anghara (anghara) wrote,

Plagiarism, redux...

For anyone who hasn't been snoozing over the last week or so, there's a new plagiarism scandal loose on the Internet. Read all about it (or remind yourself) by going to the place where it begins, here.

Romance novelist Cassie Edwards - who, after what appears to have been a steady stream of books and a nice little career in the romance field, should really know better - appears to be unable to tell the difference between research and out-and-out copycatting. In the book "Shadow Bear", a romance between a pioneer (white) woman and a Lakota chief who goes by the sobriquet of Shadow Bear - and whose toned, virile physique supposedly adorns the book's cover - Edwards commits the ultimate stupidity. She not only completely cut-and-paste plagiarises something to the point that it really is a word for word repeat - she takes what was essentially a scholarly study on the black-footed ferret and tries to stuff the whole thing whether it will or no into dialogue. What's more, she uses a study whose author is still alive and kicking, and who, indeed, kicks back right here

He gives you a taste of what is going on. Let me quote a little bit - this is too good to pass up - to set the scene our cast iron cliche Indian chief (if we are to judge by the book cover) and his pioneer hottie have just indulged in a bout of hot'n'stemy sex, and in the afterglow our fearful white heroine hears an unfamiliar rustle, and Is Afraid. What could it be? Hostile Indians? Wild beasts?...

Well, yeah, sorta. Beasts. Let Paul Tolme tell you the rest:

It's just a family of ferrets. Phew. Let's put aside for now that ferrets live on the prairie, where there are no bushes—never mind the forest where Edwards has set her characters. Seeing the cute animals, Shiona and Shadow Bear launch into a discussion about the cute little critters.

"They are so named because of their dark legs," Shadow Bear says, to which Shiona responds: "They are so small, surely weighing only about two pounds and measuring two feet from tip to tail."

Shiona then tells Shadow Bear how she once read about ferrets in a book she took from the study of her father. "I discovered they are related to minks and otters. It is said their closest relations are European ferrets and Siberian polecats," she says. "Researchers theorize that polecats crossed the land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska, to establish the New World population."

Shadow Bear responds: "What I have observed of them, myself, is that these tiny animals breed in early spring when the males roam the night in search of females." As the ferrets bound off into some distant bushes, he continues: "Mothers typically give birth to three kits in early summer and raise their young alone in abandoned prairie dog burrows."

Shiona: "I read that ferrets stalk and kill prairie dogs during the night. Using their keen sense of smell and whiskers to guide them through pitch-black burrows, ferrets suffocate the sleeping prey, an impressive feat considering the two species are about the same weight." Shiona shivers, upset by the thought of the cute animals locked in mortal combat.

Sensing her vulnerability, Shadow Bear knows just what to say: "In turn, coyotes, badgers, and owls prey on ferrets, whose life span in the wild is often less than two winters … They have a short, quick life."

"Researchers theorize"???

"The land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska"?

"The New World Poplulation"?

"Siberian polecats"?

"Related to minks and otters"?


Plagiarism, okay - but STUPID plagiarism. Something that doesn't, cannot, possibly fit into her story. And doesn't need to. It isn't even that she plagiarised something and then hung the story on that peg, made it something that the story couldn't stand without, anything, ANYTHING, *ANYTHING* but a discussion of the provenance and mating habits of black-footed ferrets in high-level academic language between a man whose English, if he knows any, would probably be a rather rudimentary kind and a woman who knows no Lakota and who would have disdained to use it if she did. Besides, given the circumstances - "virtuous" white woman taken (presumably with a fair degree of roughness) by a man whose standing in her own world and community is no higher than "there ain't no good Indian 'cept a dead Indian" - well, I might expect stoic silence or tears - or even, given that this IS a bodice ripper romantic novel, a passionate surrender along the lines of "let's do it again, warrior man". A conversation about black-footed ferrets? No. No, no, no. Not even in a book that ISN'T a genre romance geared to hot steamy sexual encounters.

Let me say this. I myself write books for which I do research. I read MANY books to write ONE. How do I do this? I read the research material, I take notes which give me the information I need in my own words, and when all is said and done I put away the original material and work from my notes, weaving them into the background of my story. I do not consider such research, and such usage, to be plagiarism, and I don't think that anyone would SERIOUSLY suggest that every piece of information gleaned from such research needs to be footnoted in the manner of a non-fiction book on the subject where, if you state something that you've discovered while writing your material, you footnote it in the back as "[source], [author], [where and when published], [page numbers where found]" It is good manners to acknowledge your sources somewhere, sure, and that's what the acknowledgment page in novels is for - "I would like to thank X, author of Y, without whose invaluable book my own would have been diminished". But footnoting everything in a book of fiction? No, and I don't think anyone seriously holds that out as a suggestion. Fiction is fiction, after all, and it's part of its job description to be a lie - you don't footnote truth in a lie, you just acknowledge where the truth came from and that it played a role in inspiring your particular lie.

But what Cassie Edwards has done goes way beyond research. Even if she shouldn't have known better than to introduce into the hapless heads of her characters information and attitudes they could not possibly have had (Shadow Bear the Lakota warrior comes off rather comically as an amateur naturalist, spending hours crouching over black-footed ferret dens and meticulously documenting their behaviour on a piece of birch bark to file with the rest of his birch bark library on the intimate behaviour of raccoons, coyotes, and - why not - Siberian polecats...) she is shoveling coal as fast as she can into an engine leading her story to an inglorious train wreck. If she knew nothing else, her multitudes of novels should have taught her how to tell a good story - and some little part of her brain should have been screaming alarms at the introduction of the ferrets at all, let alone in this paricular post-coital afterglow context.

And if she couldn't bear to excise the ferrets... good GOD, where was her editor in all this? Where was a guiding hand, a calm voice which would inform the author that a caricature is not the same as a character and that her own pair of protagonists were suddenly spouting off in what was NOT their natural voice, and knowing things they could have no possible idea about in the time and place where they had been placed? I don't know where the buck stops, not really, but the one place it should NOT have landed was with the readers. A writer's contract with their readers is simply to write a story that is good, that is readable (compulsively readable if you're good and lucky), and that has a consistency or at least an internal self-consistency of the kind that would let it stand by itself if not supported - unlike "Shadow Bear" and supposedly (according to the Internet) a number of Cassie Edwards' other books. Yes, the writer in question is supposed to be 71 years old, and it has been suggested that we should all leave the old lady alone - but all I can think of in the current context that plagiaristic hope springs eternal because there have been scandals with authors ranging from 19 (remember Kaavya Visivathan and her half-a-million deal which was scrapped because of plagiarism) to, now, 71 - hope springs eternal, it seems, in the breast of storytellers too lazy or too unwilling or too damned ignorant to tell their own stories and too quick to cross their fingers and pretend that nobody else will ever know.

Ideas are cheap, and they often come in waves, and it seems as though a dozen authors are coming up with the same damn trope at the same time. I know of at least one author whom I consider a personal friend who was - unbeknownst to me - working on a story which involved a seventh child of a seventh child, much like my Thea is in the Worldweavers series. She was writing hers and I was writing mine, half a continent away - she is in Minnesota and I am on the Pacific Coast and it isn't as though we yak on the phone daily, we had no idea what the other was doing... until my books came out and she grumbled "damn, she got there first". The ideas are free. But our STORIES are quite different. What she did with the idea and what I did with the idea are two quite different things, to the point that a reader who picked up both might only subliminally picked up that the basic bedrock upon which these two edifices were built was in fact the same foundation. You cannot plagiarise an idea, because the human brain is an idea generator, and you cannot prove that somebody else's synapses didn't fire synchronously and come up with the same thought that your own synapses latched onto. But if you go out and take the story - or the scientific study - written by that other person, and then lift entire sentences, entire paragraphs, and simply paste them into your own work - that's crossing a line.

And hey - newsflash - you WILL be found out. In today's electronic age, where things fly around the world in the blink of an eye, EVERYONE will know. Fast. One career, down the drain. It doesn't matter what else you've done or accomplished, get caught cheating in this way and nobody will ever quite trust you again - even if you go on to write absolutely scintillating and deathless *and original* prose, because everyone will be looking over your shoulder to see where you might have lifted THAT from.

There are many lists of attributes that have been floating around as being necessary for, or defining, a writer. Perseverance. Faith in yourself and your work. Industriousness. Professionalism.

I would like to add one more, without which none of the others are worth much.


In the end, there is nothing left except this: "These words are my own". You stand and fall on that. Nobody else's laurels will hold you up.
Tags: writing, writing life

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