Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The strange case of Q.R. Markham

with 5 comments

By now, many of you have probably heard of the truly bizarre case of Q.R. Markham, the nom de plume of a Brooklyn novelist whose debut thriller, Assassin of Secrets, was recently exposed as an insane patchwork of plagiarized passages from other books. In his author photos, Markham himself looks something like a character out of a Nabokov novel, so it’s perhaps fitting that this scandal differs from other instances of plagiarism both in scope and in kind: dozens of thefts have been identified so far, from such famous novelists as Charles McCarry, Robert Ludlum, and James Bond author John Gardner, all but guaranteeing that the fraud would quickly be discovered. (One of the lifted passages was allegedly six pages long.) The sheer massiveness of the deception, which also extends to much of the author’s other published work, suggests that unlike most plagiarists—who tend to be motivated by laziness, carelessness, or cynicism—Markham was driven, instead, by a neurotic need to be caught.

Of course, as with James Frey and the Harvard student I still like to think of as Opal Mehta, after the exposure comes the inevitable justification, and Markham doesn’t disappoint. In a fascinating email exchange with author Jeremy Duns, who provided a glowing blurb for the novel in happier times, Markham claims that his actions were motivated by “a need to conceal my own voice with the armor of someone else’s words,” as well as, more prosaically, the pressure of rapidly turning around revisions for his publisher. The latter rationale can be dismissed at once, and novelist Jamie Freveletti has already skewered it quite nicely: every working novelist has to generate rewrites on short notice—I’m doing this for my own novel as we speak—so invoking time constraints as an excuse makes about as much sense as blaming the physical act of typing itself. More interesting, at least to me, is the implication that assembling this novel of shreds and patches ultimately became a kind of game. Markham writes:

I had certain things I wanted to see happen in the initial plot: a double cross, a drive through the South of France, a raid on a snowy satellite base. Eventually I found passages that adhered to these kinds of scenes that only meant changing the plot a little bit here and there. It felt very much like putting an elaborate puzzle together.

Now, on some level, this kind of puzzle construction is what every genre novelist does. The number of tropes at a writer’s disposal is large, but finite, and barring a really exceptional act of invention, which has happened only a handful times in the history of the genre, much of what a suspense novelist does consists of finding fresh, unexpected combinations of existing elements and executing them in a surprising way. If anything, Markham’s example highlights one of the weaknesses of the suspense genre, which is that the underlying components—like the ones he lists above—have become rather tired and predictable. Doesn’t every spy novel contain a double cross, or a raid on some kind of secret base? In his neurotic fear of originality, Markham simply took it to the next logical step, so 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. Assassin of Secrets is a kind of distorting mirror, a looking glass in which various players in the publishing world can see uncomfortable reflections of themselves. Markham’s editors and reviewers have clearly been wondering, as well they should, why they didn’t detect this deception much sooner, and what this says about their knowledge of the genre in which they make their living. And for other novelists, Markham stands as an emblem of what I might call a culture of empty virtuosity, in which a book that mechanically recombines exhausted tropes can be acclaimed as the work of an exciting new voice, when it merely contains, as James Wood once unfairly said of John Le Carré, “a clever coffin of dead conventions.” I love suspense, and much of its pleasure lies, as Markham says, in the construction of elaborate puzzles. But it can also be more. And if nothing else, this Frankenstein monster of a novel should remind us of the fact that we owe it to ourselves to do better.

Written by nevalalee

November 17, 2011 at 10:23 am

5 Responses

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  1. Some hurried thoughts:

    ‘In his neurotic fear of originality, Markham simply took it to the next logical step, so it’s tempting to read his case as a kind of demented experiment, a sweeping indictment of the artificiality of the spy thriller itself.’

    I’ll start with this one, because it seems the most important. Rowan published two short stories in The Paris Review, one in 1999 and one in 2002. I haven’t checked either of them, but according to a commenter on my blog he plagiarized passages by Janet Hobhouse, Stephen Wright, Robert Stone, Howard Nemerov and Nicholas Mosley. The Paris Review is one of the most famous literary magazines in the world, if not the most famous, and they did not spot any of this (and to my knowledge have yet to comment).

    Might Rowan’s plagiarism of literary novelists and poets have been a sweeping indictment of the artificiality of literary fiction itself? If you don’t think it could have been, why do you think it was in his spy novel? If you think it might have been, doesn’t that rather cance out most of your argument above? (Or at least the argument you suggested, but then abandoned, while leaving the suggestion it might be the case hanging!)

    ‘The number of tropes at a writer’s disposal is large, but finite, and barring a really exceptional act of invention, which has happened only a handful times in the history of the genre, much of what a suspense novelist does consists of finding fresh, unexpected combinations of existing elements and executing them in a surprising way.’

    I don’t agree that the number of tropes are finite. Huge shifts of invention do indeed happen rarely, as with fiction as a whole, but every single sentence of an original novel can go anywhere, so there are trillions of miniature tropes and new ones are invented in each new novel and by each new writer. Spy fiction isn’t fenced off from other genres. Sometimes genres merge, and a novel might blend espionage and fantasy elements, such as Tim Powers in Declare, or literary fiction with the spy novel, as in John Banville’s The Untouchable.

    In a very odd way, I think this also happened with Assassin of Secrets, as I tried to explain on my blog. I don’t believe Rowan did it as a post-modern experiment at all, but I think that if you mash together disparate elements you can automatically create new resonances, without even meaning to. Rather like writing poetry with fridge magnets, or perhaps with other people’s poetry and fridge magnets – I believe Madonna did something like this a few years ago, and of course Burroughs and other collage writers. In addition, no genre is limited. How could they be, practically speaking? If I use some tropes from horror fiction in my next spy novel, will the earth swallow me up? What if I just write a scene that doesn’t have any tropes in it? Not everything is a trope, surely.

    Jeremy Duns

    November 17, 2011 at 1:52 pm

  2. ‘If anything, Markham’s example highlights one of the weaknesses of the suspense genre, which is that the underlying components—like the ones he lists above—have become rather tired and predictable. Doesn’t every spy novel contain a double cross, or a raid on some kind of secret base?’

    No. There are no raids on secret bases in the work of Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham or John le Carre, for example. I don’t think there are any components that are necessary to the spy novel, other than that someone in it must spy on someone.Conrad’s The Secret Agent – spy novel or not? The Russia House is surely a spy novel – and yet it contains almost no conventions from the genre. It is about an espionage operation, but it is really more about a corporate partnership trying to control an unwilling asset to obtain information about an opponent. The corporations happen to be intelligence agencies. I think that many of le Carre’s novels work almost entirely removed from what are traditionally viewed as tropes of the genre. One could say the same of The Human Factor by Greene, and many other books, some of which I mentioned in my blog post on this: Cockpit, for example.

    ‘Markham’s editors and reviewers have clearly been wondering, as well they should, why they didn’t detect this deception much sooner, and what this says about their knowledge of the genre in which they make their living… And if nothing else, this Frankenstein monster of a novel should remind us of the fact that we owe it to ourselves to do better.’

    I think this is very unfair, and hope you might read in full my essay above Rowan’s comments to see why. I have certainly been wondering why I didn’t detect this deception sooner, as I’m a huge lover of spy fiction and have read widely in the genre. But my conscience is clear. This really doesn’t say anything about my knowledge of the genre, or his editors’. John Gardner wrote 36 novels in his career. He was a very successful thriller-writer, but I don’t think editors (or blurbers) should feel embarrassed if they haven’t read all his work, just in case someone happened to plagiarize *him*. So they should be widely read in the genre. Fine. Gardner has roughly the same standing in the genre as Desmond Bagley, Colin Forbes, Ted Allebeury, Hammond Innes, Duncan Kyle, Clive Egleton, Adam Hall, and oh, I would guess at least 20 others. To read all of their work would take a lifetime. It’s not feasible. No one individual should feel ashamed at not having spotted works from 18 authors, when there are thousands: several Rowan stole from were not spy novelists either. Once the book was published, I agree, he was bound to be caught sooner or later, because of the accumulation of individuals’ knowledge. A Bond fan spotted it, but not all Bond fans would have. The idea that anyone else is to blame in this situation is, frankly, rather insulting. Quentin Rowan is to blame. That’s it. And it doesn’t remind me that I owe it to myself to do better in my work. The idea that his plagiarism reflects on honest writers’ work is not just wrong, but somewhat insulting to boot.

    But I’ll end where I began – he plagiarized literary fiction as well, over a decade ago, and it was not discovered until Assassin of Secrets exposed him as a plagiarist. And yet I don’t think I’ve seen, in all the blog articles on this and the articles in The New Yorker, New York Times, LA Times, NY Observer, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Sunday Times or elsewhere, a single person question that his plagiarism in The Paris Review exposed the limits of literary fiction. Is it not simply snobbery about genre fiction that has led to the argument that it exposes spy fiction, or can you think of another reason?

    Jeremy Duns

    November 17, 2011 at 2:06 pm

  3. Jeremy, thanks so much for responding in such detail—you raise some excellent points, enough to merit a full blog post of their own! My schedule today is a little compressed, so I’ll mull this over a bit longer and post some additional thoughts tomorrow. (And in the meantime, other readers should feel free to weigh in as well.)

    nevalalee

    November 17, 2011 at 2:17 pm

  4. Looking forward to it. A correction: John Gardner wrote 52 novels, of which 16 were Bond novels. And Rowan plagiarized not from 18 but from six authors: Gardner, Charles McCarry, Robert Ludlum, Raymond Benson, James Bamford and Geoffrey O’Brien.

    I should also just clarify that I read the resulting ‘novel’ as a deliberate play on the tropes of spy fiction. I suggested Mulholland remove the question-and-answer session I did with Rowan from their UK and US sites, and removed it from my own, when I realized that he had even plagiarized parts of his answers in conversation with me from O’Brien: we worked on the answers in Google Docs. I don’t feel it is right for me knowingly to host plagiarized material on my site. However, my answers were not plagiarized, of course, and in that dialogue with Rowan I wrote:

    ‘I loved that you took, as far as I can tell, every single trope of 60s spy fiction – from seductive sirens to megalomaniacal villains in their lairs – and then gave them all these twists.’

    Elsewhere, I recommended Rowan thus:

    ‘… he has written a fantastic 60s-set spy novel that has several direct and indirect nods to Bond and Fleming, a kind of pastiche told straight, and in beautifully crafted prose.’

    As I wrote on my blog, one expects a villainous organization to meet in a secret headquarters in a Bond novel. Outside of a Bond novel, such a scene reads as pastiche. It read as ‘pastiche told straight’ to me because I hadn’t recognized a scene from Zero Minus Ten by Raymond Benson, which I’ve never read, with the names changed and grafted between passages from elsewhere. Zero Minus Ten is one of around 50 Bond novels published: Kingsley Amis (from whom Rowan took his pseudonym as ‘tribute’ and which I apporoved of!), John Pearson, Christopher Wood, John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Charles Higson, Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver have all written Bond novels since Fleming. Most Bond fans haven’t read all of them.

    That I failed to recognize that he had lifted the tropes verbatim from other sources is unfortunate, of course – I wish I had spotted it when I was sent the proof by the publisher – but the novel worked for me as an amalgamation of tropes that had its own energy and verve, partially because he had used so many of them, and done it apparently straight. It wasn’t read as a straightforward spy novel in the usual sense, but was something much more like Cockpit, Mulholland Drive or some of the other examples I’ve given.

    This must have taken quite some effort for Rowan to have done, but I don’t think it was comparable to thinking up the scenes and prose himself, which I doubt he could have done, and of course he did not declare his sources, so it was outright theft. But nobody has really examined the entire book to see how he did it, and neither have they examined all his short stories and poetry. I suspect that the sheer amount of plagiarism in Assassin of Secrets means that although he’s very intelligent and has rather good taste in spy fiction, he has little real creative ability. I suspect this means that a detailed analysis of his Paris Review and other stories would reveal that there is almost no originality in them, either, and that they were also stitched together from several other sources. I also suspect this is easier to do with literary fiction than genre. Indeed, Assassin of Secrets read as a literary take on the spy genre, precisely because such experrimentation is so much more common in literary fiction than genre fiction, where narrative is, on the whole, much more linear. With a genre as frequently non-linear and abstract as literary fiction. it may even be easier to get away with this sort of thing. One indication of that, perhaps, is that a Bond fan spotted the lift from a 30-year-old novel by John Gardner at once, and the book was withdrawn before publication in the UK and very shortly after it in the US, whereas Rowan’s plagiarisms in The Paris Review remained undetected for over a decade.

    Similarly, St Martin’s Press published The Raven’s Bride by acclaimed literary novelist Lenore Hart in February. It is a fictional account of the life of Edgar Allan Poe’s wife Virginia. A Poe fan with a blog realized in March that many incidents in the book had been taken from The Very Young Mrs Poe by Cothburn O’Neal, a novel about Virginia Poe published in 1956, and many of the passages are plagiarized from it, often with verbatim or near-verbatim sentences. The blogger wrote several times about it on their blog, and sent a 14-15-page-letter to St Martin’s about it – no response to either. Someone else mentioned it online and received an 18,000-word response from Lenore Hart defending the extensive and obvious plagiarism in the most absurd manner imaginable. They, too, contacted St Martin’s, and heard nothing about it. I have blogged about this here, and hope the book is withdrawn:

    http://jeremyduns.blogspot.com/2011/11/ravens-bride.html

    Lenore Hart plagiarized extensively from literary fiction, and received a starred review in Publishers’ Weekly. Jacob Epstein’s novel Wild Oats plagiarized around 50 passages from Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers, and was not detected until after publication. It would not surprise me at all if Hart and Epstein also plagiarized other novels, but that those sources have just not been looked for and found yet.

    Sorry for length. I realize this all looks like special pleading because Rowan fooled me, but the truth is that you (and many others) have also offered a lot of wrong-headed theories about this that I don’t feel stand up to analysis. I don’t think Quentin Rowan’s plagiarism says anything about any inherent weaknesses in spy fiction as a genre. He also did it with literary fiction. So I think your ideas, while well-expressed, are in this case way off-beam.

    Jeremy Duns

    November 18, 2011 at 4:00 am

  5. Thanks, Jeremy. I’ve just posted a response (as well as one additional note in the comments), and I hope we can continue this discussion there. I look forward to hearing what you have to say!

    nevalalee

    November 18, 2011 at 10:29 am


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