Friday, December 02, 2005

Another breathtaking example of plagiarism

Why do they do it? Is it arrogance, or stupidity? Here's another instance of plagiarism, this one even more egregious than the Judith Kelly story I posted about here and here.

From the November 30 issue of New York Press:

Margaret Butler is a reading adviser at the Tuscaloosa Public Library. One day in early October, she was examining a short-story collection titled The Bear Bryant Funeral Train by a writer named Brad Vice. This was the winning volume in the University of Georgia Press' annual Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, a prestigious series that the library orders each year, and six copies had just arrived. Butler opened the book to the first page and was astounded by the opening paragraph:

"And that's how it began. Three distant notes, high blasts on a bugle, then a drop of a minor third on a long wailing note."

As Butler later told the Tuscaloosa News, "On the first page, I said to myself, 'I've read this before.'" She reached into a bookshelf and retrieved Stars Fell on Alabama, a book published by Carl Carmer in 1934, reprinted by the University of Alabama Press in 2000, and still protected by copyright. She quickly found the story that began:

"We heard them coming long before we saw them — three distant high blasts of a bugle, then a drop of a minor third on a long wailing note."

The aptly named Mr. Vice is an English professor at Mississippi State University. What did he have to say for himself?

Vice reacted to all of this by making a number of confused and contradictory public statements. He told the Tuscaloosa News, "All I can say is I'm talking to the Press right now about their concerns. I don't feel at liberty to talk about it. People over my head are dealing with it." The University of Georgia Press reported that he had admitted to them that his story "borrows heavily" from Carmer's book and that he had made "a terrible mistake." He at first told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal that his "omissions" were due to his "ignorance concerning the principles of fair use." Although he later told the same paper that he was denying any "allegations of misconduct," he admitted to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, "I only wish that I could make amends." He told the Chronicle of Higher Education, "I made a terrible error in judgment.… I was foolish and na├»ve.… I intended my story to be homage to Carmer." He told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, "I am sorry I was ignorant of the principles of fair use at the time and honestly I'm still very confused about it."

Takes your breath away, doesn't it? How on earth can an English professor be so "confused" about plagiarism?

Although The University of Georgia Press has recalled and pulped all the copies of Vice's book it could get its hands on, as of this morning there are five used copies available at Their asking prices for this now-rare volume range from $450 to $800.

But let me save you folks some money: If you really want to read the story, you can buy it here for a mere $13.57. In a book that has the original author's name on the cover.


Steve said...

Actually, there are serious problems with the article you quoted. According to this the author of that article attacking Brad Vice ignored evidence and changed Vice's sentences to make it appear that they were plagiarized.

Brenda Coulter said...

That's a very interesting link, Steve, but in my quick perusal I didn't see any explanation of the statements Mr. Vice made to the other news sources about his culpability. The facts remain that his prize was revoked and his publisher recalled the books and destroyed them.

Thanks for commenting. I don't have time to dig into this story today, but if you or anyone else has something to add, please go ahead.

Chris said...

From what I read of Steve's links, Bren, it appears that Vice did intend his story as an homage (as he himself stated). I haven't read either the original work or the new, but it seems akin to what Stoppard did in Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead (as one of the articles points out).

As Carmer's work remains under copyright, it falls to "fair use" v. "copyright infringement." Stoppard avoided the controversy by choosing work in the public domain and sufficiently well known that there was no question that anyone would mistake him as the author of all the material.

Vick should have been more transparent with his methodology, though one of the articles (or a link therefrom) mentions that Carmer is well-known in the South and the pastiche should have been obvious.

I'd give the guy a pass (esp. as there is strong evidence of a journalistic hatchet job--notice he's quoted as saying he made "a mistake" but that could mean anything from intentional plagiarism to leaving off the early-draft epigraph that would have made the connection between the two works obvious) and re-issue the work with better disclaimers.

Maybe he doesn't keep the prize, but his integrity should be restored.

--Chris (dFm)

Mirtika said...

I think it would make a big difference to me in how I saw this if he had a preface or introduction in his book that said his story is an homage that refers and quotes liberally from the earlier work. Shakespeare is almost universally known, even by those who don't read. This fella---never heard of him.


Brenda Coulter said...

Chris, I think Mir raises a good point. Pay homage to Shakespeare and everybody will "get" it. But although that library worker was familiar enough with Carl Carmer's book to recognize his words when she saw them again, she did not get that Mr. Vice was paying homage to him. So I have to wonder exactly how many people realized that was the case. If Mir and I had read the book, we'd have assumed all that great writing was Brad Vice's. If he truly meant to pay homage to Carl Carmer, why didn't he include a preface to make that intent clear to the average reader?

Chris said...

It's my understanding from the linked articles that the homage was explicitly clear in the early draft of the story that was part of Vice's thesis work. Why the decision was made to change things in the published version, I don't know (was it an editorial/publishorial decision? was it Vice's idea? the typesetter?).

As far as Shakespeare/Carmer goes, Vice was writing for a SouthernLit-Fic audience. Perhaps he underestimated Carmer's popularity with that group. Or perhaps everyone got the joke but the librarian. That you or I or Mir would have thought the text original to Vice is a problem, I agree (but that none of the us has read Carmer or Vice shows either what kind of Philistines we are or that Vice knew his audience pretty well).

That said, when writing FanFic always include a disclaimer.

--Chris (dFm)

Brenda Coulter said...

Yeah, I'll cop to being a philistine. But I don't speak for Mir. ;-)

This was posted over at GalleyCat on October 27:

In his apology to UGA, which he made available to Galleycat when contacted for a statement, Vice acknowledged that he relied heavily on Carmer's description of a 1927 Klan march in writing "Tuscaloosa Knights" and "hoped to add authority to my story with the visual details of Carmer's historical reckoning." "I made a terrible error in judgment by omitting to acknowledge this due to my ignorance concerning the principles of fair use," Vice concedes.

As this apology was made to the University of Georgia (his publisher and the awarder of his prize), clearly the omission or deletion of a reference to Carmer was not their doing. It's patently obvious that the story rang no bells for them. So, yeah--I'd say he seriously misjudged his audience.

All right, Mr. Vice is young. But for crying out loud, the man is an English professor. How could he have had such a poor understanding of the fair use doctrine? I don't believe his intent was nefarious, Chris, but, goodness, that was a dumb thing to do.

Mirtika said...

I ain't no Philistine. Neither Bayamo (Cuba) nor Miami are anywhere near Ashdod. Get a map buddy!

; )

Okay, granted, I'm not a literary authority, but you'd think after years of English classes in college, bookstore browsing, web litblog browsing, I'd have at least HEARD of the guy is he was so famous he could be "homaged" so blatantly. Sniff.