November 17, 2011

The plagiarist speaks: Quentin Rowan, disgraced author, on his “obsession” and “death-wish”


Quentin Rowan, signing books

The story of bookseller, poet, and plagiarist Quentin Rowan, who wrote the heavily plagiarized spy thriller Assassin of Secrets under the pseudonym Q.R. Markham, keeps getting stranger—after Rowan apologized for his deeds earlier in the week, he was back, yesterday, apologizing again after new literary thefts were discovered.

After an initial media silence from the disgraced novelist, whose books have been pulled by publisher Mulholland Books after the widely reported discovery of extensive plagiarism, Rowan began to reveal his motivations in the comments of The Debrief, the blog of thriller writer Jeremy Duns who had, to his great embarrassment, reviewed the novel for Kirkus, calling the book an “instant classic” that “takes on the greatest spy thrillers of the cold war and doesn’t just hold its own, but wins.” Once Rowan’s fakery was unveiled, Duns discovered that even Rowan’s answers in a Q&A were stolen.

After some pressing from Duns, Rowan agreed to an interview that appeared in the comments of the blog. I will quote multiple sections here at length, as it’s quite amazing stuff, though, as is always the case, I highly recommend reading the original!

[Quentin Rowan]: ‘When I was 19 a poem I wrote in high school was chosen for The Best American Poetry 1996. Up until that time I was an indifferent writer, a dabbler really, at the best of times. I was in college and like everyone trying to figure out what I wanted to do with myself. (Mostly I just wanted to play Rock music.) I took this anthology business as a sign that I was meant to be a famous writer. However, unlike any normal person who works at something a long time and eventually gets good, I decided I had to be good then and there. Because I was already supposed to be the Best. I didn’t really plagiarize poetry, it was when I switched to fiction (God knows why) at the age of twenty that I began to distrust my own voice and began swiping other people’s words or phrases because I thought they sounded better or more clever than my own. Perhaps if there had been no pressure to keep publishing it might have been different, but in my mind my course was set.

Many times through my twenties I stopped trying to write altogether, because once I got started on something that felt good enough for publication, I would inevitably start wanting to make it “better” and start stealing things. Therefore some things I did in the past ten years are perfectly clean and others, obviously, aren’t. There was a need to conceal my own voice with the armor of someone else’s words.

This is what happened with Assassin of Secrets, or Spy Safari. It started out as something fun and just for me. A much sillier, more parodic kind of thing.( I should state that it was initially inspired by my long-time love and study of the genre, not any kind of contempt for it.) Then I decided maybe I could do something with it. But the minute I got an agent and started showing it to people who suggested changes, I began to distrust the quality of whatever real work I’d done on it. So I started ripping off passages from spy novels in my collection that fit. Somehow public scrutiny has always been the pressure point for me. Once I feel I’m doing the work for someone else’s eyes, I begin stealing, because I want to impress.

Once the book was bought, I had to make major changes in quite a hurry, basically re-write the whole thing from scratch, and that’s when things really got out of hand for me. I just didn’t feel capable of writing the kinds of scenes and situations that were asked of me in the time allotted and rather than saying I couldn’t do it, or wasn’t capable, I started stealing again. I didn’t want to be seen as anything other than a writing machine, I guess. Some call it “people pleasing.” Anyway, the more I did it, the deeper into denial I went, until it felt as if I had two brains at war with each other. Half of my time this past year was spent in a strange internal argument: Yes I can, no I can’t. They’ll figure it out! No they won’t! It became like a strange schizophrenic form of gambling, and for some reason – viewing myself as a failed ‘literary’ writer – I saw this book as my “last shot.” So even though what was left of my rational mind understood I would probably be found out, I still thought I had to bet it all on this one horse.’

[Jeremy Duns]: Have you ever seriously worried about being caught, or did you just put it to one side somehow? What were you thinking when signing books?

[QR]: ‘Yes, as mentioned above, I worried day and night. I rarely slept and mostly felt like an actor on a stage in my day to day life. Signing books made me feel deathly ashamed, around so many good people, but I’d already thrown the dice so long ago by that point I felt there was nothing I could do but play the out the awful pantomime.’…

[JD:] How did you not think that eventually someone would spot it?

[QR:] This is the part that is so hard to explain logically or rationally. I can only compare it to other kinds of obsession or addictive behavior like gambling or smoking: in that there was no need to do it initially, but once I’d started I couldn’t stop and my mind kept finding ways to rationalize the behavior. Even though, somewhere deep in the chasms of my thick brain, I knew it would destroy me: it did something for me in the moment. Not sure what to call it: the fantasy that I had written these words? That I, too, could be a world-class spy novelist? Whatever it was, I know there was some kind of built-in death wish…

The full interview contains many more tantalizing details about Rowan’s literary kleptomania, including that his theft was never intended as some postmodernist “ecstasy of influence” performance, but was born solely of an obsessive love with spy novels and a desire to emulate (exactly, it turns out) the language of his idols. However one of Rowan’s confessions itself proves to be untrue…

[JD:] Perhaps you could make a list of all your publications that were plagiarized. I’ll start: Paris Review story, BOMB, Assassin of Secrets. Poetry, too? Let’s have a full list and get this out in the open. Again, why lie now? What is known is so extensive you will never be published, so why not, finally, be honest, and get it off your chest?

[QR:] ‘No poetry. The one line from Graham Greene in Bethune Street (Paris Review). Sections of an earlier story in the Paris Review from an old sea travelogue, Amy Clampitt, and Jean Baudrillard. A few lines from Nicholas Mosley‘s beautiful book “Accident” in Intelligence (Bomb). Assassin of Secrets from several different sources already noted. Parts of our interview for Hodder from Geoffrey O’Brien. Parts of my Huffington Post piece from Geoffrey O’Brien (a fantastic essay called “Spies” in his amazing book “Dream Time.”) And then a segment of Harper’s “The World of the Thriller” for the piece on “Riddle of the Sands.” I believe that is all.’

But the blog commentator Pelerin found that it was not all of the thefts. He wrote:

Rowan only seems to be admitting to plagiarizing things that have already been publicly identified on the Reluctant Habits blog.

The plagiarism in Bethune Street is more than just the line from Graham Greene; Bethune Street also contains plagiarized phrases or passages from Janet Hobhouse‘s November, Stephen Wright‘s Going Native, Robert Stone‘s Dog Soldiers, lines from from Howard Nemerov‘s poetry, and probably more. “Excellence” steals more than a few lines from Nicholas Mosley: pretty much the whole thing is lifted from Mosley, and not only from Accident but also from Mosley’s Impossible Object.

He says that two unpublished coming-of-age novels aren’t plagiarized, but doesn’t say what they are. However, his self-published collection “Bethune Street and Other Writings” has excerpts from a novel called “Appearance and the Park,” which plagiarizes Scott Bradfield‘s The History of Luminous Motion, and Don Delillo‘s America. Other stories in that collection also have plagiarized passages: “The German Girl” has plagiarized passages from Robert Coover‘s John’s Wife, Karl Ackerman‘s The Patron Saint of Unmarried Women, Linsey Abrams Double Vision; “Jonathan’s Mother” has plagiarized sections from Alan Shapiro‘s essays; “What to Do until the Doctor Comes” has passages from Pete Hammil‘s liner notes to Bob Dylan‘s “Blood on the Tracks” and from Orhan Pamuk‘s The New Life; the story “Chronometricals and Horologicals” steals from poetry by Robert Polito; “Hombre’s Way” plagiarizes from a chapter (“Luis”) in James F. David‘s Fragments; “Back to Mimsy” steals phrases from Stanley Elkin‘s George Mills; and the poem “Aquila” has a couple of similar phrases to one of Roethke‘s. And no doubt there are many more examples that could be found.

To which, yesterday, Rowan once more jumped in:

Just as a response to Pelerin: I am sorry if I missed all those stolen passages you mention. This is no excuse, but it was a long time ago and much of it I tried to forget or block out after the deed was done. I promise you I’m really not trying to save face at this point. When I was writing Jeremy on Sunday, I mostly used Champion’s blog as a reference because I don’t have hard copies of those stories anymore. And obviously, I took so much, from so many sources that it’s hard to keep it all straight. My thinking is muddled and I’m just trying to make all the proper apologies and find a way to live with myself. But let me apologize to you too for missing those passages, it was not a willed act of dishonesty, I promise. And just so you know, the self-published book those passages are in is being removed, cancelled, etc. I really am sorry and not trying to hide anything at this late stage.

I find the story fascinating, pathetic, deplorable, sympathetic, deranged, and oddly understandable all at once. I look forward to more revelations about the insatiable word stealer, and if this small-time Madoff of letters ever wrote a book about his folly, I’d be quite curious to read it.