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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