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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Scholarship, Celebrity, Plagiarism

The recent sad case of ubiquitous political commentator Fareed Zakaria brought back into the news a number of other cases of writers who have short-cutted their way to oblivion.

One of the first I remember was Janet Cooke, a writer for the Washington Post who won a Pulitzer Prize for a 1980 piece about an eight-year-old heroin addict.  Later, a search for the boy revealed that she'd fabricated the story.  And then there was Stephen Glass, a young writer for the New Republic who fabricated material for more than forty articles for the magazine in the 1990s.  And now ... Fareed Zakaria, who lifted material from another source and pasted it into his own.

Stephen Ambrose
Some noted historians have also suffered the consequences of carelessness--or patent lying.  Best-selling historian Stephen Ambrose (who died in 2002), for instance, first got into trouble for lifting someone else's text for his own 2001 book The Wild Blue (about WW II bomber pilots)--a book I reviewed, by the way.  (I caught no plagiarism but did conclude with this: "Much nostalgia and admiration; very little analysis; virtually no censure.")  And Doris Kearns Goodwin--still a regular on TV--has had brushes with plagiarism charges.  Historian Joseph Ellis, another Pulitzer winner, lied to his college classes about his military service.  Most egregious was the case of Michael Bellesiles, whose 2000 book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture sought to show that the historical record did  not support the widely held belief that everyone in the Colonies owned a firearm.  But other scholars could not locate the documents he said he'd consulted.  Another fall from grace.  (Oddly, I reviewed this book, too--and reviewed it well.  I had no way of knowing his sources were bogus.)

A Google search will turn up all sorts of other cases, in and out of academe, of writers who have crossed the line.  Remember Oprah's rage when she discovered that one of "her" authors--James Frey--had fabricated incidents in his 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces?  She brought him back on the show in 2006 and rained indignation all over him.  The press loved it.

Fortunately, I did not review the Frey book (whew!).  But I did uncover another similar case before publication.  For Kirkus Reviews, I read books in their pre-publication state--in galley form, months before they're released.  A few years ago I got a memoir to review by a man who'd written a bizarre and even Gothic tale about his mother and racism in West Virginia.  It didn't smell right to me.  So I checked some sources--things I could check in a library and on Google---and a number of the key events he'd referred to simply had not happened.  I told my editor, who passed the word along to the publisher, who checked with the author, who claimed all was true.  Documentation ended that lie, though, and when the book finally appeared, it no longer had "A Memoir" as a subtitle; the publisher had changed it to "A Novel."  Score one for the good guys.

So where does all of this leave us?  A few thoughts.

1. I will never defend a plagiarist.  If you steal ideas and/or words from someone else, you're a thief.

2. I will never defend a fabricator.  If you make shit up and claim it's true, you're a liar.

But ...

At the end of Stephen Crane's great story "The Blue Hotel" a character declares, "Every sin is the result of a collaboration."  And in many of the cases I've mentioned, I think this is true.  Here's why.

Publishers want to make money.  The memoir is the hottest literary genre alive right now.  Writers know that if they want to sell their memoir to a publisher, it's probably not going to happen if it's a quiet little thing about the anxieties of working in the garden or baking bread.  Stuff has got to happen--exciting stuff.  Oh, and there has to be a story, too--even if there really wasn't one.  So, sure, it's wrong for a writer to add some more pepper to bland events, to force a story arc on his or her life--but ... who demands it?

Popular historians have to keep publishing.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, et al. have to come out with something every couple of years--maybe even every single year.  As a researcher and writer myself, I know that this is simply not possible.  You can not research and write a major book on the history of the transcontinental railroad in 2000 and follow it a year later with a history of bomber pilots in World War II.  But Stephen Ambrose did.  How?  By having a stable of researchers, for one thing.  Other people were reading all the books, taking all the notes, visiting all the libraries, the archives, the relevant sites.  Sure, Ambrose did some of it, but he simply could not have done it all.  But his name was alone on the title page.  He went on the talk shows, smiled and pontificated and took all the credit.

I picture a Wealthy Undergraduate (WU), paying his impecunious classmates to go over to the library and read most of the books and journals and prepare most of the note cards.  Then the WU arranges the cards and writes the paper and submits it to his professor.  I don't think I've ever taught with anyone who would accept such work as "original."  But many popular historians do it all the time.

But--given that all of this is common practice--wouldn't a writer with an interest in truth and ethics at least offer a lengthy preface that identified who did what in the book?  I would think so.  (But I wouldn't look too hard for it--it's a waste of time.)

But publishers, again, want to make money.  Stephen Ambrose sold books.  But they had to appear to be entirely his work.

And then there's sad Fareed Zakaria--ubiquitous, as I said.  In magazines, newspapers; on television, the web.  Any writer knows that he could not possibly have been doing all that he was doing--not alone.  Not without help.  And, it seems, shortcuts.

Whose fault?  His, of course.  But what about CNN and Time and The Washington Post?  They must have known that what he was doing was impossible, that no human being can write that much, that often.  (Well, Anthony Trollope and Joyce Carol Oates excepted.)  Yet on he went, smiling and writing and entertaining.  And lying.

And what about us?  Is it realistic for us to expect (demand?) fresh thoughts from a commentator every day--sometimes multiple times per day?  Is it realistic to expect a new book from Joseph Ellis and Doris Kearns Goodwin every year?  Don't we know that no human being can do that.  Not without help.  Not alone.

So are we not just a little hypocritical when we consign celebrity plagiarists to the Inferno?  A little complicit?  Haven't we been watching?  Buying?  Quoting?  Posting their zingers on Facebook?

And underlying all, of course, are the fetid swamps known as Money and Celebrity.  If you are attracted to them, if you step in them, they will eventually suck you down into the mire, cover you over.

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