Thursday 1 March 2012

The dignity of labour

Today I'm staying at home to oversee the total revamp of my front garden - which involved putting up a brick wall instead of a moth-eaten fence, ripping out a cracked concrete walkway that kept one of the walls of the house nice and wet, put in drainage and rip out a number of old, berserking plants that were killing everything else and also made a gamely attempt at eating the house's foundations. With an Indian sandstone path laid (framed by bricks), plants and roots removed, gravel laid and a storm drain installed, it's all looking very good at the moment. My house is no longer the one with the ugly front in the terrace.

I'm rather looking forward to "Day Two" of the work, which involves planting a new tree (I'd say camellia) to structure all that empty space, and possibly removing the last bit of wood fencing in favour of another brick wall, and after that, I'll install a hanging basket with some flowers because the front of the house does look a little empty now. It's one of those things I've saved for and that completely transforms the front of my house. Also, the builder, who's currently doing a really good job in the front is going to give me a quote for a porch and revamp of the garden in the back, which then means I'll save money to have that done later in the year. To be honest, I really want a space outside the house where I could work if I wanted (especially in summer), and it was planned since we bought the house. It's a great house, but basically needed some investment in windows, boiler, front and back. Bathroom and kitchen are projects for next year, once I've secured the funding, as they say.

So, that's really where my mind is at the moment (that, and wrapping up the edits of Dark Soul 5). However, there's a huge plagiarism debate raging in our little corner of the genre, kicked off by, as usual, Dear Author, on this post with 500+ comments.

After the "he did - he didn't", "you meany - you ignorant asshole" cycles of the usual plagiarism debate appear to have run its course (Godwin's law, the invocation of Nazi Germany was fulfilled, I'm "happy" to report), some people seem to be dismayed that TJ Klune "is getting away with it".

Personally, my own interest in the debate is that it quickly moved into the "quality debate", which I have a much bigger interest in, because, frankly, I believe the main thing holding back our genre at this point is the lack of quality editing, which includes teaching authors how to be better and eventually grow into real writerly heavyweights who can stand on the same bookshelf as good, solid, mainstream writing.

Plagiarism is an appalling act (I'd call it a crime, but technically, it isn't, I believe), but what strikes me most about it is that plagiarists are actually pretty unhappy. Let me explain. The last big plagiarism case I followed was the rip-off of James Bond and other novel series by the Big Guns into a book called "Assassin of Secrets". Little, Brown, NOT a small publisher, was fooled into buying what sounds very much like a "best of" of Ian Fleming and his peers. So, it happens to much larger houses than the very young publishers in the m/m space - which is not me insinuating that the current thing IS a case of plagiarism, and in the following, I'm moving away from that specific case entirely. It was just a starting point for some more fundamental thoughts.

Bear with me, I'm pulling this whole thing together in the end.

Plagiarism has happened in our genre before and it's not a trait of indie publishing at all, or the fault of any specific publisher.

What I found striking about Markham (or even Manning, quoted in the Dear Author article right at the start) is that plagiarists are actually really miserable people. Markham's career is ruined - I don't imagine he can ever publish another thriller.

There's a long article about the fall-out from the Assassin of Secrets blow-up (ETA: I've located the link), that details why Markham did it, what he felt, how it has affected his real life. There's a lot of self-loathing in there, fear of failure, and fear of rejection.

I don't think plagiarist are totally sane, well-adjusted or happy people. Based on articles and from what I've learnt watching cheaters and thieves, it's usually not them being brazen-balled egomaniacs (yes, some writers are sociopaths, but I imagine they are rare, because writing requires a level of introspection/self-critique that I don't think many sociopaths have).

It's them being terribly afraid that they'll be found out, and they can't even enjoy the fruits of their labour, because they know it's not THEIR labour. They are not writers. They are just thieves. Every time they get an email saying "I loved your book" should feel like a red-hot needle piercing their heart. They know they cheated, that they haven't achieved anything but fooling some good people and wasting everybody's time. Deep down, plagiarists are very unhappy people, even if they sell a lot of books, even if they get away with it. The fear of being found out and the fundamental knowledge that they act like scum ruins those sweet moments of success. In a funny way, plagiarism is its own true punishment.

There's a lot of dignity for a writer in writing; in working hard, in being disciplined, humble, critical, in doing all the work as it should be done. We're the last artisans - we'll be left when everything else is being manufactured by machines. Every piece we do is a piece of craft that bears witness to our growth as people and to every month of commitment to our craft.

I think we as writers can learn much from the Japanese "do" system - where constant practice strives towards perfection, even it it might never get there. Practicing one craft with discipline, humility and diligence is its own reward. In Kyo-do, the path of the bow, students take weeks and months just to learn how to stand properly, and I've heard that in traditional Kyo-do, you don't actually shoot your first arrow before you've gone through two years of practice. Writing can be the same - we write a lot before we're anywhere near aiming for a publisher.

What I learn about myself while writing (and trying to write better) is astonishing. I wouldn't learn any of this if I'd rip off a book or a story. I'd feel the other artist's passages like burning coals in my flesh (that's how I feel about some rewrites one editor did to one of my books, and once I have the rights back, I'm reversing that change). Above all, I'm aiming to be a better writer and the best I can, and that's a process of self-discovery and self-discipline that knows absolutely no shortcuts.

So, to bring this to an end - I absolutely believe that plagiarism needs to be called out and named and shamed and punished. (And, again, I'm not commenting on the current suspected case.)

At the end of the day, however, even the undiscovered and unpunished plagiarist suffers from their actions, because although they want to be nothing more than writers, they know they aren't real writers. They are impostors who are so terribly afraid and so weak and conflicted that only another writer's strength can provide enough armour. But it's not their armour, their strength, their beauty. They are like the guy in Greek myth, who, cursed by the gods, dies of thirst surrounded by water.

ETA: I've located the link/source to the Markham piece.


  1. Thoughtfully said. Your analysis of what is going on with plagiarists makes sense to me. I am taken by the complete sadness of it - the sense of unworthiness that taking other writer's words seems to spring from.

    I think your description of the journey you go on as a writer is really interesting because it means that people who plagiarise want to skip the journey for the destination - if it is the journey that makes a writer into an effective (published) author then a plagiarist can never be a writer really and what they are trying to do through taking the words is to take the persona as well.

    The massive DA thread is a conflation of a few issues including the proven plagiarism case and the less-proven plagiarism case. Swimming in the belly of that beast over the past few days has me thinking about readerly outrage. Are we buying not just words on a page but an experience facilitated by the writer/author? Is that experience compromised when views and understanding of who the author is and what they have done changes? Are we buying a promise from the author (in genre we all follow favourite writers) that we will have this experience? I have read the m/m book in question. It wasn't a favourite of mine but I am wondering if I can read it again because that promise has been apparently broken. Is this where so much of the outrage is coming from? Of couse this could just be the interwebs....

  2. Merrian - Yes. Personally, thinking of writing as a "do" art makes it all bearable for me. I do have "quantitative" goals (I want to sell more, largely because pure numbers is a measure of success, and any "extra" I make will shorten my mortgage term), but the main goal for me is qualitative and that means "enjoying" the process, that is, see it consciously and measure it against me and my own growth as a person. Writing has taught me a lot about who I am. I do think it's a spiritual practice of some description.

    In that worldview (and I needed to work that out on the page for myself), a plagiarist is a guy who brings a gun to a fight in a martial arts movie. His "opponents" have conditioned their minds and bodies for decades, but that guy just shoots them down through no skill or refinement of his own? Has he won? Factually, yes, but martial arts aren't about "winning" so much (or people would stop doing Aikido and Karate and TKD and just go to the shooing range), but about self-improvement and self-discipline. The guy with the gun s kips all that and isn't a warrior at all, but a thug.

  3. I agree that the plagiarists are often not quite right in the head - and even if they were when they started they won't be for long. Commenting on the Manning case, I said that the plagiarist must live in a constant state of paranoia, waiting for the other shoe to drop. What is it like for them when they read about another case, see the backlash and wonder if they'll be the next one exposed? Nobody can live that way and not go at least a little way around the bend.

    And because they often aren't writers at all they never understand why all the writers, not only the ones they ripped off, get so angry. A writer who's slogged for months, even years over a book, and seen their writer friends doing the same, is going to be fundamentally offended by this insult to writers, even if it wasn't their work that was stolen. The thief didn't just steal a chunk of prose, they stole all the time and effort the actual writer and their editors and crit partners et al put into that book.

  4. I have to go and put shoes on and meet a friend but had a thought about the community of readers and writers on the interwebs and how for genre plagiarists being part of this community with a strong role in the community may be a source of motivation. Personally I don't know why they don't blog but that is about the can't write to start with thing too and more exposed on a daily level perhaps... Also thinking about the gun at the knife fight analogy that is about obliterating the other (by taking over their identity/words) that is also resonating with me as a very real motivation and sending shivers up my spine in a not pleasant way.

  5. Becky - I think actually LEARNING To write is less hard than living with that pressure. And I think almost everybody can become a writer with enough hard work. Maybe not an extremely GOOD writer, but a writer. But, yes. I compared it to "kidnapping and raping another's brainchild", by which I mean not to belittle the very real crimes of kidnap and rape but to express the sense of violation and humiliation that the victim feels. Personally, I'd go berserk if anybody plagiarised my work.

    Merrian - Oh yes. Craving attention, recognition, and love (fame) is certainly a strong urge. The article about the author who stole and assembled his thriller talks about them being "desperate to please". In many ways, we all are, so the urge doesn't have to be a bad thing - but something goes wrong when channeling it. It also brings to mind, very strongly, one of the best things one of my writing mentors has taught me: "Your ego doesn't matter." The ego very often is the enemy. It makes us petulant, and overly proud, and gets in the way with doubts and other stupidness. At the end of the day, the stories will outlast. If anything, we'll be remembered for our deeds, or works, in the case of an artist, so I feel we really need to do the best with what we have and work hard, because that pesky ego is going to rot away and the work remains. Do I want to be remembered as a plagiarist or somebody who took the easy way out? Uhm, no.

    Obliterating is a good word. I think it's creative cannibalism, even in the magical sense. Incorporate another's flesh to become stronger. Yes, that analogy works for me.