Wednesday, November 09, 2005

How not to write a book

From today's The [London] Times Online:

There was just one problem with Rock Me Gently, a bestselling autobiographical account of a traumatic childhood in a brutal convent: large chunks of it were plagiarised from other books.

Now Judith Kelly, the author, has spoken about the frustrations that led her to lift long passages from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and Hilary Mantel’s Fludd for her memoir. Blaming her own ignorance and lack of a formal education, she said: “I am not a writer and I never will be. I’m just a fool. It’s a tragedy really — such a stupid thing to do.”

That "I'm just a fool" was a clever touch; it almost makes it sound like Kelly's taking responsibility for her actions. But to me, the words wrapped around that sentence still look like, "Gee, if I'd know I was going to get caught I sure wouldn't have done it." Kelly is "not a writer," so she urges us to excuse her from accountability; her lack of a formal education is to blame for her not knowing it was wrong to copy someone else's words and pretend they were her own.

Excuse me? The woman's literate enough to be reading Charlotte Bronte and Graham Greene, but she doesn't understand the concept of plagiarism? I'm not buying it. My kids learned about stealing the words of others when they started cranking out their very first book reports in elementary school.

So how did this terrible accident happen to Kelly? She tells us:
“I read and read, and I took copious notes. I knew I had a moving story to tell. I took notes from books and most of the time I would write the title and page number next to phrases I liked.

“When I came to write the book four years later, I obviously forgot on some passages. It was a genuine mistake,” she said.

Give. Me. A break. There's no way she could have skimmed her final draft and missed the fact that big chunks of it were the words of other writers.

Like many fiction writers, I often worry that my subconscious mind might copy a plot or even a clever turn of phrase I've read elsewhere. If something like that trickled into my writing I'd be horribly ashamed; that healthy fear helps me avoid such accidents. But this was no accident:

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë: That forest-dell, where Lowood lay, was the cradle of fog and fog-bred pestilence, which . . . breathed typhus through its crowded school-room and dormitory, and, ere May arrived, transformed the seminary into an hospital. Semi- starvation and neglected colds had predisposed most of the pupils to receive infection: forty-five out of eighty girls lay ill at one time.

Rock Me Gently: The convent was a cradle of fly-bred infection . . . disease had crept into the orphanage and breathed its foul breath through the kitchens and refectory. Lack of food, rat-ridden dormitories and clogged drains had primed the children to catch infections. Before May arrived, 45 out of 60 girls lay ill.

Note that Kelly did quite a bit of furniture-moving to make this paragraph "her own." Did she really intend to go back later and make it more her own?

Call me a skeptic. Kelly's not making apologies, she's making excuses.


Chris said...

Same song, second verse (via Drudge).

On the other hand, this makes good precedent for my upcoming romance Locating Esperanza: "Behind the steering wheel of his off-gray Benz, Dr. Carlos Corazon-Hombre cursed ferociously. Then he swung the door open and leaped out to accost the driver of the Edsel that had moments before collided with his. 'Estas loco, Ese?' he shouted."

--Chris (dFm)

Peter L. Winkler said...

" It was a genuine mistake,”

As opposed to what: a false mistake? An intentional mistake? I love these insincere apologias.

Brenda Coulter said...

I'm too nervous to laugh at your comment, Mr. Winkler, because I'm thinking that if you're a stickler for precise language, my blog is doomed to disappoint you. ;-)

Chris, I kid you not (this time only), I read your paragraph and scratched my head, thinking it must be a takeoff on some literary novel that won a Big Award and went on to sell a whopping 6,579 copies. Then I read it a second time, and it started looking familiar. Very familiar. Almost like something I might have written mysel--

Hey. I did write it myself:

Behind the wheel of his silver Mercedes, Dr. Charles Hartman swore viciously. Then he flung open his door and leaped out to confront the driver of the older-model Ford that had just run into him. "Are you out of your mind?" he bellowed.

You rascal. Stop plagiarizing me and get back to your NaNoWriMo project.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I read an aweful lot of books in a given year. I'm always afraid and very vigilant that that doesn't happen!

Another write beware woe hits the books.

Mirtika said...

CHRIS!!! HAHAHAHAH!!!!!! I'm teetering, oh, no, yes, yes, I'm officially rolling on the floor LMAO!!!!!!!! LOCATING ESPERANZA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Mir--has plenty too much of A, so laughing some of it off could only be a good thing.

Mirtika said...

On a serious note, now that I'm back in my chair: I have the same fear. What if I unconsciously regurgiate a passage stuck in my head?

Look, most of us don't want to write someone else's words. I want to WRITE MY OWN,d ang it. But I have had this happen a lot: I come up with a story idea, a couple months or years later, I read a book that has the exact same premise and story progression.

Now, that makes sense. We're living in the same milieu. Things come to us out of tv or books or magazines or life events that trigger a progression of associations. It's not surprising that we have this kind of synchronicity.

It's just scary when someone might accuse you of filching.

I know a lot of writers. We're too enamored of our own ideas and ways of phrasing to care to steal. We want our OWN words read.

So, if someone is taking whole passages from books--whether it's this chick and her memoir or Janet Daily jumping into NOra Roberts books--it's intentional. It's not a mistake. It's stealing. It's a crime.

You can steal a particularly fine metaphor by accident, but you don't steal whole paragraphs, down to the punctuation, by accident.

Well, unless you have one helluvan eidetic subconscious memory.


Heather Diane Tipton said...

given that I've read atleast a book a day for the last 13 years... I'm always afraid I'm going to steal something from a book and not remember it.

Fernando from Chile said...

not an expert, haven't read that book and faaar from perfect english, but i must say that it's really likely those copied fragments weren't intentional...she wouldn't chose such widely known and read classics