Arts Listings

Books: Literary Con Artists

By Dorothy Bryant, Special to the Planet
Tuesday January 30, 2007

TV news clips of a contrite James Frey being castigated by Oprah for adding fictional sins to his (until then) best-selling memoir “A Million Little Pieces,” reminded me of G. B. Shaw’s hilarious character “Rummy” in Major Barbara. (1905) Rummy is a regular at Salvation Army rallies, where he confesses long lists of imaginary sins, making good money in contributions for himself and for the charity. Probably our appetite for vicarious sin and redemption goes back even further than a century.  

So does our appetite for cheap escape. The latest in the formulaic romance genre is “chick-lit” for teenagers. Kaavya Viwanathan, a nineteen-year-old Harvard sophomore, must have decided that it was a waste of her intellect and time (I would agree) to invent incidents for such a formula, so she just cut and pasted bits from published chick-lit novels. Her wild success was quickly followed by disgrace. Since Ms. Viwanathan was smart enough to get into Harvard, one would assume she had heard of the term “plagiarism”—violation of copyright, theft. Or is she suicidal?  

It’s a relief to turn to the hoax recently devised by biographer Bevis Hillier, after his biography of poet John Betjeman was panned by A. N. Wilson. Knowing that Wilson was working on his own biography of Betjeman, Hillier took revenge. He faked a letter to Betjeman from Honor Tracy, “proving” that they had been lovers; then he sent it by devious means to Wilson, who swallowed it, and included the bogus love affair in his book. After other scholars called the letter an obvious phony, the chortling Hillier owned up. No disgrace here—rather, the exposure of the hoax becomes an act of one-up-man-ship, proof that the great A. N. Wilson isn’t so smart, after all. That kind of hoax, in that small world, might do little except cause a few scholarly giggles and complicate research for future graduate students. 

There were more raised eyebrows at the news that, in his new collection of “original” songs, Bob Dylan lifts whole verses from Civil War poet Henry Timrod. Since Timrod is not likely to complain, and Dylan has not violated any copyright law, this example of plagiarism—where there could have been a gracious acknowledgement—is just tacky. 

More troubling is the ease with which students now can and do plagiarize papers off the net. (I’m glad I left teaching before the age of the internet. I remember occasionally spotting a clumsily plagiarized paper and feeling that the student was spitting on me and my unending, underpaid hours of work for him.) Some students plead the ruthless Darwinian laws of academic survival. Do they really believe so deeply in the myth of the Almighty College Degree? Someone should remind them of the well-known Car Talk Brothers’ joke: 

Question—“What’s the first thing you’ll say after you get your PhD?” 

Answer— “Do you want mashed potatoes or fries?” 

Yet, it’s hard to blame students when teachers set a bad example, like the practice referred to in the NY Times as “the echoing textbooks.” It seems that the same concluding paragraph about 9/11, word for word, has turned up in several new history textbooks submitted for adoption by schools. Although textbooks are published under the names of one or two professors, dozens of anonymous academic peons do much of the research and writing. In such cases, it’s hard to say who has stolen what in order to offer an “up-to-date” text. The motive here has little to do with academic prestige; state adoptions of text books equals big money. 

Worse yet are the more personal violations, like a teacher stealing a student’s work. It never happened to me when I was a student—probably I never wrote anything that good—but a friend of mine has never forgotten the day she opened a scholarly journal to find a paper she had recently written for a graduate seminar, published under the professor’s name. I’m told this happens more frequently than we hear about—because students don’t know quite what to do about theft and betrayal by someone they may have to depend on for thesis approval and recommendations. 

Some “borrowing” hurts even more: the brazen, non-credited appropriation of the work of a long-time friend, in the service—supposedly—of shared ideals. I had a recent telephone call from a friend who needed to vent his feelings of betrayal. A well-known peace and justice leader, who also happened to be his friend of forty years, called to ask what he knew on one aspect of Middle East culture. My friend was just finishing a painstakingly researched article on this topic. He e-mailed his as-yet unpublished article, and waited for questions, feed-back. The whole article suddenly appeared on the peace and justice organization’s website, under the leader’s name. No request for permission, no credit, no mention of the author, who then telephoned to him to say, wait a minute, how come—? The plagiarist didn’t even bother to pretend a misunderstanding, though his tone was a bit squirmy as he mumbled something about web site technology (the computer did it? yeah). They haven’t been in touch lately. “The worst thing is, he knows I’m not going to make a fuss about it. He also knows he’s lost my trust, my friendship—and he just doesn’t care.” 

Probably the record for the longest career as hoaxer/plagiarist was Bruno Bettelheim’s forty years as The Authority on childhood psychosis. After Bettelheim’s death in 1990, his over-inflated reputation finally exploded into fraudulent pieces, the least of which was his plagiarized Freudian book on fairy tales. Julius Heuscher, the author from whom he lifted the most, only shrugged, “We all plagiarize. I plagiarize. Many times, I am not sure whether it came out of my own brain or if it came from somewhere else.” Heuscher was overgenerous—long verbatim passages from Heuscher’s book prove that Bettelheim knew exactly what he was doing. Nevertheless, Heuscher’s attitude may be sensible. It’s easier for writers to stay sane if we’re good at shrugging off most literary thefts that, like mosquitoes, suck a bit of our blood. (no, I’m not going to bore you with examples from my experience). 

The big guys seem to get away with the biggest cons. In the 1980s, Alex Hailey was sued for plagiarizing substantial parts of his blockbuster Roots from Margaret Walker’s 1966 Civil War novel Jubilee. Hailey settled out of court with Walker, and perhaps with others. It is said that he ran a writing factory—correction—a team of “student researchers” who combed books for material he could use. 

The fine line between research and plagiarism entered into a recent suit against another blockbuster, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Last April, the plaintiffs lost their case, much to the relief of historical novelists who feared being sued for “plagiarizing” historical sources they consult. But, as Joseph Finder pointed out in the NY Times, Brown is nevertheless a hoaxer, by virtue of the epigraph he printed at the beginning of the Da Vinci Code. “Fact: The Priory of Sion—a European secret society founded in 1099—is a real organization. In 1975 Paris’s Bibliothéque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci.” 

What Brown’s statement of “Fact,” leaves out, according to Finder, are the true facts, well known to historians, that during the 1960s a Frenchman named Plantard planted these forged parchments in the Bibliothéque Nationale to support his own “wild tale about Jesus and his bloodlines.” Brown’s hoax doesn’t seem to bother anyone but people who find fantasies about ancient Vatican conspiracies a bit tiresome and beside the point.  

I lack the wit and the time to dream up a hoax that might embarrass nasty reviewers (though I have, once or twice, spent a few minutes planning their torture and slow death.) And I find it hard to understand what might tempt anyone to spend time plagiarizing someone else’s work. The possible rewards for this kind of theft—money, status, advancement—may be tempting, but hardly worth the risk. 

Or is the risk part of the reward? The classic con artist, the spy and the imposter enjoy a sense of power gained by deceit, by knowing more than, feeling superior to the people who are deceived. Like the gambler, the con artist knows that everything could suddenly be lost—money, reputation, even freedom—but that’s the thrill at the very heart of the game. There are a few con artists in every profession. Why should we expect writers—by definition inventors of tales—to be exempt? 

In any case, it seems that writers who get high on the risks of stealing other writers’ work would be well advised to find another addiction. Plagiarism, until now exposed mostly by accident, is instantly detectable by new software like iParadigms, invented by John Barrie. Barrie’s most recent coup was exposing the plagiarism of Ann Coulter, right-wing columnist and TV abuser of liberals. Today, many teachers, publishers, companies with “intellectual property” to protect use this software which instantly brings up matching phrases, passages, identifying the source. John Barrie promises to turn all of us writers into honest folk. Unless, like other creative con artists, plagiarists and hoaxsters manage to devise another scam.