The Borrowers

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz


The story in the April 18 San Antonio Express-News began with this paragraph:

“So the single mother, a teacher’s aide, points to the ceiling fan he installed in her small living room. She points to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet still in its red velvet case and the Martha Stewart patio furniture, all gifts from her first born and only son. … ‘I wish I could talk to a mother who is in the same shoes as I am who has her son missing in action. It’s very hard,’ said Anguiano, who speaks haltingly.”

The story in the April 26 New York Times began with this paragraph:

“Juanita Anguiano points proudly to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet in its red case and the Martha Stewart furniture out on the patio. … ‘I wish I could talk to a mother who is in the same shoes as I am, who has her son missing in action,’ Ms. Anguiano said.”

The Times story’s byline belonged to Jayson Blair, who resigned in disgrace May 1 following several accusations of plagiarism.

Think this is unusual? Remember the plagiarism scandal that shook up the romance realm?

From the Nora Roberts novel Sweet Revenge (published 1989):

His breath feathered over her lips as his hand slid through the water and over her skin. When he leaned toward her, she turned her head so that his mouth brushed her cheek gently, patiently. Need rolled inside of her, with a pang that came as much from fear as from desire.

From the Janet Dailey novel Notorious (published 1996):

His mouth feathered over a corner of her lips as his hands slid onto her back. Eden turned her head so that his mouth brushed her cheek gently. Need rolled inside her, with a pang that came as much from fear as desire.

After the incident went public, writers and readers alike jumped to Dailey’s defense by saying that there are only so many story ideas to go around and that, especially in the romance genre, “All the story lines are the same. Only the names are different.” Dailey received vast amounts of support while Roberts was accused of stirring up trouble for Poor Janet.

Why is stealing someone else’s writing seen as such a trifle? Because publishers and editors reward plagiarists.

Editors at the New York Times had been made fully aware of Blair’s tendency to lift quotes and text from other reporters’ stories by higher-ups at the Boston Globe and Washington Post. They had printed numerous retractions and corrections of Blair stories. It was only when they were publicly busted that they decided enough was enough.

One of the reasons we instituted password-protected forums at Toasted Cheese was to allay writers’ fears of being plagiarized. While not terribly common, it does happen. We’ve had people post work to the forums as their own when it wasn’t. There’s nothing we can do except expect a level of maturity and honesty from our members.

If editors and publishers don’t seem to get the seriousness of plagiarism, what can writers do about it? What can anyone do about it? The American Historical Association has an idea: pillory the offenders.

“Publicity is the best way to handle [plagiarism],” said Columbia University history professor Eric Foner, a former president of the association. He cited the 2002 Stephen Ambrose Wild Blue case as a prime example of a writer being publicly humiliated as a thief.

The association used to have closed-door investigations into allegations of plagiarism, not only in historical fiction writing but also in textbook and other non-fiction writing. The new policy reflects not only the effectiveness of letting the public be the jury but also the fact that the association doesn’t have the time or the people to investigate every accusation.

Good start, I say. The next step is to get the public to take the issue seriously. As with any job, it’s difficult to get your average layman to understand the blood, sweat and tears behind the writing process. One of the problems with writing is that just about anyone thinks she can do it as well as the pros. So what if a line of dialogue or a small descriptive paragraph isn’t exactly original? Who does it hurt?

When music is plagiarized, it’s slightly more scandalous. In 1976, George Harrison lost a lawsuit alleging that his song “My Sweet Lord” was the tune of “He’s So Fine.” The court ruled that Harrison was guilty of “unconscious copying.” When the Rolling Stones realized that the chorus of “Has Anybody Seen My Baby?” was nearly identical to k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving,” they issued her a songwriting credit in order to avoid any bad press or legal hassle.

What have been the consequences of literary and journalistic plagiarism?

After Wild Blue‘s February 2002 release, several writers came forward to say they recognized chunks of their own writing in Ambrose’s novel. An investigation was launched that found “borrowed” anecdotes in at least six more of his works. Ambrose said, “If I am writing up a passage and it is a story I want to tell and this story fits and a part of it is from other people’s writing, I just type it up that way and put it in a footnote.” Some critics, like Forbes magazine, accused Ambrose of merely editing together other writers’ stories and of not being a “writer” at all. Ambrose died the following October. His publishing house vowed to re-release the book with proper notations in place, including quotation marks and footnotes of the plagiarized sections.

Dailey admitted to plagiarizing Roberts, then turned around and blamed a “psychological disorder.” Roberts won a successful suit and donated the proceeds to literary causes. On the other hand, Dailey had a novel published by Harper less than a year after the settlement and in 2001 signed a four-book deal with Kensington.

Among other “reasons,” Blair cites “manic depression,” substance abuse and inattentive editors for his actions. After being the cover boy for shady journalistic practices for a month, Blair has begun to put together a seven-figure book deal. Some news sources say no big publishing house will touch him. Others say it’s likely he’ll get a single book deal worth about what he’s asking for, perhaps with a movie-of-the-week offer thrown in for good measure.

My sweet lord.

pencil

Baker can be reached at baker[at]toasted-cheese.com.

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