Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Assassin Of What?

A while back I had a strange experience with a student. While reading her paper on some literary topic or another, I got the feeling that the words weren't hers. I took a few samples and googled them, and sure enough I found that she had copied them - probably from the same source it took me a minute to find. Not only that, she had taken whole paragraphs from lots of different sources. I kept finding them. An hour later... I was amazed at how much stuff she had cut and pasted - and from how many different sources she had stolen from. It must have taken hours to put it all together. She wasn't lazy! Why didn't she just write the thing herself?

When I confronted her on it, I got a different sort of surprise. I came away believing she was genuinely shocked to learn that cutting and pasting other people's ideas wasn't the same as writing similar ideas in her own words. She had spent all that time seeking out things she agreed with. When she found them she just kinda said, "Yeah, that's what I think!" and inserted them - without any attribution whatsoever. It was weird. It's like nobody had ever explained to her what writing an essay entailed.

I doubt that Q. R. Markham could even try to make the same claim in regards to his debut novel, Assassin of Secrets. Have you heard about this? The book was just published by Little Brown - a publisher I respect a lot - as part of a two-book deal. It entered the world with starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and was set to hit foreign markets too. Heralded as some awesome reboot of the spy/espionage genre, a "dazzling, deftly controlled debut that moves through familiar territory with wry sophistication."- (Kirkus)

Sounds good, yes? Only problem is that it appears to be a cut and paste job of massive proportions. Here's the Guardian's version of how it's unraveled. And here's a blog post that has side by side examples of texts from Markham's book and from the various originals. Take a look.

I don't take any pleasure in posting about this. I just find it so strange, so hard to understand, so inevitably headed for exposure and life-changing failure. Weird. Very weird. People seem to be rushing to buy his book on Amazon right now, even as the publisher pulls it and tries to get copies back. Was Markham caught making an awful mistake? Or is this the revelation of a hoax perpetrated on the publishing industry? I would say "on readers" as well, accept that it seems like in this case it's readers that caught the fraud.

What do you make of it?

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Blogger M Harold Page said...

This happens every so often. I remember a well established author getting nailed for some quasi-Mongol series back in the 80s. More recently there was a chick lit.

I suppose, sometimes we're seeing the end of a sociopath's random walk; the type of person who cheats, and cheats and does other stuff, and doesn't get caught, so pushes their luck and...

Other times... it's easy to invent a narrative. Were they cocking a snook at the literary world? Hell bent on self destruction? Blocked? Insane?

1:35 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

"cocking a snook..."

I like that.

1:52 PM  
Blogger M Harold Page said...

"Cocking a snood" would mean something different.

2:09 PM  
Anonymous Aaron Helton said...

I think it's most likely that nobody has had a conversation like this with the student before. With teachers under increasing workloads due to shrinking public school budgets, who has time these days to explain what is and isn't plagiarism? And anyway, so much of what young people do online involves copying and pasting someone else's thoughts, many of them simply may not understand the distinction without some very specific instruction on the matter.

Aside from that possibility, however, there are plenty of others for whom it's not remotely worth their time to write original essays. These people have made a habit of sourcing, copying and pasting, then twiddling some bits around to fool the plagiarism software (which seems to be what this QR Markham fellow did); or outsourcing it completely. In fact the rise in plagiarism might even be attributable to the rise in plagiarism detection, since it provides a potentially false sense of security. (see for more details on that theory)

Partial solution: concrete examples of plagiarism in a digital world, provided in early conversations and repeated periodically.

3:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, to interrupt this program but you have a very cool write-up @ salon:



7:25 PM  
Blogger Ronald L. Smith said...

I don't see how a "writer" can sleep at night knowing that the words they put on paper are not their own.

8:17 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


Regarding the student - I think you may be right. Maybe she was just a good actor and had me fooled, but it really seemed like she was stunned not about being caught - but on learning that her cut and paste project was wrong.


I wonder if this "novelist" was sleeping. I can imagine nothing worse (in terms of writerly things) than anticipating the publication of a book that you know is filled with plagiarism. Talk about ulcer-inducing...

8:27 AM  

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