Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Assassin of Secrets

Fact, fiction, and truth in labeling

with 4 comments

Last year, I wrote a couple of posts about the strange case of Q.R. Markham, the suspense novelist who was later revealed to have constructed his debut thriller, Assassin of Secrets, out of a crazy patchwork quilt of plagiarized passages from other novels. Since then, the unfortunate author—under his true name of Quentin Rowan—has been featured in his own New Yorker profile by Lizzie Widdicombe, which quotes an unnamed fan as claiming that Rowan’s book is actually a secret masterpiece: “What might have been just another disposable piece of banal commercial trash has now been lifted to the level of art.” Others thought that it might have been a deliberate prank, a work of stealth literary criticism, or simply an impressive act of construction in its own right. And these are, in fact, all things that it is possible for a novel to be—just not this particular novel, which was clearly a case of plagiarism born of insecurity and fear. And to Rowan’s credit, he has never tried to claim otherwise.

Yet the idea of a novel constructed out of other novels, like a longer version of Jonathan Lethem’s famous essay in Harper’s, is an interesting one. I might even buy and read it. But the issue is one of truth in labeling. If Rowan had been honest about his method, he’d deserve the ironic accolades that he has subsequently received, but the fact remains that until his exposure, he never claimed to be anything but a suspense writer in the vein of Ian Fleming, which makes his book a work of plagiarism. Similarly, there’s always a place for works of art that mix fact with narrative imagination in pursuit of a larger artistic goal, as long as it’s properly labeled. Norman Mailer beautifully mingles journalism with artistic reconstruction in The Executioner’s Song, and much of the appeal of Frederick Forsyth’s spy novels comes from his use of real historical figures and events. But both works are clearly shelved in the fiction section. It’s when a story with invented elements is shelved with nonfiction—even metaphorically, as in the case of Mike Daisey—that we start to get into trouble.

Labels matter. By stating that a work of art is fiction or nonfiction, novel or memoir, the author is entering into a contract with the reader, one that can be violated only in very rare cases. Now, it’s true that a work of art occasionally benefits from ambiguity over whether what it depicts is real or not. I wouldn’t give up a movie like Exit Through the Gift Shop, for instance, which gains much of its fascination, at least on subsequent viewings, from the question of how much the director has manipulated events behind the scenes. But such cases are extraordinarily uncommon. In film, the result is more often a movie like the loathsome Catfish, in which the inherent interest of the story itself is suffocated by the filmmakers’ palpable vanity and dishonesty. Meanwhile, in print, even as some authors claim to be constructing a more challenging synthesis of artifice and reality, in practice, it’s often a case of a writer combining the easiest, most obvious elements of fiction and nonfiction to get cheap dramatic effects or a marketing hook without the trouble of well-constructed storytelling or real journalism. See: Three Cups of Tea, A Million Little Pieces, and now Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.

The fact is, journalism is hard. Writing novels is also hard, in different sort of way. And it’s accomplishment enough for a lifetime to become good at either one. Before a writer decides to operate in some kind of hybrid mode, he needs to ask himself whether he’s tried to master the infinite complexities inherent in the practice of straight fiction or nonfiction, which, when honestly pursued, are capable of almost anything. For those who claim that it’s necessary to depart from the facts to tell an artistic and moving story, I’d ask them to first check out our many works of truly great nonfiction, ranging from David McClintick’s Indecent Exposure to David Simon’s Homicide, all fully reported and documented, and see if there’s any way they could possibly have been improved. And for those who believe that the conventional novel, unadulterated by plagiarisms, appropriations, or winking narrative shortcuts, is exhausted, well, I can only quote what Borges said, through his editor, to the translator who claimed that it was impossible to render one of his poems properly: “Borges thinks you should try a little harder.”

The case of Q.R. Markham, revisited

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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

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

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