Monday, November 14, 2005

More on Judith Kelly and plagiarism

On Friday I received a very polite e-mail from author and plagiarizer Judith Kelly, whom I blogged about last Wednesday.

"I would very much like you to read my book so that you can judge it for yourself," she wrote, and then she kindly offered to send me a free copy of Rock Me Gently.

I thanked her but declined. I'm not interested in memoirs about tragic childhoods, no matter how well-written they might be. (I read Jane Eyre at a very impressionable age and cried hard when Helen died. Never again.) Besides, I have seen side-by-side comparisons of paragraphs from Judith Kelly's book that show just how extensively she "borrowed" from other books, including Hilary Mantel's Fludd and King Billy is a Gentleman, Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and Antonia White's Frost in May. Ms. Kelly's asking me to disregard all of that and read her book anyway is like an art thief begging to be admired for her good taste: All right, maybe I stole some of them, but just look at the marvelous collection I've assembled! In light of Ms. Kelly sins against her fellow writers, I believe the question of whether she told a moving story in beautiful prose is simply no longer relevant.

Another reason I didn't claim a free copy of Rock Me Gently is that I read for my own enjoyment; not to satisfy anyone else's sense of literary propriety. I don't believe I owe Ms. Kelly several hours of my time in the name of "fairness."

But was I too hard on her? After a quick re-read of my original post, I believe I might have been. (She did not suggest this.) My tone was a little flippant, but that's what you get when you come to this blog. This is not unbiased reporting, folks; this is my personal take on "writing, life, and the writing life." Still, while I must condemn her actions, I danced on the edge of ridicule and I hope she will accept my apology for that. Because I never dreamed of having any personal interaction with Ms. Kelly, in my mind she was perhaps more of a news item than a living, breathing human being. And that is always wrong.

Here is the text of the e-mail I sent in response to Ms. Kelly's:
That's a very kind offer, but I'm afraid I'm not interested in reading the book. Perhaps I do owe you an apology, however; while I can't condone any form of plagiarism, I regret the flippancy of some of my remarks. I am preparing a blog entry about this and will post it on Monday.

I wish you all the best with your future writing projects.

I have not asked permission to post Ms. Kelly's response to that, but it raised my eyebrows a little. First she said (quite graciously) that my comments had not offended her. Then she said she understood why anyone reading the Times article would have thought she plagiarized. She went on to insist that the accusations of plagiarism were "totally unfounded" and added that according to her publisher's lawyer, her book does not infringe on any other copyright.

Well. That's something for the attorneys to fight out. Let me just say that the defense would not want the likes of me on that jury.

Ms. Kelly also explained in some detail why she wrote Rock Me Gently, and she asked me again to read the book.

And again I say: No. Thank you.


Colin Simpson said...

The following is a review of Rock Me Gently by Terry Connor, Director of the Catholic Children’s Society that appears on a website for children's mental health:-

This disturbing but moving “true story of a convent childhood” is a far more composite personal account than the subtitle suggests. In fact, the writer spent a relatively short period of three years from the age of eight at a convent “orphanage” on the south coast. This is in no way to diminish the terrible and enduring impact of this experience on her life but rather to draw attention to the more expansive nature of her affecting story.

Memories of the convent resurface when, in her late 20s, Kelly comes across a diary and an old album kept by her during those dark days. These contain frozen images in word and photographs of her former classmates beside black veiled nuns on the beach or against the familiar background of the convent façade. Pictures which, reproduced on the book jacket, suggest a dreadful sadness in such tiny lives.

The story of a haunted childhood is inevitably linked to issues of abandonment and loss and bereavement runs through this book like the thread that joins the ubiquitous rosary beads. Kelly’s publican father died an alcoholic at 29: “I watched him down numerous bottles of his own prickly water, with their brass-bright depths. Then one afternoon he lay on the floor and wouldn’t get up.” Shortly afterwards she was left by her mother in the care of the nuns. Additional information about her early family life would have been helpful in providing more background context given that these were the 1950s when institutional care was viewed as rescue and there was little or no understanding of the effects of separation.

Nothing, however, excuses the unmitigated cruelty and suffering inflicted on these convent children under the guise of discipline and religion. With harrowing descriptions of brutality, savage beatings, reprisals and unrelieved persecution, the author exposes the hypocrisy within the terrifying institution “with its air of piety and polish”. The uncomplicated prose is instantly evocative: “In the dim light…dusty statues looming on high plinths, anguished expressions on their stone faces”. Justly anguished, considering the abusive regime within the convent walls.

There is now something of a genre in book and film for this type of Catholic institutional experience but the writer carefully avoids the dangers of cliché and skilfully intersperses her story with other memories of her life in a kibbutz in her late twenties. By withdrawing from emotional contact in the kibbutz Kelly appears to be protecting herself from a more severe state of psychological breakdown; her mistrust of relationships, including that of a would-be suitor, was perhaps a hedge against further loss.

Therapy arrives in the form of Miriam, an elderly holocaust survivor with whose experiences at the hands of the Nazis she finds resonance in the spitefulness of the nuns in their white, wimpled, black uniforms. It is Miriam who breaks through the false self adopted by Kelly and her initial offhand, taciturn and sullen behaviour. Miriam helps the writer exorcise her demons including the ghost of Frances, her dearest friend in the convent for whose death by drowning the nuns made her feel responsible and guilty. She is gradually reconnected to society: “ Alone had always seemed like freedom but I didn’t want it to become a life sentence. A life sentence of self-reproach.”

At the end, in one of the most telling passages, Kelly chillingly describes a meeting with one of the nuns who persecuted her as a child. Faced with her tormentor’s arrogant attempts at justification and total lack of contrition she regains a kind of harmony and feels not hatred but genuine pity.

Brenda Coulter, please understand that one child in every five is suffering from some kind of mental health problem. These problems manifest themselves in many ways including anxiety, depression, eating disorders or aggressive behaviour and, unless recognised at an early stage and the appropriate support provided, could significantly affect their ability to get on with their lives.

Judith Kelly's book has gone some way to helping children and adults receive the attention they deserve and to offer many people the necessary support and advice when they are facing difficult and desperate times.

You describe yourself as an author of romance novels celebrating Christian values. Surely your values should include compassion for those less fortunate than yourself, because any vehicle that exposes the brutal treatment within the institutions that Kelly describes in her book is worth the loss of personal integrity.

Brenda Coulter said...

I said that I did not plan to read the book. I did not say I am unmoved by the suffering of children.

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Anonymous said...

Why comment on something that you have no interest in? Why tear Ms Kelly apart for the sake of it?
If you had read the book then maybe you would see how exaggerated the plagarism thing is

Brenda Coulter said...

Well, Anonymous, I guess I just figured that since this is my blog, I could write whatever I liked on it. You're welcome to read these posts and even leave comments, but I'll understand if you'd just rather move on.

As for the "plagairism thing" being "exaggerated", Ms. Kelly's own publisher ditched her over this. I think that spoke volumes about the gravity of her errors.

Anonymous said...

Bloomsbury Publishing did not ditch Judith Kelly, they postponed publishing a paperback until the legal accusations were ironed out. I'm happy to say I have said paperback published by Bloomsbury.

Brenda Coulter said...

Before the plagiarism was discovered, 30,000 hardcovers had been sold and Bloomsbury was gearing up for a paperback release. Immediately after the controversy erupted, Bloomsbury announced there would not be a paperback edition, after all. This from The Independent Online, August 13, 2005:

A spokeswoman for Bloomsbury told The Independent: "We currently have no plans for a paperback edition. Judith is mortified by what has happened. We take responsibility for the book and we have withdrawn it until we can be certain there be will no further problems."

I submit that "Judith is mortified" and "We take responsibility" are very strong statements that indicate Bloomsbury considered the plagiarism no small issue. Yes, the book was later released in paperback--but that was more than a year later, and only after the plagiarized passages were removed. From The Guardian, September 6, 2006:

Bloomsbury has quietly re-released Judith Kelly's controversial misery memoir, Rock Me Gently, after the original was found to include chunks of text lifted from other books. The new paperback edition has been completely reworked, and some of the articles and letters accusing Kelly of plagiarism have been reproduced at the back of the book so "readers can make up their own minds".

Cathy White said...

I am the anonymous poster who wrote that bloomsbury DID NOT DITCH Judith Kelly & my point still stands. I have also read all the above quotes you have stated previously (it really isnt hard to copy what other people say) & if you knew those facts why say they ditched her when they didn't?
Its irrelevant whether they published it quietly or not it was still published.

I also stated I have the paperback copy & the passages that were supposedly copied are still in the paperback addition, they havent been taken out.
Wherever your getting your information you should check your facts!!
Perhaps if you had read the book you you wouldnt have made these mistakes!!!
Maybe the genre is to tough for you.

Considering it is only a few paragraphs which are similar to other books in a paperback of 285 pages I cant understand why anyone would try to undermine this harrowing & brave story!

As you have never read the book, really says alot about yourself.
I feel your a writer trying to gain attention as maybe your own books arent quite so popular or maybe you have nothing better to do than make statements on a book you havent even read. A book which tells a much needed story to help other survivors of institutional abuse.

I pray the world doesnt have too many woman like you in it.
There's so much nastiness could you not spend your time on something more worth while..... I guess not.

Much love & best wishes to Judith Kelly for being brave enough to share her story, were others only choose to write meaningless trash.

Regards, Cathy White

Brenda Coulter said...

Cathy, this is my blog. These are my opinions. If you don't like them (or me), I'm okay with that. But maybe you'd be happier if you just moved on.

Wendy K said...

I recieved this book for Christmas and there are some very impactful extracts from Lorenzo Carcaterra's Sleepers that have been plagiarised in it too. I do not dispute the events of Ms Kellys past, nor am I unsympathic to victims of this kind of abuse but I did feel suitably cheated and sceptical as the book unfolded. Had I been one of the authors whose work she has blatently stolen from I would have been outraged.

Brenda Coulter said...

Wendy, that's the problem a lot of people have with the book. It's difficult to believe an incident is true when it's told not in Ms. Kelly's own words, but in those of other writers. Even if the copying was unintentional, as Ms. Kelly claims, wasn't it awfully convenient that she was able to find so many passages in other books that matched her experience so well?

I'm not disputing that Judith Kelly and other children were abused. It's quite likely that they were, and that's horrible. But when a reader begins to doubt that certain events might not have happened because the author has used words from other books--even NOVELS, to describe them, the author has lost her credibility. My gut feeling is that large parts of Ms. Kelly's book must be true. But which parts? Who knows?

I'm not curious about the book because memoirs have never been to my taste, whether they're written by Hollywood stars or people who had miserable childhoods. I'm a natural skeptic, so when I read a nonfiction book, I'm constantly on the lookout for accounts that don't ring true and stories that might have other sides to them. Ms. Kelly's book didn't interest me to begin with, but I'm even less inclined to read it now, when I have good reasons to suspect that either the lady has a faulty memory or she thought stretching the truth was justified because it would arouse more sympathy for her cause.

Mr. Simpson, the first commenter on this post, apparently subscribes to the latter view. He wrote, "any vehicle that exposes the brutal treatment within the institutions that Kelly describes in her book is worth the loss of personal integrity." I couldn't disagree any more strongly. Personal integrity is everything. After all, wasn't it a lack of personal integrity that allowed a bunch of Irish nuns to brutalize children?

Anonymous said...

You should NEVER comment on anything unless you have read and understood it... Ignorance is a terrible thing, not something to be proud of Ms Coulter

Brenda Coulter said...

I'm afraid I don't accept moral imperatives from strangers, Anonymous, and this conversation has become quite tedious. I don't owe you and your friends a public platform from which to chastize me, so I'm disabling further comments on this post.