Writers dream of six-figure book deals, but big contracts mean big pressure. Our columnist Kirsty Logan looks at authors who've cracked under the strain and expounds the benefits of obscurity…
What do a hipster intellectual from the New Yorker, a bookseller writing a spy novel and an Indian-American student at Harvard all have in common? They all got caught cheating.
Okay, more specifically: Jonah Lehrer, Q.R. Markham (real name Quentin Rowan) and Kaavya Viswanathan have all written books and then been accused of plagiarism or passing off made-up statements as quotes.
If we're going to be kind (and I think we should always try to be), what these authors have in common is that they’ve all felt under so much pressure to produce a piece of commissioned work that they resorted to stealing other writers' work. The lesson for us as young artists is not the stealing, but the pressure.
Quentin Rowan published a spy novel, Assassin of Secrets, under the pseudonym Q.R. Markham. It didn’t take long for readers to spot that entire passages had been cribbed from other thriller novels. In this rather whiny article, Rowan claims that he has an “addiction to plagiarism”, which he says is like alcoholism but involving word-theft instead of bottles of Thunderbird.
When Jonathan Lehrer was asked about some Bob Dylan quotes in his book, Imagine, he said they were from archival interview footage. This wasn’t true; Lehrer had just made them up. In a statement, he describes this as “a lie spoken in a moment of panic”.
Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was commissioned while she was still at high school and written in her first year at Harvard (along with a full course load). Again, whole sections of the novel were lifted from other books: this time Megan McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. Viswanathan called her theft a “completely unintentional mistake”, which is possible though unlikely.
Each of them had a publishing deal before they even started to write their books – an enviable situation for most writers, who labour away on 80,000+ words without knowing whether they’ll ever be published. Then again, none of us have ever (I hope) been accused of plagiarism and had our books pulled from bookshelves all over the country. Rather than scorning or envying these authors for their publishing deals, perhaps we should feel lucky that we don’t have to labour under the same pressure.
For most of us, no-one cares what we create or how fast we do it. This is a good thing, even though sometimes it feels pretty grim, particularly when we have to explain to our mothers why we’re not training to be surgeons like lovely Cousin Jennifer or lawyers like Mark-next-door, and that actually drinking tea and watching Murder, She Wrote does count as work. We’re all writing novels about, uh, media depictions of… something. It’s research, okay? Now put the kettle on please, Mama Logan, there’s a Judge Judy marathon starting.
Maybe these writers just blamed their plagiarism on the pressure because it was an easy scapegoat. Maybe they were really just lazy or stupid or didn’t have faith in their own abilities. But I don’t think so. I think that the weight of expectation is unbearably heavy, and I see why some people might have to cheat a way out. I don’t condone it, but I do understand it.
Freedom from expectation is a beautiful thing, and this might be the freest time in our creative careers. We can hole up in our little arty caves, working on our masterpieces, without worrying about what other people want from us. We don’t have deadlines to meet or contracts to fulfil. Because no-one cares who we are (yet), we have the freedom to be ourselves. We can create truly original work. In other words, we don’t need to nick shit.
...on writing the truth
...on the fun of failure