The perils of research

There are always plagiarism scandals raging on the Internet somewhere. There was a particularly juicy one a few years ago that involved a romance novelist by the name of Cassie Edwards, and the black-footed ferrets. For anyone who might have missed it, this is the gist of it.

Author Cassie Edwards – who, after what appears to have been a steady stream of books and a sweet career in the romance field, should really know better – appears to be unable to tell the difference between research and out-and-out copycatting. In her book entitled “Shadow Bear”, a romance between a pioneer woman and a Lakota chief named, you guessed it, Shadow Bear – whose toned, virile physique supposedly adorns the cover, Edwards commits the ultimate stupidity. She not only completely cut-and-paste plagiarizes something word for word, she takes what was a scholarly study on the black-footed ferret and tries to stuff the whole thing into (inappropriate) dialogue. What’s more, she uses a study whose author is still alive and kicking, and who, indeed, responded to this egregious misuse of his work.


In his complaint, he gives you a taste of what is going on. Let me quote a little bit – this is too good to pass up. To set the scene, our cast-iron-cliché Indian chief and his pioneer hottie have just indulged in a bout of hot’n’steamy sex, and in the afterglow our fearful white heroine hears an unfamiliar rustle, and Is Afraid. What could it be? Hostile Indians? Wild beasts?…

Well, yeah, sorta. Beasts. Let Paul Tolme, the author of the ferret study, tell you the rest:

It’s just a family of ferrets. Phew. Let’s put aside for now that ferrets live on the prairie, where there are no bushes—never mind the forest where Edwards has set her characters. Seeing the cute animals, Shiona and Shadow Bear launch into a discussion about the cute little critters.

“They are so named because of their dark legs,” Shadow Bear says, to which Shiona responds: “They are so small, surely weighing only about two pounds and measuring two feet from tip to tail.”

 

Shiona then tells Shadow Bear how she once read about ferrets in a book she took from the study of her father. “I discovered they are related to minks and otters. It is said their closest relations are European ferrets and Siberian polecats,” she says. “Researchers theorize that polecats crossed the land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska, to establish the New World population.”

Shadow Bear responds: “What I have observed of them, myself, is that these tiny animals breed in early spring when the males roam the night in search of females.” As the ferrets bound off into some distant bushes, he continues: “Mothers typically give birth to three kits in early summer and raise their young alone in abandoned prairie dog burrows.”

Shiona: “I read that ferrets stalk and kill prairie dogs during the night. Using their keen sense of smell and whiskers to guide them through pitch-black burrows, ferrets suffocate the sleeping prey, an impressive feat considering the two species are about the same weight.” Shiona shivers, upset by the thought of the cute animals locked in mortal combat.

Sensing her vulnerability, Shadow Bear knows just what to say: “In turn, coyotes, badgers, and owls prey on ferrets, whose life span in the wild is often less than two winters … They have a short, quick life.”

“Researchers theorize”???

“The land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska”?

“The New World Population”?

“Siberian polecats”?

“Related to minks and otters”?

***IN DIALOGUE BETWEEN A ‘NOBLE SAVAGE’ AND A WOMAN WHOSE EDUCATION PROBABLY ENDED IN A ONE-ROOM SCHOOLHOUSE?***

Plagiarism, okay – but STUPID plagiarism? A discussion of the provenance and mating habits of black-footed ferrets in high-level academic language between a man whose English, if he knows any, would probably be rather rudimentary and a woman who knows no Lakota and who would have disdained to use it if she did?

I myself write books for which I do extensive research. I read MANY books to write ONE. How do I do this? I read the research material, I take notes which give me the information I need to use in my own words, and when I am done, I put away the original material and work from my notes, weaving the facts into the background of my story as needed.

Such research, and such usage, is not plagiarism. No-one would SERIOUSLY suggest that every piece of information gleaned from such research needs to be footnoted in the manner of a non-fiction book. It is, of course, good manners to acknowledge your sources somewhere, and that’s what the acknowledgment page in novels is for – “I would like to thank X, author of Y, without whose invaluable book my own would have been diminished”. But footnoting everything in a book of fiction? No. Fiction is fiction, after all, and it’s part of its job description to be a lie – you don’t footnote truth in a lie, you just acknowledge where the truth came from and that it played a role in inspiring your particular lie.

But what Cassie Edwards has done goes way beyond research. Even if she shouldn’t have known better than to introduce into the hapless heads of her characters information and attitudes they could not possibly have had (Shadow Bear the Lakota warrior comes off rather comically as an amateur naturalist, spending hours crouching over black-footed ferret dens and meticulously documenting their behavior on a piece of birch bark to file with the rest of his birch bark library on the intimate behavior of raccoons, coyotes, and – why not – Siberian polecats…) She is shoveling coal as fast as she can into an engine leading her story to an inglorious train wreck. If she knew nothing else, her multitudes of novels should have taught her how to tell a good story – and some little part of her brain should have been screaming alarms at the introduction of the ferrets at all, let alone in this particular post-coital afterglow context.

And if she couldn’t bear to excise the ferrets… good GOD, where was her editor in all this? Where was a guiding hand, a calm voice which would inform the author that a caricature is not the same as a character and that her own pair of protagonists were suddenly spouting off in what was NOT their natural voice, and knowing things they could have no possible idea about in the time and place where they had been placed? I don’t know where the buck stops, not really, but the one place it should NOT have landed was with the readers.

A writer’s contract with their readers is simply to write a story that is good, that is readable (compulsively readable if you’re good and lucky), and that has a consistency or at least an internal self-consistency of the kind that would let it stand by itself if not supported – unlike “Shadow Bear” and supposedly (according to the Internet) a number of Cassie Edwards’ other books. Yes, the writer in question is supposed to be 71 years old, and it has been suggested that we should all leave the old lady alone – but all I can think of in the current context that plagiaristic hope springs eternal because there have been scandals with authors ranging from 19 (remember the “young and brilliant” Kaavya Visivathan, a handful of years ago, and her half-a-million deal which was scrapped because of plagiarism) to, now, 71 – hope springs eternal, it seems, in the breast of storytellers too lazy or too unwilling or too damned ignorant to tell their own stories and hope that nobody else will ever know.

Ideas are cheap, and they often come in waves, and it seems as though a dozen authors are coming up with the same damn trope at the same time. I know of at least one author whom I consider a personal friend who was – unbeknownst to me – working on a story which involved a seventh child of a seventh child, much like my Thea is in the Worldweavers series. She was writing hers and I was writing mine, half a continent away – she is in Minnesota and I am on the Pacific Coast and it isn’t as though we yak on the phone daily, we had no idea what the other was doing… until my books came out and she grumbled “damn, she got there first”.

The ideas are free. But our STORIES are quite different. What she did with the idea and what I did with the idea are two quite different things, to the point that a reader who picked up both might only subliminally pick up that the basic bedrock upon which these two edifices were built was in fact the same foundation. You cannot plagiarize an idea, because the human brain is an idea generator. But if you go out and take the story – or the scientific study – written by that other person, and then lift entire sentences, entire paragraphs, and simply paste them into your own work – that’s crossing a line.

And hey – newsflash – you WILL be found out. In today’s electronic age, where things fly around the world in the blink of an eye, EVERYONE will know. Fast. One career, down the drain. It doesn’t matter what else you’ve done or accomplished, get caught cheating in this way and nobody will ever quite trust you again – even if you go on to write absolutely scintillating and deathless *and original* prose, because everyone will be looking over your shoulder to see where you might have lifted THAT from.

There are many lists of attributes that have been floating around as being necessary for, or defining, a writer. Perseverance. Faith in yourself and your work. Industriousness. Professionalism.

I would like to add one more, without which none of the others are worth much.

Integrity.

In the end, there is nothing left except this: “These words are my own”. You stand and fall on that. Nobody else’s laurels will hold you up.

Heaven alone knows why I kept the printout, but I recently unearthed a copy of an article by Sarah Lyall published in the New York Times on December 7, 2006. The title of the article is “Novelists defend one of their own against a plagiarism charge”. The gist of the thing is this: novelist Ian McEwan had just been accused of plagiarizing from a historical memoir in his novel “Atonement” (yes, THAT “Atonement”. The one that ended up as a Major Motion Picture).

Authors of the caliber of Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Updike, Zadie Smith, Martin Amis and even Thomas Pynchon (who is notorious for shunning publicity) all wrote letters published in that week’s Daily Telegraphs, basically standing up and saying “I am Spartacus” – saying that if McEwen was to be so casually accused of this heinous crime then they themselves were intimately acquainted with the crime in question. If anyone was to be waving a tar brush, it seemed, the overwhelming response from the writers was “tar one, tar all”. The authors all admitted with gay abandon that they themselves had cheerfully plundered other work – be it historical writing, autobiography, primary-source documents, even other novels – in the writing of their own books, and said that such research was the lifeblood of any novel that depended on period detail.

We simply cannot expect our authors to be consciously reincarnated, and to have first-hand knowledge of ancient Rome, the empire of Charlemagne, Columbus’s landing in America, the Christmas truce of the First World War, the abdication of an English king for the love of an American divorcee, the Nuremburg trials or the concentration camps of Belsen and Auschwitz, for that matter even the everyday existences of their own grandparents when those good folks were nippers of ten or eleven summers.

Denying a writer to research such eras, removed from the author in space and time, would mean that the only novels that ever got written would be soap operas dealing with the trite everyday existences of the authors themselves. If a novel is set in a period in which the author in question was not alive, or was not alive in the social circle or circumstance (s)he is describing, and the author is not allowed to use period material relevant to his or her story to research the background and setting, we are left with either no novel at all, or one which is so flimsy and flyaway that a breath would bring the whole house of cards tumbling down.

Lyall quotes Thomas Kennealy, author of “Schindler’s List”

“If it is sufficient to point to a simultaneity of events to prove plagiarism then we are all plagiarists, and Shakespeare is in trouble from Petrarch, and Tolstoy stole the material for ‘War and Peace’. Fiction depends on a certain value-added quality created on top of the raw material.”

Research is essential, and we all do it, from all sorts of sources. Some of the authors who wrote their letters in support of Ian McEwen revealed their own sources – Colm Toibin admitted to using actual phrases and sentences from the work of Henry James in “The Master”, his (fictional) reimagining of a period in the life of said Henry James; Rose Tremain acknowledged that her book “Music and Silence” depended, as she put it, “to a shocking extent” on a small illustrated book by the name of “Christian IV” by one Birger Mikkelson; Peter Carey, two-time winner of the Booker Prize, said, “There’s a line from ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ in ‘Bliss’. ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ has a Christmas pudding lifted from Edmund Gosse’s ‘Father and Son’, and “a number of consecutive zoological words practically snipped from the zoological notes of P.H. Gosse. There are also sentences from the Bible and a tourist brochure, too.”

Carey summed it up, I think, when he said that the work of the novelist was essentially “…mixing what we see with what we think, with that which can never be.”
Academia puts it thusly, that lifting information from just one source is plagiarizing; lifting from many sources is research.

Let’s just keep this in perspective when we look at the word “plagiarism” being flung about with what seems to be such glee sometimes. All writers have to do some research, or else the readers would (rightly) pillory us for not doing it. So long as we don’t actually stray from the straight and narrow, and freely acknowledge and praise our sources where acknowledgment and praise are due – so long as you KNOW that we are doing our homework and not buying the paper off some sleazy Internet essay mill – let us cross our bridges in peace. And do our research.

And dream new dreams inspired by all the times and places that are the heritage of human history.

 

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