The Future Will Be Plagiarized

11 Nov

There are two primary types of book scandal—either you write something that isn’t true and say it is (James Frey, Margaret B. Jones, that “Holocaust survivor” who said she lived with wolves) or you say you wrote something that you definitely didn’t (Kaavya Viswanathan). A fairly epic example of the latter came out this week, when it was discovered that Q.R. Markham’s mystery book, Assassin of Secrets, was actually lifted from something like a dozen other books, forcing publisher Little, Brown to pull it from the shelves and Markham to conspicuously fall off the face of the planet.

The Assassin of Secrets story is extra interesting because, unlike some of his plagiarizing predecessors, Markham (the pen name for poet Quentin Rowan, who also happens to be a part-owner of Williamsburg bookstore Spoonbill & Sugartown) made what seems like zero effort to hide his ripping. Here are two sample paragraphs (a comprehensive list is available here).

From Assassin of Secrets: “The boxy, sprawling Munitions Building which sat near the Washington Monument and quietly served as I-Division’s base of operations was a study in monotony. Endless corridors connecting to endless corridors. Walls a shade of green common to bad cheese and fruit. Forests of oak desks separated down the middle by rows of tall columns, like concrete redwoods, each with a number designating a particular work space.”

From Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency: “In June 1930, the boxy, sprawling Munitions Building, near the Washington Monument, was a study in monotony. Endless corridors connecting to endless corridors. Walls a shade of green common to bad cheese and fruit. Forests of oak desks separated down the middle by rows of tall columns, like concrete redwoods, each with a number designating a particular workspace.”

In the age of Google, I find it downright amazing that people still think they can get away with this kind of stuff. Which isn’t to say that I expect publishers to spend all their time googling various paragraphs from manuscripts they receive, but rather that authors, whose entire goal is to get their work distributed to as many people as possible, don’t realize (or choose to ignore) that someone somewhere is going to pick up on similarities as blatant as these.

But what’s even more interesting about the Assassin of Secrets scandal is how much it reminds me of this 2006 New York Times essay by Wired writer Kevin Kelly, in which Kelly is defending Google’s controversial book scan project: The Internet giant wants to scan all the known books in the world and create a universal digital library, an idea generally opposed by the publishers and authors who still make money from distributing those books the old-fashioned way.

It’s not worth rehashing all of the various points Kelly makes in his piece (though it is a rather prescient read in 2011, and the truly bored can read this response to Kevin Kelly I wrote for my college newspaper back in the day) but there was one section in particular that has some bearing on the topic at hand:

Once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or “playlists,” as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual “bookshelves” — a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf’s worth of specialized information. And as with music playlists, once created, these “bookshelves” will be published and swapped in the public commons. Indeed, some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages. The ability to purchase, read and manipulate individual pages or sections is surely what will drive reference books (cookbooks, how-to manuals, travel guides) in the future. You might concoct your own “cookbook shelf” of Cajun recipes compiled from many different sources; it would include Web pages, magazine clippings and entire Cajun cookbooks. Amazon currently offers you a chance to publish your own bookshelves (Amazon calls them “listmanias”) as annotated lists of books you want to recommend on a particular esoteric subject. And readers are already using Google Book Search to round up minilibraries on a certain topic — all books about Sweden, for instance, or books on clocks. Once snippets, articles and pages of books become ubiquitous, shuffle-able and transferable, users will earn prestige and perhaps income for curating an excellent collection.

If you take out the ethical quandary of making money by dishonestly peddling the work of other authors as your own, one might argue that with Assassin of Secrets, Markham was merely curating an excellent collection of the best lines, scenes and characters from other mystery novels—Why read 15 books when you can get the best of them in one place!

I realize, of course, that this wasn’t what Kelly was implying, and that it’s a bit of a reach for me to suggest the endgame of e-readers is a world where no book stands on its own. But if we continue the music analogy Kelly started above, certainly this kind of shift has actually played out. iTunes nudged us from albums to singles, and still more recently we’ve grown accustomed to songs that sample or mix with other songs (in the vernacular of Kevin Kelly: “mash-ups,” as they are called by the kids). So I wonder if it really is that far-fetched to imagine a world where writing is treated similarly. In fact, in 2007, Jonatham Lethem published an essay in Harper’s that was (openly) assembled entirely from ripped passages.

In reading over my 2006 response to Kelly, I realize how much my own opinion of the Google project (and even of the dreaded e-reader) has changed. These days, I find myself distinctly less fearful of a world where every book exists online, though I am still wary of novels filled with links to articles, videos and other books. I enjoy the isolated experience of reading, and I think it’s valuable when it comes to critical thinking. But I also better understand now the benefits Kelly was outlining, and feel much less outrage about some of his other ideas or assumptions (like that a library on the Internet would be universal, despite many countries’ lack of Internet access.) Generally speaking, my 2006 response to his essay was perhaps overly indignant. But whatever, it was college; who didn’t think they knew everything?

With respect to Assassin of Secrets, obviously I stand behind Markham’s punishment and public shaming. Anyone who attended any sort of school has “plagiarism is bad” forever imprinted on their psyche and, as a writer, nothing frightens me more than the accusation of being unoriginal (although “unfunny” and “generally shitty at writing” are close runners-up). I just wonder, in that daydreamy way one wonders things on a Friday afternoon, whether we’ll someday be celebrating the kind of thing Markham created, instead of pulling it from the shelves.

(Then again, maybe we already are: Assassin of Secrets’ ranking on Amazon.com jumped to 174 on Wednesday—after the allegations surfaced—from 62,924, prompting a blogger at the New Yorker to wonder if this was all just part of his plan.)

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