The Plagiarism of “Secrets”

by Erin Brenner on November 11, 2011

Earlier this week, Little, Brown pulled one of its Mulholland books off the shelves and is issuing refunds to those who bought the book. Released last week, Assassin of Secrets by Q. R. Markham (Quentin Rowan), was recalled by the publisher because it was found to have liberally plagiarized several previously published spy mystery novels, including some of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.

Several commentators have wondered how this could have happened. Shouldn’t someone in the review or editing process who read the book have been familiar enough with the genre to spot Markham’s deception?

Given the state of the traditional publishing industry, perhaps we know why the problem remained hidden until readers pointed it out.

The website Reluctant Habits did an excellent job of demonstrating the breadth of plagiarism evident in the book. Edward Champion found 33 instances of plagiarism in just the first 35 pages. That’s almost one stolen idea per page! For example:

Markham, page 13: “The boxy, sprawling Munitions Building which sat near the Washington Monument and quietly served as I-Division’s base of operations was a study in monotony. Endless corridors connecting to endless corridors. Walls a shade of green common to bad cheese and fruit. Forests of oak desks separated down the middle by rows of tall columns, like concrete redwoods, each with a number designating a particular work space.”

Taken from Bamford [James Bamford’s Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency], page 1: “In June 1930, the boxy, sprawling Munitions Building, near the Washington Monument, was a study in monotony. Endless corridors connecting to endless corridors. Walls a shade of green common to bad cheese and fruit. Forests of oak desks separated down the middle by rows of tall columns, like concrete redwoods, each with a number designating a particular work space.”

What intrigues me is a lengthy comment on Reluctant Habits from a Dr. Edwin Poole. Poole doesn’t think Markham did anything wrong. Plagiarism is a fallacy, he claims. He writes:

Isn’t the idea of the total originality of a work of art supposed to be one of the worst fallacies of romanticism? How can any spy novel, or any other type of genre novel, be totally original? …. Isn’t the mere re-use of English words previously used by others a form of plagiarism?

Which brings us to the central question: what is plagiarism?

According to The American Heritage Dictionary, to plagiarize is “to reproduce or otherwise use (the words, ideas, or other work of another) as one’s own or without attribution”; “to present another’s words or ideas as one’s own or without attribution.”

Anyone who compares even a couple of the quotes from Markham’s book to their original sources can see that Markham didn’t just use the same English words in a similar order that another author did; he took other authors’ ideas and their specific expressions of them and presented them as his own.

We’re not talking about the same plot being reinvented. I believe it was Aristotle who said there are no original stories left; they’ve all been told (someone please correct me if I’ve confused my ancient philosophers). But the key word is reinvented. Good writers can take a story told for millennia and write it as they see it, bringing their unique take to the story, creating a new work of art.

That’s not what Markham did. He presented other writers’ ideas as his own. He lied. Other authors did the work of creating characters, settings, and events. Markham doesn’t make you experience the story in his book; the original writers did. Markham simply edited those ideas to fit them together.

Poole claims it’s all about money. You can steal all you want if you pay for it, he says. Here, he’s almost right. It is all about money, at least in this case. But if you pay for the right to republish someone else’s work, you’re not stealing. You’re sharing the benefit you get from using someone else’s work with that person.

You can write whatever you want. You can copy the works of Shakespeare, James Joyce, or any other author, published or not, to your heart’s content. The moment you claim someone else’s works as your own, however, you are stealing. You’re benefiting from someone else’s work. And in our society, you can’t do that without sharing the benefit you gain. The benefit doesn’t have to be in terms of dollars and cents. It could be a good grade, the admiration of the person you make this claim to, or something else.

It’s one thing to be influenced by other writers’ works. To create a similar, yet distinct, style of telling a story. It’s another thing to copy down someone else’s ideas, word for word, and claim them as your own.

Poole asks, “How many plagiarized sentences are allowed in a book of fiction? Of history? Of humor? Is there an exact formula? Or is it merely guesswork? Is one copied sentence sufficient to ban a book? Or five? Or fifty?”

How would you answer him? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Previous post:

Next post: