Monday, January 14, 2008

Plagiarism in Romance?

Second in our series about scandals in genre publishing; collect them all!

Galley Cat reported on a string of posts at Smart Bitches about a pile of romances by Cassie Edwards. Now, I haven't read every last bit of the supposedly plagiarized pieces, but they all seem to be factual descriptions of actual Indian rituals, behaviors, beliefs, and so on. And changing the wording substantially, when describing actual real-world things, would tend to make one's description diverge from that thing. The technical term for this is "getting it wrong."

Now, if a writer doesn't do any research, that's bad.

And if a writer does research, and gets things wrong anyway, that's even worse.

But if you do research, and get things right, that's bad, too. Apparently even a romance writer now should footnote her references.

Does anyone else think this is insane?

Edit, a week later: Well, it's now looking like Ms. Edwards has copied nearly everything but her own name in various books, so let me climb down from this increasingly shaky limb. I won't say Edwards is a plagiarist, but the weight of the evidence certainly points that way.

I do still wonder about my original point (though Edwards's case did not turn out to be like this) -- in historical fiction, or works that otherwise draw from specific reportage, how can a writer be both accurate to reality (as depicted in the original sources) and original? You'll recall that Ian McEwan got yelled at last year for using descriptions of medical procedures in Atonement that were "too close" to his (acknowledged) sources.

Copying another writer's invented dialogue or descriptions is clearly wrong, but what about closely following another writer's detailed description of something real? Particularly when dealing with technical language, there may not be any other clear, accurate way to phrase a sentence.

There are more and more of these plagiarism complaints lately, since it's trivial to compare electronic texts. Perhaps someday we'll see a vast database of all English-language text, and any book projected for publication will be required to be compared against the database, and only works with a sufficient percentage of purely new content will be allowed to continue. But what will that threshold be? What with cliched language, standard descriptions, the seven basic plots, and so on, I wonder if most novels would be as much as 5% original.


Unknown said...

The problem is that the wordings were not changed significantly-the voice was distinctly different, which was how the blogger in question noted it. Noone is arguing that writers should not do research, or use that research. What they are saying, is don't plagiarize. For the record, I can think of several historical romance authors who do use acknowledgements, and one who uses footnotes. All of them have worded the stuff very specifically in their own words.

Anonymous said...

Factual description: fine.

Copy and paste without the most elementary paraphrasing? That's stealing--illegal or not, it's still morally wrong and unethical behaviour.

Andrew Wheeler said...

If you copy a recipe, and change "beat" to "whip" so that you're not using the exact words, you've changed the meaning. The examples I've seen in this novel are similar -- describing handiwork, or written in stilted ritualistic language. Change the wording more than a bit, and it doesn't mean the same thing anymore.

I think my point holds -- does the world really think popular fiction needs to be footnoted?

(Or just that a lot of Internet people, myself included, have far too much time on our hands?)

Anonymous said...

Does a romance writer need cited references and footnotes and an MLA style bibliography? No.

But it also shouldn't be acceptable to plagiarize sources on a topic just because they are out of copyright and nonfiction. Because it is nonfiction, it seems like a lot of people think it's okay. If a regency romance author were copying dialog from Jane Austen, far fewer people would be saying "Well, so what? That's what she wanted her character to say."

A discussion on what kind of citation or acknowledgement of sources is reasonable in genre fiction would be interesting, but I don't think Cassie Edwards is a good place to take the "she did nothing wrong" stand. After further review even her publisher has changed their position from sticking by Cassie to further scrutinizing her work.

(Cassie Edwards is also accused of doing the same with some sources that are still under copyright, so we might get to see whether a court of law finds her idea of paraphrasing adequate.)

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