll down through the comments on these stories (always a dangerous thing, I know), you'll find plenty of folks chiming in with sentiments of the "What's the big deal?" and "The guy's a genius!" varieties. And just this morning, I've learned, the host of this show was asking, in all seriousness, what Rowan had done wrong.
Do we really need to have this conversation? Does someone actually have to step forward and say, "It's despicable to take credit for someone else's work"? Should that person also be obligated to explain, at length and in depth, why you shouldn't steal candy from babies or kick sleeping dogs?
I guess so. And that makes me sad.
So let me say it: It's despicable to take credit for someone else's work. Quite obviously, I have no problem with art that takes its inspiration from other art. I love that, in fact. You take something you admire and you put a new spin on it -- FUN!!! At the same time, though, you need to give props. My prequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is dedicated to Jane Austen. The first name in the acknowledgments for Holmes on the Range is Arthur Conan Doyle. This is the respect you show to those who've inspired you. It's the respect you owe to any writer because, if you're a writer yourself, you know how very, very painful it can be to get those freakin' words on the freakin' page. To steal the product of that pain is to deny it.
Quentin Rowan was making money off the hard work of others, but to me that's not the worst of it. A writer has to tear words, bloody and screaming, from his brain. (Nice image, eh? Can you tell I've written zombie novels?) That's a chunk of him- or herself in that book. To copy and paste it and put your own name on it is, to me, an act of contemptible betrayal. How could any artist steal another's work when they've felt the agony of creation first-hand?
And yes -- I know we're talking about spy novels here, not "Requiem Mass in D Minor." But that doesn't matter. Art is art, stealing is stealing. And while we're on the subject of spy novels, let me add this: Rowan's con job is in no way a reflection on modern thrillers or the people who write and edit them. Despite all the gloating and schadenfreude from certain quarters, no one is a fool for having been fooled. Because:
(A) Assassin of Secrets isn't a typical modern thriller. It's a Cold War spy adventure that seemed to be paying homage to the great Ian Fleming tradition. Reading it, you'd think it was meant to feel a little Old School and pastiche-y. That was supposed to be the fun of it.
(B) Most of the novels Rowan stole from were well over twenty years old. I simply don't buy that anyone (aside from a hardcore fan) can be expected to remember passages from a book they read so long ago. Especially when, again, you'd be thinking that this new book should feel a little familiar, in a comfortable old shoe kind of way.
(C) What Rowan did was crazy. He landed a legitimate agent who sold his book to a major publisher with whom he signed a binding contract in which he guaranteed that he'd written everything in the book himself. Not only will he have to give his advance back, he's set himself up for a doozy of a lawsuit. Printing books is expensive, you know, as is shipping them around the country, pulping them and giving readers refunds. Bringing all that down upon yourself is self sabotage at such an insane level I don't see how it could have been anticipated.
(D) As Jeremy Duns has pointed out elsewhere, Rowan also slipped plagiarized material into literary journals and even the Huffington Post (as detailed here), but no one takes that as proof that, say, The Paris Review has become a parody of itself. Yet somehow it's "delicious" when the editor of a genre book is hoodwinked -- and perhaps put out of a job. No, I say. That's not delicious. On the contrary, the taste it leaves in my mouth is very, very bad indeed.
O.K. I think this is out of my system now. I let this kooky scandal distract me the past week when I should have been focusing on something else: outlining my next novel. It's hard work, this sitting-and-thinking-thinking-thinking thing. I'm creating something out of nothing, and it hurts.
But it's my pain...and by god, no one better try to call it their own.