November 10, 2011

Was Quentin Rowan just “sampling” the work of others?


Most of you have probably read by now about Assassin of Secrets, Q.R. Markham (aka Quentin Rowan)’s debut thriller that lifted choice bits from spy novels and political thrillers. The Daily News reported that Edward Champion of Reluctant Habits has been carefully reading the novel and comparing it to others; so far he has found ten paragraphs that have arguably been plagiarized, beginning on page 13. Champion, playing gumshoe detective, writes, “As of Tuesday afternoon, I will have to put my investigations on hold due to several previously scheduled appointments. But I will carry on with my studies upon my return.”

In case you think that we’re being too hard on the guy, take a look at the first instance of plagiarism that Champion found:

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.”

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.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Champion found more instances of literary lifting from Rowan, alerting his readers to the fact that the venerable Paris Review published a work of fiction titled, “Bethune Street” that includes a line from Graham Greene‘s Our Man in Havana (“Time gives poetry to a battlefield, and perhaps Milly resembled a little the flower on an old rampart where an attack had been repulsed with heavy loss many years ago.”)

In these times of moral relativism, what does plagiarism even mean, and what is the impact of this appropriation? Was T.S. Eliot right: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”? One of Champion’s opponents seems to think so, at least. In the comment thread, “Dr. Edwin Poole” writes, “How can any spy novel, or any other type of genre novel, be totally original? Isn’t it possible to view blatant duplication of sentences as a form of irony, an intentional challenge to the obsolete and basically impossible tenets of ‘originality'”?

In Jonathan Lethem’s famous Harper’s essay, “The ecstasy of influence,” the author writes, “Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time.” If this is the case, then are authors off the hook when they “sample” the work of other authors? If we take into consideration Rowan’s fate, then no. If a publishing house purchases the original work of an author, they should get it. We might remember the case of Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard student who scored a $500,000 two-book advance from Little, Brown and Co. and then ripped off two of Megan McCafferty’s novels in How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. (The worst part: McCafferty’s novels were even more horribly-named).

So what makes authors think they can get away with it? A perennial question.

As readers, we want original pieces of writing; we want our authors’ prose to be their own. We also want their stories to be true when we pick up a memoir, which is why James Frey and Laura Albert (aka JT Leroy) got into so much trouble for their books once some intrepid researchers looked into their back stories. In the end, it seems Rowan isn’t the only one receiving some serious heat for this; readers have been mercilessly ridiculing his publisher, Mulholland Books, for overlooking the offending passages in this Burroughsian cut-up novel.

So what do you think, dear readers? Are people overreacting to Quentin Rowan’s debut novel or does he deserve to be dragged over the coals? Either way, copies of the book have been selling like crazy; The Washington Post notes that the novel was ranked #62,924 on Tuesday and jumped to #174 yesterday.