Dear Dr. O'Doherty,
With the most recent extreme example of plagiarism all the publishing buzz at the moment (Q.R. Markham's Assassin of Secrets, published by Mulholland, turns out to be entirely composed of text taken from well-known published books), would you please tell us something about the impulse to plagiarize? These cases arise every so often, most recently, for example, the case of Kaavya Viswanathan's debut novel, published in 2006 and withdrawn when her plagIarisms from Megan McCafferty, Salman Rushdie, and a few other published authors came to light.
With Assasssin of Secrets, it isn't just a few cut-and-pasted sentences, but an extraordinary crazy quilt of appropriated text on, possibly, every page. (It is a remarkable feat, in its way, crafting a Frankenstein's monster of a novel apparently coherent enough to garner starred reviews in PW and Kirkus.) Even his answers in an online Q&A about the book turn out to be words stolen from other writers.
How could someone capable of composing a readable manuscript, getting an agent, signing with a publisher, and going through all the stepsone goes through over many months or even years when one publishes a novel never have second thoughts about this sufficient to withdraw the manuscript? (And the author is part-owner of a Brooklyn bookstore, so he might even have awareness of the impact on booksellers when something like this happens.) How could someone's (apparent) ambition to be a published writer lead to the delusion, especially in this internet age, that "writing" such a book could succeed undetected?
Obviously, the publishers need to do some soul-searching on their side. I am asking you to explain something about the author's behavior and thinking in a situation like this. While of course you cannot know what was going on for this individual in this case, can you shed light on what may be going on when someone does something like this? What happened here?
-- Curious and Disturbed
Dear C & D,
As you may know, since you wrote, Quentin Rowan ("Markham") himself has published an account of his process. You will need to decide for yourself how truthful and self-aware this is.
Regarding the more general issue you present, it is fascinating and complex and deserves a fuller response than I can give here, but I will try to hit the main points.
There are many possible motivations for covert antisocial behavior. Some individuals have an inflated, possibly delusional, sense of their own cleverness; they may believe they will never get caught and even enjoy the sense of hiding in plain sight.
Others are thrill-seeking; the excitement of doing something risky (such as speeding, sneaking drugs and alcohol into the school dance, or, yes, plagiarizing, particularly in an obvious way) is enhanced by the knowledge that the consequences of being caught may be dire. This seems to be, at least in part, the process that Rowan describes: substituting the addictive thrill of alcoholism with that of plagiarism.
Still others may struggle with deep-seated feelings of guilt over unrelated acts and actually wish to be caught and punished.
And our culture tends to value form over substance; the state of being famous rather than doing something worthwhile that may also make you famous. Some writers struggle with a perceived need to be published, or famous, and this need can become so intense that it overshadows morality and realistic thinking.
But keep in mind that, although plagiarism is illegal and arguably deeply immoral, it is not unnatural. The idea of intellectual property is a relatively recent one; for earlier generations, stories were passed down and refined or embellished as the teller saw fit--think of the Robin Hood and Camelot legends, or the different versions of Cinderella (or Hamlet). It may be that when we respond strongly to a story, we have an impulse to own it; to claim it as our own--and some people are simply unable to resist this pull.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. She is the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity (Seal, 2007). Her Career Coach column appears every Monday on Inside Higher Ed's Mama, Ph.D. blog, and she is a regular guest panelist on Litopia After Dark. She can be reached at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com