Art and theft, or, what’s good for the goose

November 14, 2011 by · 3 Comments 

We live in interesting times.

If you’re of a literary bent, you’ve no doubt heard of the case of one Q.R. Markham, a writer whose espionage novel, The Assassin of Secrets, was pulled from shelves last week when its publisher, Mullholland Books, an imprint of the U.S.-based Little, Brown and Company, discovered that large parts of it were plagiarized from at least a dozen other sources, including novels by Charles McCarry and Robert Ludlum.

Markham is the pen name of Quentin Rowan, the co-owner of a bookstore in Brooklyn, New York. And his brazen attempt to pass off appropriated work as original to him apparently worked for a time: before the plagiarism came to light, Kirkus Reviews said that the novel “moves through familiar territory with wry sophistication” (although not recognizing why the territory was familiar, or from whence the sophistication derived); author Greg Rucka called the book “very, very, very smart;” and author Jeremy Duns referred to it as an “instant classic.”

Duns in fact corresponded with Rowan prior to the book’s publication, provided a blurb, and did an interview with the author, all without realizing that the book he was promoting was compiled from excerpts of other people’s writing, skilfully stitched together to form a narrative Duns himself admits was “coherent.” On his blog, Duns provides a heartfelt apologia, writing in part, “I really did enjoy the novel, which seemed to me to combine all the familar tropes I like about spy fiction into one book, but to use some wonderful imagery and language to do so. I gave it the best quote I could.” In a follow-up post, Duns reflects on what he specifically admired about the style of Rowan’s novel, before he was aware of how it was created:

[A] great part of the appeal of Assassin of Secrets, to me anyway, was what I felt to be its post-modernism, albeit in a very different way. It reminded me of several other novels – sadly, not the ones he plagiarized! It reminded me in parts of Cockpit, Jerzy Kosinki’s 1975 novel about a former spy called Tarden, which contains a lot of dazzling writing but reads as fragmentary excerpts. This is perhaps not all that surprising, as Kosinski has also been exposed as a plagiarist (long after he was published, and won many awards), and Cockpit is now thought to have been a compilation of pieces by several unknown writers Kosinski commissioned and then assembled, partially helped by a young Paul Auster.

It also reminded me in parts of David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive. Like Cockpit, that film is compelling not for its plot, which is unfathomable or non-existent, but in the way it plays with our memories of and feelings for genre conventions. Both Cockpit and Mulholland Drive feel like dreams, where narrative rules are abandoned, leaving dead-ends that allow the reader or viewer to step in and find their own resonances.

Here we come to what is perhaps the crux of the matter. Duns admired what he presumed was the postmodern approach Rowan’s novel was adopting, an approach resembling both a novel that is itself suspected to be a work more of collage than original writing and a film that dispenses with the conventions of traditional narrative. To readers of David Shields’ widely praised manifesto, Reality Hunger, all of this should sound strikingly familiar. Indeed, this brand of appropriation and stitching together of disparate works is exactly the kind of thing Shields supports: “Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize,” Shields writes at one point and, at another, “The novel is dead. Long live the antinovel, built from scraps.” Indeed, those two comments – out of a total of 618 short sections in his book – are among the very few Shields did not himself lift from other sources.

I am not the first to notice the strange similarity between what Rowan has done and what Shields advocates. As Chauncey Mabe writes:

Markham/Rowan seems merely to have taken Shields’ principles and applied them to the spy novel – thereby exposing the “unbearably artificial” nature of this popular literary genre. As everyone – experts such as acclaimed authors, critics, and the editors at Mullholland Books – thought Assassin of Secrets an outstanding espionage novel, then should it not be embraced rather than withdrawn?

Duns disbelieves that Rowan was engaged in some kind of postmodern pastiche, a supposition that is supported by Rowan himself, who in an e-mail to Duns disclaims any such intention:

When I began to edit it for the publisher, that’s when things really got out of hand. I was being asked to come up with whole new scenes to fit into the already stitched-up old ones. It really was like making Frankenstein’s monster as people have commented. A kind of patchwork job. I’ve never really believed there’s such a thing as post-modernity, by the way. Having already committed myself mentally to this process of driving myself into the ground, through denial and magical thinking, I just wanted to make the best 60s style spy novel I could: with all the tropes and trimmings one expects.

So it would appear from the author’s own admission that the intent here was not to engage in a kind of knowing act of postmodern bricolage, but rather a willful attempt to deceive. Still, it’s worth asking the question: Does what Rowan did differ from what Shields did – and encourages others to do – in kind or simply in degree of intent? Shields quotes Picasso (without attribution in the body of the text itself, of course): “Art is theft.” He also quotes Emerson: “Genius borrows nobly.” Shields and Jonathan Lethem engage in wanton artistic theft and are praised as groundbreakers. Rowan does likewise and is raked over the coals. How are we to assure ourselves that the former is noble, and the latter ignoble? When is plagiarism justifiable as an act of artistic rebellion or innovation, and when is it just plain thievery?