Fat Books & Thin Women

#Longreads: Lizzie Widdicombe’s “The Plagiarist’s Tale”

Check back every on occasional Wednesdays for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

One odd side effect of reading Lizzie Widdicombe’s “The Plagiarist’s Tale” may be a degree of empathy with the profiled plagiarist, Quentin Rowan, and an intense desire to read his novel. (Though I should be calling it a “mashup.”) Rowan’s spy novel, Assassin of Secrets, was set for a November 2011 publication and seemed destined to be a success…until readers began to notice that sections of the novel were lifted wholesale from dozens of other works. Rowan’s efforts to publish his novel, which was in essence a cobbling together of other writers’ work, aided by standard tropes of the spy novel, are shocking; didn’t he expect to be caught? But up to that point, Rowan’s works (apparently all plagiarized, save his first published poem) had been published in venues as respected as The Paris Review, and no one had noticed.

Rowan’s case isn’t one of your standard-issue plagiarism, pulling select lines from other novels and inserting them into otherwise original writing. With Assassin of Secrets he was doing with literature what Girl Talk does to music; the key difference being that Rowan attempted to pass the work off as his own. As Widdicombe notes, writers and plagiarists start out in the same way, and Rowan’s success as the latter can be attributed to some skill – if not as a writer, then certainly as a reader and editor.

The making of a plagiarist can be hard to distinguish from the making of a writer. Joan Didion has described learning to write by typing Hemingway’s fiction; Hunter S. Thompson did the same with “The Great Gatsby.” Rowan reversed the process: he was a writer before he was a plagiarist.

Widicombe goes into Rowan’s backstory, including early efforts at writing, and his slide into plagiarism. She also considers how his novel might have been perceived, if Rowan had stated before publication that he hadn’t so much written the book as edited it. It’s hard, undeniably wrong though Rowan’s “writing” methods were, not to admire his work a bit, and to have some curiosity about it. As anyone who’s struggled to seamlessly insert a(n attributed) quote into an essay knows, there’s a skill to integrating others’ work with your own. That Rowan was able to do so with over thirty sources, to form an entire book by picking and choosing selections of other novels, and to do it so well that no one noticed the plagiarism until after publication, is at the least notable.

Rowan’s method, though—constructing his work almost entirely from other people’s sentences and paragraphs—makes his book a singular literary artifact, a “literary mashup,” as one commenter put it, or spy fiction’s Piltdown Man. Thomas Mallon, the author of “Stolen Words,” a book about plagiarism, described “Assassin of Secrets” as “an off-the-charts case” both in the extent of the plagiarism and in the variety of Rowan’s sources. “It almost seems to be a kind of wikinovel, with so many other writers unwittingly forced to be contributors,” he noted.

In an age when we will crowdsource pretty much anything, when we admire bands whose work is the sampling of other bands, a novel made up of other novels sounds like a sure hit. Where Rowan tripped up is in his desire to be an author, rather than an editor. Witticombe manages to paint a humanizing portrait of Rowan, while addressing these larger questions of what we call literature, and how we like it to be made. It’s hard not to wish that Rowan had sought publication for his work as the mashup it was, rather than as an original novel.

Read Lizzie Widdicombe’s “The Plagiarist’s Tale”


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How incredibly fascinating! I missed the controversy, so now want to read Widdicombe’s New Yorker piece. There goes my afternoon.

I found your blog on Tiny Library’s Literary Blog Directory and am so pleased that I did.

Rose City Reader

Comment by rosecityreader

Glad you stopped by!

I’ve lost a few afternoons lately on these longreads….I start out doing some research for my work, and end up at an article like this.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

This fucking guy again. Ellen, here’s the thing. Quentin Rowan wrote two coming-of-age novels that got turned down by the publishing industry. Then he made this weird persona for himself, started copying other writer’s work and suddenly it worked. The guy wants status. He wants to be an important intellectual and wants people to pay attention to what he has so say. I don’t buy this addiction thing. The fact that he gave up on his own work shows a low self-esteem yes, but the fact that he blatantly stole work from others, show how bad he wants to be important. How he feels its something society owes him.

The worst part in this? I fucking called what would happen next. http://www.deadendfollies.com/2011/11/qr-markham-creativity-trap-quentin.html I wrote that last November and Jeremy Duns, who blurbed his book and improvised himself knight in shining armor defender of literary integrity afterwards, told me it was stupid. Turned out I was right all along….

Comment by Benoît Lelièvre

Just read your post – I’m not sure how I missed it when you first put it up, but man – it does seem like you got that one exactly right. I’ll admit that mention of the memoir Rowan’s working on didn’t thrill me (I mean, SERIOUSLY? a memoir about your addiction to plagiarism?), but it didn’t occur to me to think of the spy novel controversy as little more than a marketing scheme for his later work. If that is the case, it’s a pretty terrible tactic – I mean morally and ethically, not in terms of number of likely sales. Let’s face it, the memoir will probably do decently. What I really dislike about the Rowan quotes you included in your piece was this palpable sense that he thinks he’s better than that spy novel he “wrote”, and that the Q. R. Markham name was protecting his own name for the later, better books he’d write. Again….SERIOUSLY?

I’ll be interested to see where this heads in the future. Though my curiosity may lead me to check out more excerpts of the spy novel, I don’t have much interest in reading this guy’s future work. Again, thanks for linking to your post!

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

It’s the James Frey school of getting attention. It’s childish and highly disrespectful to other writers who are actually playing by the rules. The worst part about that is that he makes Frey pass as vanilla, because unlike him, Frey WROTE HIS GODDAMN BOOK. I still think that it was planned all along, no matter what Jeremy Duns will say from now on. The guys plays the media to get the leverage he wants. Pisses me off.

Comment by Benoît Lelièvre

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