Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

The case of Q.R. Markham, revisited

with 8 comments

Yesterday, I wrote that the case of Q.R. Markham is “a kind of distorting mirror, a looking glass in which various players in the publishing world can see uncomfortable reflections of themselves.” The more I think about this statement, the more true it seems—and it’s especially true of me. Whenever we witness such a public implosion, it’s tempting to treat it as a cautionary tale, and to ask what lessons, if any, it contains. My recent post on the subject was an attempt to tease out some of these implications, and I was pleased when it got a response in the comments from Jeremy Duns, the novelist who posted the email exchange that gave us our best glimpse so far into Markham’s mind. I encourage you to check out both his reply on this blog and his longer essays here, all of which are well worth reading. And while I can’t respond to Duns in as much detail as his comments deserve, I’d like to clarify some of my thoughts from yesterday, and expand upon a few points on which he and I seem to differ.

I’d like to begin with something that may seem like a side issue, but which I think lies at the heart of the matter: the question of tropes in suspense fiction. I wrote yesterday that the number of available tropes in suspense is “large, but finite,” and although Duns disagrees, I hold to my original point. Any fictional genre, by definition, has carved out its own subset of the universe of possible tropes, focusing on those elements which, through the trial and error of countless readers and writers, have turned out to be especially effective. If this weren’t the case, we couldn’t meaningfully speak of “genre” at all. And while it’s true that certain novelists, like Le Carré, have consistently pushed against the bounds of the suspense category, most authors exist quite happily within it. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I’ve often argued that it’s better for a novelist to begin by working squarely within the form, learning the tropes, pressing against the conventions, and making his mark with unusual combinations or fresh execution of familiar elements. Only once he’s learned the fundamentals of his craft can he start to break away from it. And this principle has guided many of the choices I’ve made in my own career.

The trouble with this argument, which I’ve made on this blog before, is that when I listen to it now, it sounds like something that Q.R. Markham might say. We know that Markham, like many young writers, suffered from crippling doubt about his own voice, and that he took at least some pleasure in the puzzle-making aspect of what he did instead. Assembling a collage of stolen passages into a coherent whole clearly took intelligence and superficial ingenuity, a kind of twisted version of what any writer does when he creates something new through the juxtaposition of two old ideas. I’ve done this myself. As a result, Markham sometimes strikes me as a distorted version of the writer I recognize in my own work. I can’t speak for every author, but there have been times when I’ve taken comfort in the purely mechanical elements of craft, assembling narrative pieces in interesting ways and delighting in my resourcefulness. There’s definitely a place for this sort of thing, but Markham represents its pathological conclusion. And if I insist on taking him as a cautionary example, it’s for the same reason why, in the past, I’ve come down hard on the perils of cleverness for its own sake. Markham’s case is simply the strangest possible version of a tendency I see every day in myself and others.

This is also why I’ve emphasized the lessons here for suspense fiction in particular. It’s true that Markham plagiarized elements of his literary fiction as well, including a story that appeared in the Paris Review, and if he’d published an entire mainstream novel consisting of nothing but stolen passages, it would have said equally devastating things about the state of modern literary fiction. But for better or worse, he wrote a spy thriller. And if I’ve zeroed in on the implications for suspense, it isn’t because suspense fiction is somehow weaker or more vulnerable to this kind of treatment than any other kind of storytelling, but because this is the genre in which Markham perpetuated his most spectacular, newsworthy fraud—and also the one with which I happen to be the most familiar, or at least the most preoccupied at the moment. There are, of course, larger questions raised by the Markham case, and I hope they’ll be taken up elsewhere. But I can speak best to the message I see here for myself, as a writer up to the knees in a pair of suspense novels of his own. And I still think that this particular lesson is worth heeding.

Written by nevalalee

November 18, 2011 at 10:26 am

8 Responses

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  1. Jeremy, there’s one more point that I wanted to make, and I thought it would work better in the comments: I didn’t mean to imply that you, or any particular person involved with Markham/Rowan, were at fault for not spotting the plagiarized passages. I certainly couldn’t have. I’m more concerned by the shortfall of the overall system. My own novel is three months away from being published, so I know very well how many pairs of eyes see a book like this before it hits bookstore shelves—agents, editors, proofreaders, marketing and sales representatives, advance readers, book buyers, critics, and probably dozens of others along the way. Even now, I’m surprised that no alarms went off at Mulholland, which is an ambitious imprint full of people who take suspense fiction very seriously. That said, given the vast number of suspense novels out there, I don’t think it’s fair to say that any one person in particular “should” have caught this, and I certainly didn’t mean to suggest otherwise.

    nevalalee

    November 18, 2011 at 10:27 am

  2. Hi Alec,

    First of all, best of luck with the launch of your first novel. Secondly, I wholeheartedly agree with you regarding the adaptation and combination of conventions, especially when you write ‘there have been times when I’ve taken comfort in the purely mechanical elements of craft, assembling narrative pieces in interesting ways and delighting in my resourcefulness’. Yes, been there. And Assassin of Secrets worked, for me anyway, in a similar way. I delighted in the ways he had assembled what appeared to be many of the tropes of spy fiction. I don’t agree that they are finite, but let’s leave that for now.

    I was, in fact, rathr envious of Assassin of Secrets: it seemed to have all the fun and thrills of a 60s Bondish thriller, but was deepened with psychological insights and some extraordinarily powerful prose. But this was really me seeing into the book, unaware of what it really was, divining a deeper meaning in random or near-random patterns. If you read just a few passages of McCarry I think you’ll see what I mean: it’s mesmerizing prose, of the sort I will never be able to approach, and so to find this Bond-ish Bourne-ish super-agent character who also had such a convincingly rendered biography and thought processes struck me as extremely clever and very ably pulled off. But, of course, once you realize that he took all of it from others, it’s not quite as impressive! I’ve hunted for it for years and can’t find it, but Lawrence Durrell once wrote a superb essay in which he described his seeking to combine surprising elements at random in his writing in order to create something fresh. I can’t quote it, but it stuck in my head that he gave the example of taking something very hard and something very soft: ‘a mathematical peach’. Completely random, but somehow just in putting them together it creates a friction and gives off a buzz of resonance. Especially if you look for it! The same could be said of Auden’s early poetry, where I doubt he even knew what he meant. So Assassin of Secrets was perhaps something of a Rorschach test, but the ink blots were made up of some great thrillers and I readily joined the dots.

    I think you have fudged your answer on literary fiction. Separating your latest argument into a new post here gives some detachment from your last post, but you specifically raised the possibility that Rowan’s deception was ‘a kind of demented experiment, a sweeping indictment of the artificiality of the spy thriller itself’. What a thing to write! Now you write: ‘It’s true that Markham plagiarized elements of his literary fiction as well, including a story that appeared in the Paris Review, and if he’d published an entire mainstream novel consisting of nothing but stolen passages, it would have said equally devastating things about the state of modern literary fiction.’

    How convenient that only a full-length novel consisting of nothing but plagiarized passages would have damned literary fiction in the same way, while a short story in the most prestigious literary magazine in the world simply doesn’t count!

    And I don’t know whether Assassin of Secrets did consist of nothing but stolen passages. I suspect it did, or was close to that, but I don’t know. You have by omission suggested that it did, but you don’t know because you haven’t gone through it. You also suggested by omission that his two Paris Review stories (not one, two) did *not* consist of entirely stolen passages, which you don’t know because you haven’t gone through them either (I suspect they may be as plagiarized as Assassin of Secrets). On top of this, you have ignored the two examples of entire mainstream novels I mentioned in my last comment, The Raven’s Bride by Lenore Hart and Wild Oats by Jacob Epstein. I think it is perfectly possible, for example, that Epstein did what Rowan did, stitching together passages from many other writers, changing names, some phrasing, and perhaps adding a few linking sentences here and there, but because one of the books he used was the rather famous The Rachel Papers, this was spotted first, there was a scandal, and that was that: nobody bothered to look any deeper.

    I’ve read your essay on ‘cleverness for its own sake’ and I think that your last blog post – not so much this one, because while not admitting it and adopting a much pleasanter tone you have in fact gone back on quite a lot of your suggestions – was a little clever for its own sake. You define cleverness for its own sake as ‘any artistic decision or flourish that doesn’t serve to advance the story, but only to be admired in isolation’. A good defintion. I think if we see the story here as the analysis of this book, your last post fits that description reasonably well. Although you couched it in rather elegant terms, you unmistakably did suggest that honest novelists and publishing professionals share some blame for Quentin Rowan’s plagiarism. They really don’t.

    Perhaps I’m being unfair. You certainly make some more valid points in this post than in the last one. Perhaps my dander is simply up because there has been, I think, rather a lot of cleverness for its own sake in discussion of this, as well as some plain old schadenfreude and man-bites-dog contrarianism. ‘Everyone knows plagiarism is bad, so nobody will want to read that: perhaps I’ll say it was rather admirable in its way and get a lot of hits as a result.’ I’m not suggesting you thought along those lines, but read Alan Massie in The Telegraph and Chauncey Mabe on his blog and see if you don’t agree. Cleverness for its own sake, in my view.

    Finally, you have it both ways in apportioning blame to the publishing industry:

    ‘Even now, I’m surprised that no alarms went off at Mulholland, which is an ambitious imprint full of people who take suspense fiction very seriously. That said, given the vast number of suspense novels out there, I don’t think it’s fair to say that any one person in particular “should” have caught this, and I certainly didn’t mean to suggest otherwise.’

    But you just suggested it again, in your surprise that no alarm bells went off at Mulholland! They didn’t go off because nobody was looking for it and because, as you said, there are indeed a vast number of suspense novels out there. End of story. Unless you have an argument why they should have done, why raise it again? I notice you used this rhetorical device in your last post, too. ‘It’s tempting to read his case as a kind of demented experiment, a sweeping indictment of the artificiality of the spy thriller itself… But this gives him too much credit.’ But the totally absurd suggestion you were tempted to make still makes its impact. I think the same here. As there are so many suspense novels, why the surprise? I’ve read hundreds of spy novels and am a Bond fan, and I didn’t spot six authors’ work stolen and recontextualized in this way – I might have happened to, an editor might have happened to… in the end someone who was a great fan of one of the authors did. It’s no surprise, or shame. An argument for plagiarism software to be used in the publishing industry, perhaps.

    Sorry if this all sounds combative, but I think while you make some good points about the twisted mirror Rowan presents to the real writing process, your other points do not stand.

    Jeremy Duns

    November 18, 2011 at 11:55 am

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful response. First of all, I’d like to say that we’re absolutely on the same page when it comes to the importance of combination and juxtaposition to the creative process. That’s a huge part of my own philosophy of creativity, as you’ll discover if you poke around this blog a bit, which is one reason why I reacted on such a personal level to what Markham/Rowan has done here. I also love the Lawrence Durrell quote.

    That said, a couple of points. For one thing, I don’t think it’s inconsistent of me to say that no single person bears responsibility for failing to detect Rowan’s fraud, while also expressing surprise that it wasn’t caught at all. Because I still believe that what happened here is objectively surprising. It’s true that no one reader can be expected to master the whole body of suspense literature, but I’m still struck by the fact that such blatant plagiarism went collectively unnoticed at a major publishing house. This isn’t a judgment on any one person’s professionalism, but at the very least, it should give everyone at Mulholland pause.

    As to the question of why I’ve focused on Assassin of Secrets rather than Rowan’s other instances of literary fraud, I have two reasons. First, the degree of fraud for the novel is simply better documented, at least for now. (Once his other stories have been equally scrutinized, as they inevitably will be, I expect that we’ll find many more stolen passages, but the necessary fieldwork hasn’t been done yet.) Second, and more important, I think it’s inherently more astonishing to see an entire novel constructed this way, rather than a short story, regardless of genre. Instances of literary plagiarism are depressingly common these days, but this one is especially fascinating, simply because of the scale of the deception. (And for what it’s worth, I absolutely think that Lenore Hart’s case deserves as much, if not more, attention—the evidence there is truly damning.)

    Finally, as to the issue of whether my original post was a little too clever or provocative for its own sake…well, that’s quite possible. It wasn’t my intention to write up a comprehensive account of all the issues that Rowan’s case has raised, but to talk about one particular way in which the story resonated with my own experience. By doing so, I obviously neglected certain other issues, but that doesn’t mean I don’t take them seriously. And your own treatment of this case has been exemplary enough that I felt safe focusing on the aspects that caught my attention.

    nevalalee

    November 18, 2011 at 4:01 pm

  4. Thank you – that all sounds very reasonable. I think we may be close to having a rational and calm discussion on the internet. We may have to alert authorities.

    I do (mildly) disagree with you on a few points, though, sorry. The rampant plagiarism in Assassin of Secrets was indeed not noticed at Mulholland. But hindsight is a marvellous thing. I think this is simple statistical odds. It might have been noticed earlier, but he got lucky. If I had happened to have read Licence Renewed a week previously, I could have stopped it when they sent me a proof to read. Similarly, his agent, right at the start of the process, might have simply happened to be a Charles McCarry fan, and it would never have gone anywhere. Publishing is a complicated process and it went through several sets of eyes, but really not all that many. McCarry is acclaimed, but really rather overlooked these days. Die-hard Bond fans read post-Fleming novels from 30 or even 10 years ago, and remember the details of them. The passages Rowan stole from Geoffrey O’Brien’s Dreamtime for the opening of the book are exquisite – but he’s not even in the spy genre, and that is a pretty obscure book, I think. So it was chance. If he had picked more authors like O’Brien and fewer like Gardner, Benson and Ludlum, which have huge fan bases, he might never have been caught. Indeed, I think that is one of the big questions here – how much has not been caught? How common is this sort of thing?

    As it is, he didn’t get caught by those who read the book before publication, but that is really a tiny number of people compared to how many can read it post-publication. It’s easy to say after the fact ‘My God, he stole from a Bond novel! How could Mulholland (or Duns, or others) have missed it? What dolts!’ But read the thread on the James Bond forum – the first poster says the excerpt sounds very Bondish. I really don’t think this is odd. Saying it’s not a judgement on anyone’s professionalism but should give them pause strikes me as a little contradictory. Give them pause over what – how they missed it? I think, short of employing plagiarism software automatically on all submissions, it’s impossible to expect any one or even 50 people to be as well read as thousands once it gets out there. Perhaps the pause is to consider solutions like software. I’d go with that. I think it is also worth noting that editors usually do not just read one genre, but many, including non-fiction. And that there are a hell of a lot of books out there.

    You’re right that the scale of plagiarism is astonishing in this case, and makes it more unusual than many – it looks like it is an entire novel stitched together, more or less, from others’ work. My point is that there is nothing about the spy novel that made that easier for him. All genres have conventions, including literary fiction. You assumed it showed something about the genre, but I don’t think it does. There’s a fascinating article in this week’s Times Literary Supplement about Treasure Island, which seems to have been essentially plagiarized in much the same way as Assassin of Secrets, but I really think you could do this with any genre. As I say, I suspect Epstein may also have done this in WIld Oats. If not, it would certainly be possible. Talking of Durrell, that extremely elusive sort of literary fiction strikes me as just the sort of thing that could be constructed in this way – perhaps too obviously detectable post-Google, but then Rowan did it. Kosinski’s Cockpit was a best-seller, and if it had been made up entirely of plagiarized material it would not surprise me at all, especially as he was accused of plagiarism. But I think you could take a story of a young writer, setting out on the path to fame in Berlin, and you could simply go through a lot of rather obscure out of print literary novels and pick scenes. Let’s take a scene from Huysmans here – but not from Au Rebours, but from À vau-l’eau. Let’s pick a passage from an early short story by Doris Lessing, never anthologized. Who is likely to remember this little incident in Malcolm Lowry’s Dark As The Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid? Let’s make that chap my Mr Jack Smith… I don’t just think this is possible. I think it likely has been done, and I suspect that in the next few years several famous works will be revealed as either containing extensive plagiarism from one or several other works, or even something as extreme as Assassin of Secrets (which it sounds like Treasure Island approaches, as I say.)

    ‘Undine’, the Edgar Allan Poe fan who spotted Lenore Hart’s plagiarism, has this quote from Poe on their blog today:

    “..if the theft had to be committed ‘in open day’ it would not be committed; if the thief ‘knew’ that everyone would cry him down, he would be too excessive a fool to make even a decent thief if he indulged his thieving propensities in any respect. But he thieves at night–in the dark–not in the open day (if he suspects it), and he does not know that he will be detected at all. Of the class of willful plagiarists nine out of ten are authors of established reputation, who plunder recondite, neglected, or forgotten books.”

    Google Books is only eight years old. If you plagiarized in 1959, as Richard Condon did with his massive bestseller The Manchurian Candidate (from I, Claudius!), you would have had no concept of the idea that a few decades later millions of books would be available to everyone, and could be searched through in the way we can now. As the technology improves, detecting plagiarism will get easier, I expect, and I think we will be shocked at how much of it has happened in the last century, probably with famous works. I think it will be found right across literature, from legal texts, history, journalism, travel writing, memoir, literary fiction, suspense, crime, horror, espionage, etc. Most will not be as extreme as Quentin Rowan, I’m sure. But there are conventions in literary fiction, as in every form of writing, and a clever, determined and desperate plagiarist will, I think, have been able to do this with any sort of book. Just a hunch – but I doubt Rowan is alone, and I fail to see what intrinsic properties espionage fiction has that make it any more vulnerable to plagiarism, of this kind or any other. Rowan’s plagiarism does not highlight ‘one of the weaknesses of the suspense genre, which is that the underlying components… have become rather tired and predictable’. It merely indicates the weaknesses of Quentin Rowan.

    Jeremy Duns

    November 18, 2011 at 4:39 pm

  5. I agree that this conversation has been suspiciously civilized! But to tie off the discussion of Mulholland, etc., in the nerdiest way possible: I think we’re differing on some value of n, where n is the number of eyeballs after which Rowan’s plagiarism would have been all but impossible to conceal. It’s safe to say that the value of n is greater than 1 and less than, say, a million. I still think that the number of readers who saw the book prior to publication feels like it should have been > n, but that’s obviously very subjective. And as you point out, there were a lot of secondary factors that could have made a difference either way.

    As to the role that the nature of suspense fiction has to play in all this, I think it’s true that if Rowan had been caught stitching together a coming-of-age story, or a mystery, or a science fiction novel, we’d be having a very different conversation about the limitations of those genres instead. All genres have their particular formulas and conventions, after all, and a clever writer could probably write a completely plagiarized novel in any of these categories. That said, I still think that there’s a tradition of mechanical ingenuity in suspense fiction, especially on the level of plot, that makes it a slightly more tempting target for someone looking to try this sort of stunt. I should know: the puzzle-making aspect of suspense is one of the things that drew me to the genre in the first place. And the fact that many suspense fans enjoy seeing the gears of the story at work—in a writer like Trevanian, for example—makes me think that Rowan may not have been entirely crazy to try writing a thriller this way.

    nevalalee

    November 18, 2011 at 5:47 pm

  6. The n stuff confused me – I’m an Eng Lit man, not a mathematician, damn you! But I would see it as pretty simple. Say he had just plagiarized post-Fleming Bond novels. The audience for those is die-hard Bond fans, pretty much. There are around 50 of them, as well. Many many Bond fans have never even read Ian Fleming, let alone his successors. So even in the fan world, you’re dealing with a small percentage. But the fan world is mammoth – millions of people. Factor in that nobody expects to see plagiarism, that some of the books he stole from were 30 years old, and that some of the writers are overlooked or obscure (McCarry, O’Brien), I think there was a slim chance that he would be caught before publication. And after… the chance got much greater. But Little, Brown also published Wild Oats, and nobody spotted The Rachel Papers in there. If in a decade’s time there’s a way of quickly checking a whole book for plagiarism, and someone puts Wild Oats into that programme and it reveals that it was stitched together entirely from passages by not just Amis but also five early Peter Carey short stories, three early Iris Murdoch novels, nine Margaret Atwood poems and a play by Terence Wheeler, every newspaper would write: ‘Amis! Carey! Murdoch! Atwood! Wheeler! How could the publishers miss this? Wheeler won the Booker Prize’ But the reality is that there are thousands of literary novels, and even the most read editor cannot be expected to have read so much that they will spot anything. Add 50 well-read editors together and you still don’t crack the statistical power of the public, I don’t think this is all that subjective. I think it’s just obvious. I write spy thrillrs, and do not expect my agent, editor, proof-reader, buyers or others to know the genre as well I do, and to expect so is not just unrealistic and unfair, but impractical. As I say, most are reading across a whole range of genres. There are millions of books out there. So sorry, I just don’t agree. He could have been caught earlier, but the probablity of it simply increased exponentially the more people read it, and the major turn for that was publication, when a small handful became the public. Hence the word published!

    I agree that there’s a puzzle-making aspect to suspense, but there is in crime, horror, literary fiction… all novels are puzzles, really. But perhaps I’m wrong there, and it sounds an interesting idea. What specifically can you think of that sets apart spy fiction from other genres? I’m not sure, other than that it involves people spying, there is anything, is there? You and I may be more familiar with its conventions, but I suspect Neal Stephenson or Val McDermid or Ian McEwan or others might also enjoy the puzzle-making of creating fiction. I think the genre is much richer than the hundred or so common conventions you link to on that website, and is wide and rich enough that it can be turned infinite ways. But perhaps there we veer into abstractedness. But, again, I really can’t see why a spy novel is any easier to plagiarize than another – I mean, beyond the rather abstract ‘puzzling’, in what specific ways?

    Jeremy Duns

    November 18, 2011 at 6:09 pm

  7. To be honest, I’m starting to rethink my initial stance as to whether the number of people who saw the book before publication should have been enough to figure out what was going on. I’m not entirely sure anymore. But I’d still be very curious to know what the internal discussion at Little, Brown has been like over the past few days.

    As for the second question, if I were to set out from scratch to do something like what Rowan has done, I’d look for a genre that was plot-driven, episodic, capable of encompassing a wide range of set pieces and locations, but with a limited enough universe of “classic” tropes to give me plenty of material to work with. And spy fiction fits the bill better than just about any other genre I can think of.

    nevalalee

    November 18, 2011 at 6:28 pm

  8. On the first point, do bear in mind that the books he stole were mostly out of print. You’d also then have to remember passages and recognize them. I guess they would have talked about the feasibility of running plagiarism software from now on. But I really doubt there were any discussions on the lines of ‘How could we have missed this?’ There are millions of books in and out of print. You’d have to have read thousands of books your writers might have plagiarized, and remember them. Rowan was bound to get caught at some point, but I suspect they feel just as I do: I hadn’t read most of these, and the ones I did I have a fuzzy memory of and did not recognize. I don’t feel ashamed or to blame for that. I doubt they do either, and nor should they.

    On the second point, a plot makes it much harder to do. One of the most asked questions about Assassin of Secrets has been how did he manage to create a coherent narrative from all these disparate books. The answer is, in part, that he didn’t. It had a plot, but that was the thinnest part of the book, and not really what I liked about it: it was really like a tour of the spy genre. You seem to have a copy of it, judging from your screengrab, so see for yourself. He did it by grafting onto sections stolen from mainstream spy fiction some literary fiction – O’Brien – some rather high-toned non-fiction – Bamford – and some spy fiction with a distinctly literary bent – McCarry. This created a weird mish-mash, but with so much gorgeous writing it was also, I found, quite spellbinding. And it felt like it was a literary experiment of some sort, a post-modern play on the Cold War spy novel. So he nullified the plot concerns. But that is pretty strange, and I don’t know how much he planned it, or if it came from his background of literary fiction (working in a bookshop, his father a poet and literary novelist) and then he realized that McCarry and others had some writing chops and he could move into that field. I don’t know how much he thought through the ‘problem’ of what he could get away with, but suspect he chose spy fiction not because it was easier but because he enjoyed the genre. And while the book fooled me, and he fooled me personally, because we had corresponded enough that I felt he was in some ways a friend, I don’t think I can give him too much credit for ingenuity, because the authors he stole from alone guaranteed he would be discovered at some point. I would imagine that it would be much easier to do something like this with literary fiction, where you don’t need to have a through-line of a plot or a quest or a journey. But it’s pretty hard to argue. I think you could take elements from fairly forgotten literary fiction and meld it into something that worked, partly because any missing gaps in narrative would not need to be explained in the same way as they do in most genre fiction.

    Anyway, I think I’ve written rather too much on this. But thanks for the conversation. Most civilized.

    Jeremy Duns

    November 18, 2011 at 7:21 pm


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