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Literary Apes Anonymous

Now that his plagiarized spy thriller Assassin of Secrets has been yanked from the bookstores and turned into pulp, Quentin Rowan has gone public with his “confession” in 2,500 words at The Fix. As befits someone known for plagiarism, Rowan apes Rousseau’s Confessions in dwelling on incidents of humiliation and shame.

Rowan also takes a thoroughly unoriginal approach to ducking responsibility. He equates his literary offenses with alcoholism. Call it the Disease Theory of Plagiarism:

Why did I do it? I think the truth goes back to the late ’90s, when I was newly sober (counting days, actually) in a small, mid-western liberal arts college with an astonishing library. That’s where I became a word thief: skimming through collected issues of old magazines like the Transatlantic Review and New World Writing and Eugene Jolas’ Transition, bound in crimson hardcover. I was 20 years old, and trying to write a short story for the first or second time when I came upon a paragraph I liked from a short story by B. S. Johnson called “What did you say the Name of the Place was?” It was so easy to do, as easy as picking up a drink, if you think about it. The lifted paragraph perfectly fit my narrative. And it temporarily assuaged the awful feeling I had in my head that I was no good as a writer. In retrospect, maybe that’s when I transferred my obsession from drinking and drugs to plagiarism. My addiction didn’t disappear; it simply morphed into something else.

The trouble with this theory is that alcoholism is a choice, and so is plagiarism. Long ago Rowan chose not to be an author, but a plagiarist — not to discover his own exact words, but to kidnap others’. This is pretty much how Martial used the word when he introduced it to the literate world in the first century of the Common Era:

Commendo tibi, Quintiane, nostros —
nostros dicere si tamen libellos
possum, quos recitat tuus poeta:
si de seruitio graui queruntur,
adsertor uenias satisque praestes,
et, cum se dominum uocabit ille,
dicas esse meos manuque missos.
Hoc si terque quaterque clamitaris,
inpones plagiario pudorem.

In my own meager translation of epigram 1.52:

To you, sir, I commend my books —
If they’re still mine now that you took
My phrases out of slavery,
Under your guidance, to roam free.
Their author, though? In the book lists,
Sir, you’re down as their plagiarist.

Rowan sighs that he “probably deserved” to be called all the names he was called — meaning, of course, that he did not deserve the names at all — before ending with a plea for understanding. He is not “morally weak,” you understand. He is simply powerless over his compulsion to plagiarize. That is, he is eager to blame his “disease,” a hobgoblin that exists only to absorb run-off responsibility. In his next essay for The Fix, Rowan will announce the formation of a 12-step program for recovering plagiarists. He will call it Literary Apes Anonymous.

His confession will not be enough to resurrect Rowan’s literary career, though. Plagiarists don’t have literary careers. Perhaps it will be enough to launch one.


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