The book thieves
By MICHAEL CAINES
A postscript/digression following my report from last weekend's Historical Novels Society conference in Oxford. It was while stumbling around the TLS archives that I was reminded of this excellent example of an accidental discovery of plagiarism – one that I could appreciate all the more for having made a similar unintentional discovery myself while working on a book review . . . .
The letter, from Professor David A. Cook of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, appeared in the TLS in December 2007:
Sir, – As someone who wrote a dissertation on the autobiography and Wessex novels of John Cowper Powys (University of Virginia, 1971) and published extensively on him in literary journals during the 1970s, I wanted to contribute the following addendum to Morine Krissdottir’s excellent account of his misfortunes at the hands of publishers, attorneys, and agents during the 1930s (which was reviewed by Margaret Drabble, November 16).
In 1972, I was preparing to write an essay on Powys’s Owen Glendower (1940), a two-volume, massively researched novel of the Welsh prince’s revolt against Henry IV, and I learned that a historical novel on the same subject had been published that year by G. P. Putnams. This was Martha Rofheart’s Fortune Made His Sword (published in 1973 in the UK as Cry God for Harry). I quickly got my hands on a copy to see if Powys and Rofheart had used the same sources, but what I discovered was page after page of verbatim plagiarism. This was no accident: I counted more than a hundred such instances, extending over about 150 pages in the middle of the novel. I considered writing to Putnams directly but was advised instead to contact Laurence Pollinger, Powys’s literary agent and executor, detailing the plagiarism, which I did.
I still have Mr Pollinger’s reply, acknowledging the plagiarism, advising me as to the futility of seeking legal action against a rich American publisher, and suggesting to me as a remedy that I send some money to Phyllis Playter in Blaenau Ffestiniog to help her buy a badly needed set of false teeth.
I sent her a $50 cheque, which was, I suspect, the last royalty ever collected by the Powys estate on one of the greatest (and strangest) historical novels in the English language.
DAVID A. COOK
Department of Broadcasting and Cinema, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, North Carolina 27412.
Big deal, some will say: plagiarism is a fact of literary life. It certainly takes many forms, some more virulent than others. It can be the lifting of whole pages and passages from fellow writers' work, which is what I found when reviewing the reprinted biography of an eighteenth-century nobleman. (The later biographer possibly even took the trouble, if I haven't invented this detail myself, to ward off would-be researchers by dismissing his predecessor's work as not worth reading – while helping himself to great unacknowledged chunks of it.) It may take the form of a single phrase, as implied in a recent issue of Areté, with regard to a line by Derek Walcott – or, in essence, by Elizabeth Bishop. Pierre Bayard has suggested that there's such a thing as plagiarism par anticipation, by which Sophocles stole Oedipus from Freud, and Voltaire got in there first before Conan Doyle.
Plagiarism can also arise inadvertently from the way a student might take notes, as Mary Beard has mentioned on her own blog, with reference to the Raj Persaud case and a single phrase in her own book Roman Laughter. A debate in the TLS letters pages in 2009, involving Pat Rogers, Heather Jackson and others, turned on whether reference books were not to be accorded the same protection from clandestine copying as other works of scholarship. And how about writers who borrow from themselves? It's not unknown for a freelancer, impoverished in more than one sense, to reach into his or her back catalogue and pull out a perfectly serviceable if used paragraph (only one careful owner).
An altogether more extraordinary instance of plagiarism appears in Katy Evans-Bush's splendidly various essay collection Forgive the Language. There, amid her engaging, enthusiastic accounts of the underrated James Merrill, the gone-too-soon Dorothy Molloy and others, is "Now I'm a Real Boy: Poetry's plagiarism problem", a fair-minded reflection on the case of Sheree Mack, who pilfered from August Kleinzahler, Douglas Dunn and a Facebook poetry group run by Jo Bell. It's by no means the first case of verse-burglary.
"In last year's scandal", Bell reminded people, "Christian Ward simply took someone else's poem and put his name at the top on several occasions. Now, it's Sheree Mack who by the kindest account possible, has 'inadvertently borrowed' exact phrases, structures and in some cases whole stanzas, without crediting where they came from. This does not make her the Antichrist, and it's a damn shame that she did it, but she did it at least twenty times – and at least three times in 52, borrowing from published poems." At the same time, Bell advised her fellow poets, "Don't get nervous about using phrases which someone, somewhere else at some other time may have thought of. Don't try to look for a wholly original idea – there aren't any really, in the world of love/sex/death – and don't concern yourself with being overly influenced by others' poetry, because if you stop reading then you will certainly, ironically, write derivative crap."
This is a case that has wider implications, as Evans-Bush observes. Online poetry groups depend on trust. Originality is assumed to be the norm, despite the grand tradition of poems written "after" another poet, of imitations from the classics and centos derived from other poets' work (confession: from personal cento-writing experience, I can appreciate the vicarious thrill to be had from pretending to be, say, William Carlos Williams for a day, just idly moving brilliant phrases around the page). Borrowing isn't the greatest sin in the world, but it can breed mistrust and resentment when it's so audaciously illicit.
It is trust that's at stake here more than the free flow of fine phrases, you might say: contrast Mack, who went ahead and transported Dunn's "Men of Terry Street" from the north-east of England to Trinidad without permission or acknowledgement, with Lamb's chappish assurance to Coleridge: "a gentleman may borrow six lines in an epic poem (I should have no objection to [him] borrow[ing] five hundred, and without acknowledging)". Yet, as Evans-Bush remarks, plagiarism is also a kind of "self-harming activity": "surely, every time a plagiarist publishes a poem and all their friends compliment them on it, it just confirms them in their own conviction that a poem is the very thing they can’t write. It must be agonising".
The gutters of literary history must be blocked here and there with such unfortunate souls writhing in agony, blind to the Wildean stars above them. (That was an allusion to Oscar Wilde, by the way. I added the word "Wildean" to make absolutely clear that I wasn't claiming it as my own. You see how tricky the whole business is?) Go back to 1997, and you'll find the TLS's diarist J. C. quoting lines by a Cornish poet (eg, "my country for lack of will / has gone to hell") next to identical lines by a Scot who happened to have written them first. Only the places are changed, as in the the case of Dunn's Terry Street.
One source of the problem may be that things were very different once – "the belief that it is possible to own an idea is relatively recent and somewhat counter-intuitive. How can something so nebulous and insubstantial be regarded as the property of a single individual?", as David Hawkes wrote in the TLS, reviewing a book about plagiarism in early modern England – and writers, both in verse and prose, have inherited formal habits from those earlier, freer times. (Cf. this week's deeply unsurprising claim about Shakespeare and the OED.) The Latin word plagiarius, Hawkes argues, does not primarily mean "the abductor of the child or slave of another", as many say, but "one who illegally enslaves another". It is not a question of taking from another, in this sense, but "illegitimately 'enslaving' what rightfully belongs to the public domain". Then again: "Had The Waste Land appeared during the Romantic period", Robert Macfarlane suggested, "it would certainly have been stigmatized as plagiaristic."
At the time of writing, Wikipedia doesn't acknowledge that Martha Rofheart borrowed from John Cowper Powys – although it does quote a review of the time that implicitly praises him in its recognition that in Fortune Made His Sword she had "used her historical knowledge and her creative imagination to give us a splendid full-scale portrait of a mighty man". But on Goodreads, "Deborah" gives the novel a one-star review and notes that "portions" of it are plagiarized not only from Owen Glendower but A. M. Maugham's Harry of Monmouth and H. F. Hutchinson's Henry the Fifth. On the same page of the same website, Rofheart's novel is awarded five stars by Endeavour Press, who have had the kindness to keep it in print.