Quentin Rowan Speaks

I was pointed in e-mail to this article by Quentin Rowan, the fellow who released a debut thriller novel that was widely praised for its skill in storytelling — possibly because much of it had been plagiarized from other authors. The resulting mess of that discovery was impressive. Likewise, Mr. Rowan is a bit of a hot mess himself, as the article he writes details, and in which he tries to explain why he decided to rip off so many other writers. The article is on a site tailored to people in recovery for addictive substances, so it’s heavy on recovery speak, twelve-stepping and AA gushing (Rowan is a member); it also fronts the idea that Rowan’s choice to plagiarize might have been something akin to an addiction of its own. He writes, “Perhaps one day plagiarism will be seen, if not as a disease, at least as something pathological.”

Yeeeeeeeeah. I understand the appeal of pathologizing plagiarism, since then it holds out some sliver of hope that one is not in one’s self entirely at fault for one’s bad impulses in that area. But I’m deeply skeptical of that particular line of suggestion. I’m willing to believe Rowan’s messed up and that the plagiarism was in part a manifestation of his particular goodie bag of neuroses, which apparently include low self-esteem coupled with a desire for recognition. But I am loath to put the manifestation cart before the neurosis horse. I suspect a simpler explanation is more fruitful: Rowan, wanting to be a published writer, nicked and tucked because he thought it was easier than coming up with the stuff in his own head. Ultimately I suspect it would have just been easier to learn how to write.

In any event, check out the article see if it holds any water for you. In the end I think Rowan’s still trying to rationalize doing an appallingly stupid thing, in a friendly venue, using language that is intended to make him look sympathetic (or failing that, just pathetic). The writing is ironically not entirely without skill, but to me not convincing. Maybe you’ll feel differently.

 

85 thoughts on “Quentin Rowan Speaks

  1. Actually, it’s an interesting idea; a competition of stories comprised purely of snippets of others work (all properly cited, of course), with appropriate changes to names/things/places. The winner is he who makes it flow the smoothest. I think it’s strangely appropriate for our culture of re-posting/tweeting everything.

  2. I’ve never understood the impulse to plagiarize literary work. Sure to be a good writer or poet, to create an interesting passage, takes discipline and creativity; but it’s something most intelligent people can master fairly easily. I mean, it takes no where near the creativity, brilliance or discipline necessary to write a mathematical proof.

  3. @Kevo – but would that sort of competition really add anything? Maybe if the other work was from wildly dissimilar viewpoints/genres/styles, and the compiler had to create the segue text?

  4. From Rowan’s article:

    They call a person like me a Plagiarist. It’s one of the harsher words we have in our language. Perhaps not up there with Pedophile or Rapist, but not as far behind as you’d think either.

    No. No, it’s not. He only brought that hyperbole to make his suffering seem extra-special and to amp up the “drama” of his “crime”. The truth is that plagiarism — which is no more harsh a word than “thief”, IMO — is a fairly banal crime, and he got a banal punishment for it. Not jailtime, not an ankle-bracelet, not even 40 lashes with a wet noodle. He simply wasn’t allowed to enjoy the fruits of his dishonest labor, and he became infamous instead of famous. And no matter how much he tries to make it sound more interesting or his trials more terrible (OMG, he lost his job at the [infamously overpriced hipster] bookstore! He can no longer afford to keep his beautiful girlfriend!), that doesn’t really change the fact that he just did the trust-fund kid’s version of trying to sell a knockoff.

  5. Yeah, that article doesn’t hold any water for me. At best it makes him look pathetic, but to me it makes him look like a tool who recieved a face-slap from karma.

    I can understand wanting to be a published author. Heck, I’m working towards that right now. What I can’t fathom is why someone would think plagarism would be a viable path to that goal? Any success would be tainted, and you’d always have that little bit of niggling fear that someone’s going to find out.

  6. Certainly not convincing, and I agree he’s likely got a bag of nueroses that would require a handtruck to move. But, this lengthy line of poor me, I just couldn’t help myself bullshit is a little more off putting than the plagarism itself. Why not just fade into obscurity? I’m more curious about how the thing even got through the publishing process. Some of the comments after the article, by people defending him, are just precious as well.

  7. It sounds like he’s just using the whole “plagiarism is an addiction!” spiel as nothing more than an excuse to try and avoid more criticism. He should just own up to it, take the criticism and try and redeem himself by lecturing against plagiarism.

    On the brightside, at least he was a newbie and not an established writer. It would have been more horrific for the latter to plagiarize than the former.

  8. Speaking as someone who:

    1) Has managed to write three novels entirely from her very own words,
    2) Has been going through the process of editing and querying and editing and querying some more to get them sellable, and
    3) Has gone through her share of serious personal turmoil, and who strives to look at every day she’s able to pull words out of her brain anyway as a gift,

    … I have NO SYMPATHY WHATSOEVER for anyone who whinges about how screwed up their life is and using that as an excuse to plagiarize someone else’s work. And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

  9. El Guapo, your idea about different styles/subjects could work.

    Example:
    Write a novel about Puritan New England using only internet slash fiction. Call it the Scarlet Unicode.

  10. Odd; Rowan says: “The book remained on the shelves for just five days before hundreds of thousands of copies were recalled and pulped.” NYDailyNews says: “It has egg on its face, 6,500 copies of a recalled novel on its hands and a literary numbskull in its catalogue.”

    Plagiarism and then what looks like fairly wild exaggeration? I’d say he’s still untrustworthy :|

  11. Malicious Knavery sulleying the already hazy lines of addiction and mental disorders.
    Althought I did chuckle a bit at the caption under the picture (Portrait of the “author”).
    Has there ever been a more snarky pair of quotation marks!

  12. @Kevo – there is actually such a poetic form – it’s called a Cento.

    “From the Latin word for “patchwork,” the cento (or collage poem) is a poetic form made up of lines from poems by other poets. Though poets often borrow lines from other writers and mix them in with their own, a true cento is composed entirely of lines from other sources. Early examples can be found in the work of Homer and Virgil.”

    http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5771

    Of course, legally, the key would be to appropriate lines from works in the public domain, or else get permission for every line.

    Possibly…you could claim ‘fair use’ if you didn’t overquote one particular source, and cited each line. But you would need to be ready for the possibility of a court case.

  13. I am very grateful that AA exists, but I do think it can foster a mindset where compulsion = addiction = not really your fault. Yes, I believe this guy is a *compulsive* plagiarist. No, I don’t think that’s a very good excuse.

  14. Long time lurker, first time poster.

    Anyone find it interesting that the publisher, Little, Brown and Company, also published Kaavya Viswanathan’s ‘How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life’, which was another Frankenstein’s monster of plagiarism?

    I think their staff needs a once over.

  15. @El Guapo
    Yeah, I was thinking about that too, and my first thought was that it would contribute no more than a collage, or one of the many the Battlestar/Star Wars/Star Trek mashups on youtube; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXnPG19npW8
    But as @Mike suggested, there may be the slim possibility for something really unique to come out, especially if the writer is really creative and skilled.

  16. Unfortunately for the “author,” succumbing to the urge to rationalize poor behavior is not a symptom of an illness, it’s a symptom of being human.

  17. @John
    Awesome, didn’t even know that, and yeah, the legal implications would be tricky, definitely a fine line of fair use.

  18. Um, no. Just no. *Straps on asbestos suit.* Speaking as someone who grew up with an abusive, alcoholic father, I’ve never been a fan of the notion that addiction equals illness. Yeah, I know, shame on me, I’m a mean beanie weenie.

    It’s one thing to say that alcoholism or a predilection to plagiarize are manifestations of a genuine mental illness. Quite another to say that the desire to drink yourself into a coma or steal another writer’s hard work is itself the illness.

    No sympathy whatsoever. I’ll pass on his pity party.

  19. I think the term compulsive is being misused. It should be habitual. Like the habitual thief who steals physical items because even though they know better, they do it anyways because they’ve gotten good enough at it that they rarely get caught and are too lazy to actually work to acquire things. Since their stealing skill set is much more refined than their work ethic they continue is this pattern even after they get caught. Mr. Rowan’s lucky we don’t treat his particular brand of thievery the way we treat the other kind.

  20. My father has been a recovering acloholic for 24 years. I have been to my fair share of AA meetings, and have met and known a lot of the members. My dad told me that AA only really asks two things of you, that you don’t drink and that you change who you are. Yet, despite being in the program for 15 years Mr. Rowan seems wholly ignorant of this as a concept.

    Mr. Rowan plagiarism is neither patholigical nor a disease. It is a lie he deliberately created for his own selfish gain. Casting it as an addiction along the lines of alcoholism or gambling is, frankly, chickenshit. There are a wealth of potential addicitions in the world, indeed anything you use as a barrier bwtween you and reality, from shopping to video games, can become an addiction, but not when you are using them for profit.

    Perhaps the most telling part of the essay was when Mr. Rowan talks about how everyone in his life turned their back on him except for the people at AA. That is because, and if you’re reading this Mr. Rowan you’re going to want to pay particular attention to this: THEY ARE A SUPPORT GROUP! They support people when they are at their worst, lowest point. It’s what they do. It’s also telling that they did not care that Mr. Rowan had published a book at all, since their one goal was simply to help Mr. Rowan not drink.

    What Mr. Rowan is doing, really, is taking the good will of the people at AA and using it to justify his own selfishness. He is wilfully ignoring all the various tools that AA gives you to become a better person, and is instead twisting that sentiment of generosity and support to cast his failings as merely a new pathologism or disease.

    As someone who has seen people enter the program and struggle to make themselves better people; to have watched my dad grow over the last 24 years; and to have felt the heart wrenching sadness when those unfortunates in AA are not able to maintain their sobriety and lose their homes, families, and, yes, sometimes even their life; it is absolutely sickening to listen to you compare your plagiarism with that.

    I commend Mr. Rowan for being sober these past 15 years, that is a feat in and of istelf, but that is all that is commendable about his story. And until Mr. Rowan starts actually working the steps and tries to become a better person, that is frankly all that there would appear to be that is commendable about him.

  21. In college I was on staff of a literary magazine for a year. One of the submissions was very similar to an op-ed piece I’d seen in the newspaper a week or two before, that went missing (oh, the pre-internet days). The rest of the staff didn’t really care about the plagiarism, just the fact that they didn’t like the piece. I wonder if that attitude is common with professionals.

  22. Addicts lie. Mr. Rowan may not have taken a drink in 15 years, he may have gone to AA, but he never really got it, because he’s never learned to be honest with himself or anyone else.

    Plagiarism isn’t the disease, and it’s not the addiction, and it’s not what kept him from taking a drink. Addicts lie.

  23. I’m prone to disagree with the idea it was ‘pathological plagiarism’ but I also realize I’m not Rowan and don’t know what it is like to have his daily thought process. But I do know people that have been caught for plagiarism, and I get the feeling they didn’t do it because they struggle with the act of plagiarism. Instead, I found it came from other issues they struggle with such as low self esteem and insecurity or even other diagnosed pathological issues. I agree the guy probably has issues that lead to this act, but I don’t think his diagnosis is accurate.

  24. What sticks in my craw is the way he contrasts his girlfriend walking out on him with his sponsor saying, “The only person who cared about whether you published a spy novel was you. It didn’t matter at all to the rest of us. We’re just your friends and care about you whatever you do.” To me, it sounds as if he wants everyone to feel that his girlfriend was disloyal, and only wanted an author as a boyfriend. But what if she wanted an honest boyfriend, one who did honest work?

    Truth? It reads to me as if he wants a cookie for owning up to plagiarizing, and to be patted on the back for the trauma that “caused” him to do so. Somehow, I don’t think it works that way.

  25. Mr. Rowan’s self-serving list of excuses takes passive-aggressive douchebaggery to a whole new level. In addition to using his status as a recovering alcoholic to try and drum up sympathy for his shocking lapse in judgement, his narcissistic attempts at apology by way of self-deprecation fall flat. One imagines that he is not, in fact, sorry to have plagarized, but rather, is sorry to have been caught. There is to my ear a note of underlying satisfaction at all the attention he has managed to call to himself. If he cannot manage to be a successful author, at least he can manage to be a notorious one.

    On another note, the idea of “Scarlet Unicode” is AWESOME.

  26. There was that Steve Martin movie: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. That was made up from lots of clips from old b/w movies. But then there was the acknowledgement at the end of the film. But to pass off other people’s work as your own, yeah, that sucketh mightily.

  27. First, to answer the question as posed: oddly enough, I do think there might be a pathological element to at least some instances of plagiarism — although I definitely wouldn’t cite the Quentin Rowan case in support of that proposition. But we’ll get back to that subject in a minute.

    See, to me the most interesting fact about the Quentin Rowan story is not that Rowan tried this, or even that he admits to having consciously committed all that cutting and pasting. The most interesting fact is that his publisher was Little, Brown — which had to recall another book for just this reason almost exactly five years ago, when they accepted and published a first novel from then-Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan that also turned out to be assembled largely from parts of other books of its kind.

    I am not the first person to recall the prior case, but from what I’m seeing as I troll the news stories, almost no one is asking the key question: to what degree is the Little, Brown editorial process broken if it fails not once but twice to catch a “Frankensteined” manuscript? The moral I extract from the present debacle is “don’t submit to Little, Brown” — either because their editors are too easy to scam, or (though this seems unlikely) because their editors are too willing to overlook plagiarism if/when they do see it.

    Now having cited the Viswanathan affair, I should note that while the end results appear to be similar, I am not at all sure the two cases are actually comparable on the authorial end of the equation. Rowan — very unusually — admits to consciously lifting material from other sources; Viswanathan never did. Rowan was flying solo; Viswanathan was working closely with an agent and a packager as she developed the manuscript she turned in. Rowan, per his own admissions, was concentrating full time on his book; Viswanathan was writing hers while juggling a a full-time Harvard undergraduate schedule. Finally, Viswanathan is reported to have had a photographic or eidetic memory.

    I theorized at the time, and am still inclined to believe, that Ms. Viswanathan’s plagiarism was largely or entirely unconscious (and also that there was something very odd going on behind the scenes, because the packager’s role in that project makes absolutely no sense based on the facts as reported). I think it’s probably not at all difficult for someone with the right kind of reading and writing habits to produce fiction that draws strongly on material he or she has previously read. Indeed, students are encouraged to do just this kind of mental cut-and-pasting in formulating written classwork — while the instruction is always to “use your own words”, what teachers are looking for in student papers (and what the students therefore tend to supply) is evidence that the students have read and assimilated various separate texts and can stitch the ideas from them together in a semi-coherent fashion.

    Which is why I’d agree with Rowan’s root proposition — that there’s a pathological, unconscious element in at least some instances of plagiarism — even though I don’t think the assertion applies to his particular case.

  28. Nope, I don’t buy that plagiarism is an addiction. I’m not even sure that I buy that Rowan himself is an addict or alcoholic. If he is, I definitely don’t buy that he’s sober. I do think he’s pretty good at knowing what people want to hear and selling it to them.

    The tragedy is that if he was able to put together such a successful novel using plagiarized snippets from other books, he could have also written it successfully in his own words. Much of writing is structure, and he succeeded at structure on his own. It is a small thing to take a passage you like from a book, analyze what you like about it, and produce a passage with similar information content and style in your own work. Anyone could do that. But he cheated, and he did it for the same reason that cheaters always cheat–they get away with it at first.

  29. Having taken a quick look at Mr. Rowan’s article, I’ve developed Bob’s One-Step Anti-Plagiarism Program, to wit:

    1) I realize that if I plagiarize, I may one day see my photo accompanied by this caption: Portrait of the “author.”

  30. This is no different than doping in cycling. If you win a race with more drugs than the next guy, did you win anything?

    I am certain that (like certain dopers in sports) he will figure out a way to trade his fame (or infamy) for money somehow. Our culture values fame way more than ethics.

  31. What Rowan did was inexcusable. That said, I disagree that just ’cause he was able to stitch together passages, it’d be easy to write a novel of his own. Writing is much more than pasting words on structure. It’s hard and takes practice. He dodged the hard work, and the practice.

  32. Apropos not a damn thing, John, I love you for knowing the difference between the verb “loathe” and the adjective “loath”. Lack of same from super fancy writers and, presumably, their super fancy editors has been getting more and more like nails on a chalkboard to me.

  33. Re: “See if it holds any water for you”
    Actually, I thought at first it was an article from the Onion because it seemed so much like a send up of a mea culpa confession of some other obsession. As it went on, it just seemed more like rationalization. Clearly more a call for sympathy than forgiveness.

  34. I had a friend (child of alcoholics) who used to refer to this behavior as trauma/drama. She said it often affected ACAs and dry drunks. Those who claim sobriety but fail to take responsibility for their actions aren’t really sober, just not drinking.

  35. Anne Fadiman, in her article “Nothing New Under the Sun” (available in her excellent collection Ex Libris), compares plagiarism to kleptomania. Judging by other plagiarism scandals (e.g. Cassie Edwards), this seems a fair comparison.

    I don’t understand this variety of plagiarism, where one nicks lines and phrases and stitches them into their book. Even if I didn’t have pride and a sense of ethics, I am much too lazy to do that! What an incredible amount of work! I’m a slow writer, but it would still be a lot faster and easier for me to just make up my own sentences.

    So, yeah, I suspect there is some weird psychological quirk to people who do this. But you know what? Lots of people have lots of psychological quirks. There has to be a point where we say, “You’re responsible for your own behavior, bub.” Theft is theft, whether it be of hard cash or a writer’s labor and creativity that went into their words.

  36. One thing that struck me was the line “My bright new life as a writer of espionage thrillers suffered a sudden, violent death.” He never had a ‘life as a writer’ except in the sense that he pretended to be a writer. What a writer does is write, not assemble stolen bits of other people’s writing. As a non-writer myself, I have the greatest admiration for those who have the skill and commitment to write.
    Also, I don’t see that any violence was committed against him. Okay, so he had to turn off his phone to avoid the press. But still, I think he got off easy. He was a thief. He got caught. And he didn’t have to go to jail.

  37. In music, the stitching together of other people’s work is called a quodlibet. Entertainingly, one translation of the Latin word ‘quodlibet’ is “Whatever”.

    Prof. Peter Schickele’s “Quodlibet for Small Orchestra” is a hilarious take on that– everything in the piece is taken from somewhere else. In Schickele’s case, all of the pieces have long been in the public domain.

  38. It’s been my observation that there are people who want to write and there are people who want to be writers. Those in the latter category are more interested in the mythical trappings of fame and fortune that Being A Writer brings than actually doing the hard work of pounding words on paper, tearing them up, writing more of them, crossing them out and so on in the quest to render one’s inner world in a tangible form that can be shared with others.

    It sounds like Mr. Rowan was dazzled by the idea of Being A Writer, and when he came up against what I call the Dunning-Kruger Threshold, he used the words of others to scale that barrier instead of pushing through by improving his craft.

  39. Thank you for linking to that, John – it answers my question as to whether he set out to deliberately mash up all those authors as a kind of ‘homage’/satire. Nope.

    I also do not buy the plagiarism-as-addiction defense. You might as well say being a con-man is an addiction – or being a serial killer is an addiction. They are pathologies and he reminds me of a psychopath. Mind you, I’m not a professional and have no experience with pathologies so I won’t
    say for certain that what he IS – but he _reminds_ me of a psychopath. That total disconnection
    with other folks’ emotions…the idea that he knew it was dishonest and he went ahead and did it.
    There’s something very wrong going on there and I’m not sure AA – God Bless them, they do a lot of
    good work – can handle it.

  40. I am very grateful that AA exists, but I do think it can foster a mindset where compulsion = addiction = not really your fault

    Not in the program myself, but I know quite a few people who are, and I don’t think this is an entirely accurate portrayal of the mindset. What I get from them is the belief that while the disease is not really your fault, the choice to drink bloody well is.

    I thought AA members weren’t suppose to identify themselves as such in public.

    IME, you can’t get the newly sober ones to shut up about it. Not that I begrudge them. Beats the alternative.

    As for Mr. Rowan: I may have mentioned this before, what truly baffles me is that someone can do this and not think they’re going to get caught eventually. Someone, somewhere is going to look up and go “ya know, this sounds awfully familiar.” And the unraveling begins.

  41. Yeah, I’ve had a lot of experience with addictive behavior thanks to some of my relatives and it is true that addicts lie. As Stephen King, a recovering addict, said regarding James Frey in Entertainment Weekly: “stewbums and stoners lie about the big stuff, like how much and how often, but they also lie about the small things. Mostly just to stay in practice.” And when they get sober, despite AA’s emphasis on honesty, they still may find lying useful because it’s a form of control. Addicts have a lot of anger. Some of it is at themselves, some at others and the universe, some of it may come from actual traumas, but they project all of it outwards at others and that anger is the big justification that leads into addiction and the often violent behaviors that can accompany addictions. Recovery is in large part about learning to let that anger go and not project it outwards and let it rule your life.

    Rowan didn’t redirect his addiction; he redirected his anger rather than let it go. The effort it takes to find passages, change names and cut and paste them into a workable narrative is only slightly less than it would take to take passages and adapt and change them enough to be something similar but not legally dangerous and not violating the indemnities of his book contract, and this is often the case for plagiarists. Stealing the passages for a school assignment or a book deal was a way that Rowan could strike out at others, trick them and hurt them without them knowing it (the first thrill,) and then have the strong possibility of being discovered (the second thrill.) It wasn’t about fame, as the more fame you have, the more you are scrutinized, as Rowan knew looking at the books he used on his shelf. And his explanation of his actions is equally filled with rage, at himself and others, from his description of the first time he did it at school to trick his teacher to his resentment of others judging him for what he did. What Rowan doesn’t understand about AA is that they aren’t forgiving him for his actions. They’re accepting him as someone who committed these actions. Forgiveness has to be earned and atonement and rebuilding have to go on even if there is no forgiveness; that’s part of the AA code. As someone else said, Rowan is a dry drunk still holding on to his anger and self-destructively acting on it.

    As for editors, they are not to be confused with teachers responsible for checking up on their authors’ work. The authors contractually indemnify the publisher that they are not committing fraud and legally endangering the publisher, that they are providing an original work. And it is not possible for editors to completely memorize and remember every passage they’ve read in every book in their lives, or for them to have read all the books possibly stolen from. If a part of the narrative may have felt familiar, stories like spy thrillers and coming of age novels often involve similar elements and plot structures, so unless one particular turn of phrase caught their memory, it would be very hard for them to catch it, especially if the author uses a number of different books as Rowan did. There are a number of plagiarism issues each year; it’s just that not all of them are big enough deals with film sales to interest the media. Little, Brown was just unlucky. It is possible legal vetting searches may have to be added to fiction sales, but even then, they won’t necessarily catch the right passage.

  42. Just a clarification on the “Anonymous” part of AA: it’s totally fine to self-identify as a member. What is very strongly discouraged is identifying anyone else that you’ve seen there.

  43. “. I understand the appeal of pathologizing plagiarism,since then it holds out some sliver of hope that one is not in one’s self entirely at fault for one’s bad impulses in that area.”

    pathologizing plagerism would give cause to not accept his self diagnosis based only on his word.he could be lying to escape responsilibilty for his actions.

    however, if you rule out such a diagnosis *specifically because* such a diagnosis would, in your opinion, remove some of his personal reponsibility for plagerizing, then you have some kind of logical error at play.

    as an example, Winona Ryder exhibited some rather odd behavior shoplifting stuff a while back. was it pathological?? well, the answer to that cannot be prejudiced by the issue that “yes” might make her less responsible for her actions. it becomes circular logic or something a bit off.

    is the plagarist addicted to plagarizing? Not enough info in that article to really say. plus its all his own word, so no way to confirm anything. but if some of his other statements are true, he might need psychological help. he said he has had thoughts of suicide before being found out. adddicts often find proxies for their addictions. ifthey cant have alcohol, they might smoke.

    someone in the comments pointed out that no where in the article does the guys say he is ssorry. so he might be trying to avoid responsibility on some level in his mind. and calling plagarism an addiction might be one way to do it.

    the guy has issues. that much I would say. gow much of it is beyond his control (addiction) and how much is within his control, is not altogether clear just from reading that article. I havent read anything else about him really, so there might ne more out there somewhere.

    but mostly, I think the only way to get a psychological diagnosis would require some sort of an interactive (back and forth question and answer) interview.

  44. “I suspect a simpler explanation is more fruitful: Rowan, wanting to be a published writer, nicked and tucked because he thought it was easier than coming up with the stuff in his own head. ”

    I don’t think that’s accurate. Which isn’t to say I think the guy has a right to write this and expect it to be responded to with anything other than derision, but this sort of reckless behavior goes beyond what any sane person thinks they’re really going to get away with. Whether it be something like this or engaging in other reckless physical behavior, someone behaving in a way so completely disconnected from the real repercussions of their actions – both for themselves and others – has something going on beyond simple theft.

    That’s not a get out of trouble free card, and his essay is an unearned self-pity party/un-apolology. But I have room in my mind and heart to both simultaneously condemn crappy behavior and feel pity for someone driven to recklessness. I just don’t have room in there to listen to THEM tell me about their woes :)

  45. What I find especially amusing is that it was a masterpiece – until the lifts were discovered. The buzz from top tier reviewers was fantastic. Nine authors, twenty-four titles, and word-for-word lifts on all but six pages out of 278.

  46. Although I see how people might call this trolling for sympathy, I also think it is a clear cautionary tale. Lying can be part of a pathology or a personality disorder – it can be a compulsion, like in many addictions, and can be destructive, like in many addictions. But to call self-destructive, narcissistic lying an addiction in itself misses the point, I think. Remembering as you read it that the behavior is execrable from a societal standpoint, one of the worst we know (Fraud is the 8th circle of hell in Dante’s inferno), can be helpful to remind ourselves of that fact.

    For the person, the problems are deeper and help is needed. I think the article itself may be a manifestation of the underlying problem itself, and while it is good to read to recognize the terrible, I am left with the impression that his ‘recovery’ should not involve any more blog posts / publications and instead he should reflect internally and with his sponsor.

  47. I too am intrigued by the idea of putting together snippets of other people’s work. Mostly as an idea for a story contest. You could get a group of authors to authorize a specific portion of their work for the contest. Then have people knit them together, only allowing a certain amount of original seaming verbiage.
    Of course doing it openly and doing it as a self serving way to publish other people’s work as your own are two entirely different things. Intention and Permission being everything in this case.

  48. Many years ago someone plagiarized me, and did a piss-poor job of it. I abandoned the work that had been plagiarized and am only now preparing to rewrite it. It’ll probably be a lot better now, but it sure won’t be the same.

    Even worse, I had someone plagiarize my quilting research. Really pissed me off, but I did get revenge. The two of us ended up on the same mailing list, and she spouted off one day about something citing “her” research into a particular medieval quilt. Of course she actually hadn’t done the research, and better yet, hadn’t bothered to keep up on the latest developments…so she was wrong. And I called her on it, citing a couple of well known quilt historians that I could call friend.

    She never posted to that mailing list again. Ever.

  49. I’m somehow reminded of the old joke about presidential candidate Gary Hart gathering his campaign staf,f to set their minds to rest about rumours that he’d been plagiarising all his best lines from earlier generations’ statesmen. “Relax”, he told them. “You have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

    Rick Moen
    rick@linuxmafia.com

  50. @Kat Goodwin:
    I agree that actually spotting and catching this sort of plagiarism is harder than I may have implied above — although I gather that there are software tools available for teachers evaluating student papers, and that suggests that some degree of detection is indeed possible.

    That said, I still have trouble trusting the Little, Brown editorial process, because both the Viswanathan and Rowan cases raise further questions. In the former, the texture of the relationships between editor, agent, and packager is awfully murky in places, and I have to wonder how the editor in that situation persuaded the bean counters to shell out a reputed $500,000 on a first novel with a packager in the equation. And in the Rowan case…I don’t quite see how the manuscript could have undergone a thorough editing (notes, revision letter, copyediting, etc.) and come out the other end with its patchwork nature quite as fully intact as seems to have occurred, and the editor none the wiser. Even if the editor didn’t recognize the instances of plagiarism, the patchwork-ness of the manuscript should have been discernible, and a proper edit should have drawn more original material out of Rowan.

  51. Someone’s got to quote Tom Lehrer here, so it might as well be me.
    (Cue self-referential plagiarization).

    Will

  52. They call people like him a plagiarist because he plagiarises. He commited plagiary. He carried out deliberate and dedicated plagiarism for self aggrandisement and personal gain.
    It’s not one of the harshest words we have in our language, but it is an apt and accurate description of Quentin Rowan. Writing a whiny article about how it’s not really his fault and he’s somehow the victim here makes me think worse of him.

    Whiner is one of the harsher words in our language. Perhaps not up there with plagiarist, but not as far behind as you’d think either.

    He cheated, he got caught, he should have some self respect and face the consequences like a grown-up.

  53. ZOMG, a narcissist is behaving like a narcissist! Well, what do you expect? That he’ll suddenly turn into someone else just because he was busted?

  54. There may be too many writers here :) A word to all of you saying “writing is easy” – its not & if it is for you realize you have a gift most of us do not. I tried for years, I believe I have several great ideas for novels (but then again who doesn’t think that) but I can’t write believable dialog to save my life. Now Plagiarism IS easy. In frustration I took an obscure novel from the library and rewrote it, it was my best work. This was in the pre-internet days so I probably had a better than average chance of getting away with it. I’d like to say it was ethics that made me toss it in the trash and its true I heard my moms voice in my head saying it was wrong but really what stopped me was that I knew I had no follow up unless I stole something else and I knew that couldn’t go on.

    While I sympathize with this clowns motivations he knew what he was doing was wrong but he couldn’t see past the instant gratification of being a published author.

  55. The article definitely does not hold water.

    While I appreciate that M. Rowan may have had a hard life and problems, I found the tone of the article to be a little too “Woe is me, pity me, it’s not my fault, I’m an addict and eventually we’ll find that what I did IS a disease TOO!”

    There’s so little sense of taking responsibility and too much dodging. He pleads us to believe that he had no choice. It didn’t pass the smell test with me. The impression I’m left with is that M. Rowan wanted something, did something unethical to achieve it (and did not care that it was wrong) and now that he’s been caught does not want to shoulder the blame but rather blame something else.

    It demeans actual addictions and real problems.

    It also demeans real writers.

  56. Twit (Rowan, not you). He needs to get a life. I won’t be looking for future works from him.

  57. John C. Bunnell: “although I gather that there are software tools available for teachers evaluating student papers, and that suggests that some degree of detection is indeed possible.” — There is — for teachers, using databases of academic works which is a much smaller and interactive situation than decades of globally published retail fiction. While publishers could use such software for novels, it would still be very hard to catch fraud. And again, unlike with teachers, it is not the job of the editor to play teacher or cop and catch fraud. The author enters into a business agreement in which he indemnifies — holds the publisher blameless — against the author committing fraud and promises not to defraud the publisher as well. It is entirely Rowan’s responsibility and Little, Brown can sue him into the ground, not that he probably has any money, so publishers usually don’t bother. The publisher is the one harmed by the fraud, financially and otherwise, so they certainly don’t want to be defrauded. But that they sometimes are is not unusual, though usually in non-fiction, nor are high profile situations of fraud a sign that a particular publisher is not conducting proper business. The publisher is not the author’s nanny or responsible for the author’s moral upbringing.

    “That said, I still have trouble trusting the Little, Brown editorial process, because both the Viswanathan and Rowan cases raise further questions. In the former, the texture of the relationships between editor, agent, and packager is awfully murky in places” — It’s really not murky. The packager finds an author, who sometimes has an agent, and hires the author as a writer for hire to write an idea that the packager has for a novel or series or that the author brings to them. Sometimes there is more than one author working on the project. They then work with the author the way an editor would, packaging it as a property that either they own, or if it was the author’s idea, that they jointly own with the author, selling that property to the publisher, film studios, etc. It’s similar to tie-in fiction. In the case of Viswanathan, it was an even easier mistake than with Rowan because the packager was involved and this particular packager has been extremely successful in YA, especially titles for girls — they did The Vampire Diaries (where they recently fired the writer and replaced her,) the Gossip Girls series and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants — all big moneymakers. There was no earthly reason for Little, Brown to believe there was a problem with Viswanathan’s book. Did the packager do the plagiarism or help with it? No real way to find out, but I’d say it was unlikely. I think Viswanathan probably panicked. As for the large advance, ethnic lit fiction is big business like anything else. They liked the book and thought it would work in the market and there was a film deal in the works, which means the cost of the print rights goes up dramatically. The packager undoubtedly held an auction for the work, and so competition made them gamble higher on the advance. Whether the gamble would have paid off if the book was original, no one could predict. Only a handful of titles deal in those numbers, which is why we heard about that case at all.

    “Even if the editor didn’t recognize the instances of plagiarism, the patchwork-ness of the manuscript should have been discernible, and a proper edit should have drawn more original material out of Rowan.” — All the publishers do less editing now than they used to. Publications come out faster, things are rushed. If Rowan smoothed the joints enough and picked bits that were similar enough in style, with the common elements of spy thrillers, it might not have seemed that patchworky. Reviewers did not seem to find it to be. And that was my point — it’s a lot of work for Rowan to do that. It was elaborate. It was an emotional game for him, testing how well he could disguise it. That inclination — to build the elaborate, dazzling lie — is a symptom of his disease, but acting on it is resisting treatment, a deliberate act. Saying that he is now going to accept treatment is a shaky promise, especially when he did not really apologize in his public response. He’s essentially in the “Screw you all” James Frey club.

  58. I don’t think his article holds much water, but I am intrigued by the idea that there is a pathological component to plagiarism. Coming from a journalism background, I’ve always been fascinated by stories of Stephen Glass and other noted plagiarists/fakes. I’ve also always thought there must be something compulsive going on, because any serious-minded person would have to realize that they would eventually be caught. The internet is simply too big and too full for copy/pasting on this scale to be missed.

    Not that I think “Compulsive Plagiarism” should go in the DSM or anything, but anyone who does this clearly has a number of issues that are directing their actions from beyond the purely rational. They have to know that they’ll be caught, yet persist in their self-destruction.

  59. kleptomania is a recognized diagnosis. it sometimes associates with substance abuse and other personality disorders.

    the common distinction for kleptomania is stealing for stealing’s sake. this means that the value of the thing being stolen is not the reward, the act of stealing is the reward.

    this guy confesses to a history of plagerism, which might show that it wasnt money that was the motivator but rather plagerism itself. a hlaf milllion dollar book deal is also a possible incentive. but it might be that he sort of “fell” into it as a result of his compulsion. kleptomaniacs generally dont get half million dollar payments for the stuff they steal. but atealing something of value doesny rule out kleptomani.

    the one thing thslat is different is the act of theft itself. stealing a thing has a visceral level, low level, reaction. I dont know if plagerism operates at the same low level. I dont know that children would sense ownership to their words the same way they would feel ownership towards, for example, their security blanket. a person would have to have enough development to get the notion of “owning” words but havesome psychological issue that would cause them to feel some reward at stealing someones elses words compulsively.

    it wouldnt be impossible, but it seems like it is a narrower target to hit compared to standard shopliftin. kleptomania.

  60. Whiny narcissistic garbage. I agree with others who’ve called him a dry drunk. He still thinks he’s so very special that the rules should be different for him.

    Honestly, the point of 12-step programs is to STOP DOING the bad shit that addiction leads you to.

  61. I never really understood the James Frey incident. Yes, he embellished his life story and passed fiction off as fact. Isn’t that in the tradition of the grand old story-tellers? “Why, back in the war I captured 20 Germans all by me-self!” Did the readers enjoy the book? If so, why are they so concerned? He certainly didn’t plagiarize anything. He wrote it himself. In this world where 2/3 of college students admit to cheating, is that so bad? Had he just smiled and said “well, I did exaggerate at bit”, I’ll be even Oprah would have been less peeved.

    But, what is really annoying to me is the hypocrisy of this whole “he embellished the truth” thing. The movie industry does it on a grand scale all of the time and nobody seems to care. Sometimes this is just cute. The movie Fargo begins with “This is a true story”. Of course, it isn’t. Why wasn’t the film recalled when it became clear there was no such story? But, Hollywood routinely makes “true” and “historic” films and completely changes the facts to suit the storytelling. The real crews of the Memphis Belle and their very real and heroic sacrifices over Europe were not interesting enough, so they created their own characters. K-19 was never at risk of a nuclear explosion and made no “widows”. The Singing Nun tossed in sexual tension for a nun (who was actually a lesbian, anyway). I’m sure you can think of a hundred supposedly factual movies where they just made the whole thing up, but cashed in on the familiarity of some real thing they borrowed from.

  62. Apparently, Rowan is the son of a published novelist, so there are perhaps some issues there. He also did a promotional piece at Huffington Post about what spy thrillers taught him about bookselling, which the Post then pulled because of the scandal but also because he took parts of that article from someone else’s non-fiction book. And earlier this month, he did an email to Duns about why he did it that was then referenced by Galleycat that had him telling Duns that the plagiarism came when he had to rewrite the book extensively in a hurry once it was bought to make changes for the publisher, which is somewhat in contrast to what he says now happened. So quite clearly lying and plagiarism in particular have become a habit for Rowan. http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/quentin-rowan-explains-why-he-plagiarized_b42147

    Kleptomania is a recognized mental disorder, considered to be a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder or addictive disorder, often in combination with other disorders. It doesn’t have much connection to plagiarism. Plagiarism and sex compulsion are not recognized disorders but are considered possible symptoms of other, underlying mental problems. Pathological lying is a mental illness and it’s possible Rowan has it or that the lying is a symptom of some other problem. In either case, Rowan is likely to need more than rehab and AA; he would need psychotherapy, possibly medication. Of course we’re all playing doctor here, which is probably not a good thing, but clearly Rowan’s confessionals are a display of his problems, not an explanation of anything.

    Charles Owen: There are films that are documentaries which are non-fiction and while possibly skewing the facts in presentation to a particular viewpoint, are supposed to stick to facts and factual techniques, and then there are fictional films which are based on non-fiction stories such as memoirs, the equivalent of a roman a clef, and such films usually contain legal notices that events and characters have been changed from the facts for the fictional adaptation. Frey tried to sell a novel about addiction recovery and it didn’t catch. It was suggested to him that a non-fiction memoir about his own experiences would find a market, so he simply presented his novel as a non-fiction memoir. Most of the memoir is fictional, yet Frey claimed it was a factual memoir and that his strategies to recover from addiction were therefore true and would work for others. He was essentially like a snake-oil salesman claiming his snake oil cured cancer. After the scandal, the books were reissued with the legal notice that they were not non-fiction memoirs but essentially novels (i.e. that the snake oil actually doesn’t work,) and as such have continued to sell and Frey went on to write the novels he wanted to do in the first place. But people were upset that they’d been sold snake oil about rehabilitation. And they and Oprah were especially upset that Frey’s expressed view was that he had the right to sell snake oil about addiction recovery and not care who got hurt from his lies. Legally, it wasn’t a crime, though he was in breach of contract. Ethically, Oprah is going to call you a jerk for attacking the vulnerable and making her look like a liar too. And Frey has attempted a number of skivy operations since then. He’s a con artist. Rowan may be a con artist or he may be mentally ill, but currently, he’s following Frey’s playbook to a degree in his talking about what he did and what it should mean to others.

  63. oh wait. I mapped plagerism to kleptomania because plagerism is a kind of stealing. But I think plagerism and pretty much everything this guy says maps rather well to pathological lying.

    interesting.

    the question would be does he always bend the truth even when there is no benefit to himself to do so(pathological) or does he only lie when it will gain him some benefit (sociopath/con artist).

  64. @Kat Goodwin:
    As regards the Viswanathan case, I stand by what I’ve said. Based on the published accounts of what happened (and I read everything I could find at the time before writing the post I referenced above), the packager’s behavior in that affair makes no sense. And I speak from fairly specific knowledge; I know/knew several writers who worked with an earlier pre-Alloy incarnation of the same firm on some of those jointly copyrighted YA thrillers, and indeed I once did a bit of preliminary development work with that original firm for a prospective series of middle grade books (their concept) that didn’t end up going anywhere.

    What I didn’t do was to offer them half the copyright to original work I’d done before being approached by them on that development project. Nor did I do any development work “on spec”; I was paid, if minimally, by the packager for my efforts . But the accounts of what happened between Viswanathan and the packager (and the agent, and Little, Brown), such as they are, don’t appear to resemble a normal packager development and submission process. The referral from the agent looks extremely peculiar in light of the way the sale to Little, Brown was reported. No one (neither Viswanathan nor the packager) seems to have been paid up front for the development of the partial (!) manuscript eventually sold to Little, Brown — which is utterly out of character in a corner of the business where both the writers and the packagers are notoriously resistant to working “on spec”. And in no packager project I’ve ever heard of does an author have one editor at the publisher and one at the packager, as was evidently the case with Viswanathan — all the editorial work happens under the packager’s auspices.

    Which is why I used the word “murky” above. The published accounts of the Viswanathan case raise more questions than they ultimately answer, and the missing or fuzzy details tend to suggest that plagiarism wasn’t the only funny business going on in that episode.

  65. @Kat Goodwin again:
    I should emphasize that apart from having shared a publisher, I find few if any points of useful comparison between Viswanathan’s plagiarism and Rowan’s. Indeed, if my theory about Viswanathan’s plagiarism is correct — and I grant that it’s unprovable one way or the other — the two are almost polar opposites. Rowan’s was a conscious, deliberate process; Viswanathan’s, if I’m right, was almost entirely unconscious and unintentional. I can’t defend the publication of plagiarized work in either instance, but in Viswanathan’s case (and others of its kind), I think I understand how and why it occurs. And that’s more than I can say about Rowan’s actions.

  66. Rowan began making excuses for himself as soon as his fraud was exposed. In the exchange on John Duns’ blog, he blames his early “success” when he had a poem anthologized at age 19. He also compared plagiarism to an addiction then. He’s now had more time to think and hone his ideas.

    I do think based on what he’s written about the whole affair that he suffers from a disorder. However, that disorder does not appear to be a pathological addiction to plagiarism. It appears to be narcissism, perhaps with a little of the risk taking behaviors of the true sociopath.

  67. Bunnell: “The published accounts of the Viswanathan case raise more questions than they ultimately answer, and the missing or fuzzy details tend to suggest that plagiarism wasn’t the only funny business going on in that episode.” — That may well be — I don’t know enough about it to comment. Certainly, it was a strange situation. But Alloy had little incentive to bother plagiarizing just to sell another book and risk their relationships with publishers. More to the point, plagiarizing is again work that really isn’t worth the time for the effort and book packagers are all about minimizing such effort, not increasing it. So I don’t know if they were involved in it or not; it just seems unlikely.

    As for Rowan, I don’t think his elaborations on why he did it are that conscious a strategy and I don’t think they are going to help him much, either with LIttle Brown and others or with his own recovery. For me, his “confessions” are kind of like watching a hamster run around on the same wheel over and over. It’s sad and I will hope that he does get some help.

  68. He should be a politician since he acknowledges he plagiarised he doesn’t feel bad about it. Just keeps rambling on and blames it on the drink. I play social golf drunk and I’m terrible but I don’t use alcohol as an excuse to put Birdies and Eagles on my card.

  69. I think people should take this asswipe as a cautionary tale, because I’ve run into a lot of work, mostly unpublished, but some either self or small press published, where the author will insert very glaringly lifted bits of writing–and not in the homage/reference kind of way either. And I think people do this because they don’t realize how well known the reference is. The thing to take from this is: Even if most people don’t realize, recognize, or know the reference… someone will. You’ll always get caught and known as a hack thief. So don’t do it.

  70. i read both of the articles linked and had a very hard time reading q.r.’s own account of things. the bottom line is he’s a thief, he knew he was a thief. he said that at one point he even stopped and thought that he couldn’t believe he hadn’t been caught yet. i’m happy that he was able to maintain his sobriety, but a part of sobriety is not doing this kind of shit in the first place. how is he possibility going to make amends to everyone he harmed with this act? my only talent lies in appreciating the talents of the people around me, and making sure that other people hear when i particularly like or dislike someone’s art. theft of someone’s art infuriates me.

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