The case of Q.R. Markham, revisited
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.