Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Plagiarism and B.S. Johnson

There is plagiarism and there is plagiarism. Q.R. Markham’s debut crime novel Assassin of Secrets received some great reviews. Here is a selection of them at Amazon:
“Brainy and enticing ... a narrative hall of mirrors in which nothing and no one are as they seem and emotion is a perilous thing to have ... A dazzling, deftly controlled debut that moves through familiar territory with wry sophistication.” (Kirkus (starred review) )
“Quirky, entertaining ... fine writing keeps the enterprise firmly on track, and the obvious Ian Fleming influence just adds to the appeal.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review) )
“Hardcore, old school spy fiction for a generation raised on ass-kicking Bourne flicks. Q.R. Markham’s thrilling debut is just like his spy hero: ambitious and audacious. More, please.” (Duane Swierczynski, Edgar-nominated author of Severance Package and Fun & Games)
“A fantastic, gleeful, chrome-plated-slick debut of a novel. In Jonathan Chase, Markham has created the perfect cliche-shattering super spy while honoring the progenitors. Dangerously sharp, and genuinely fun—and very, very, very smart. I want more books like this. I want more books from the mind of Mr. Markham!” (Greg Rucka, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Run and Queen & Country)

But then Markham was nicked, for nicking. Assassin of Secrets is not just a crime novel, it’s a criminal novel. He stole it. As the great crime writer Lawrence Block, a star of the 1999 Auckland Writers’ Festival, comments at Amazon:
There are plenty of good sentences in this book, but they’re all the work of other writers. The author must be seriously disturbed; he quite deliberately stole everything in the book.
The plagiarist behind the nom-de-plume, Quentin Rowan, confesses here. He is a recovered alcoholic and drug addict:

Over that same time period, I’ve fought a mostly losing battle with plagiarism. [. . .] I struggled with plagiarism in the same way others struggle with smoking, sex addiction, food addiction, and gambling. 

God yes, Don’t we writers all struggle daily with our addiction to plagiarism. Not.
I was taking words that I wished were mine from writers that I loved.

Flattery will get you nowhere.
But the key quote for me is this:

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.
I am impressed that he started out stealing from the English novelist B.S. Johnson who was a big deal in the 60s and early 70s but is completely obscure now. Johnson came to regard fiction as lying: at the end of his second novel, Albert Angelo, he stops the action and writes:
fuck all this lying look what I’m really trying to write about is writing not all this stuff about architecture trying to say something about writing my writing I’m my hero though what a useless appellation my first character then I’m trying to say something about me through him albert an architect when what’s the point in covering up… I’m trying to say something not tell a story telling stories is telling lies and I want to tell the truth about me about my experience about my truth about my truth to reality about sitting here writing looking out across Claremont Square trying to say something about the writing and nothing being an answer to the loneliness to the lack of loving
Regular readers will be sick of me banging on about  the Great Book Robbery of 1998 but I did have most of Johnson’s books, though sadly I couldn’t afford The Unfortunates, whose 27 chapters one could shuffle and read in any order. Albert Angelo had holes cut into the pages so you could see what was coming.
Johnson killed himself in November 1973, aged 40. Who knows what else was going on in his life, but he did seem to have written himself into a corner and perhaps could see no escape. 

Still, what Quentin Rowan did somehow fits with Johnson’s view of fiction, that “telling stories is telling lies”. I think that both Johnson and Rowan are/were wrong in an undergraduate way, but if Johnson were still with us maybe he would be amused by Rowan’s application of his theory. 

Johnson came up with one of the best book titles ever, Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?, and seems to have been as interested in film as he was in fiction. Fat Man on a Beach, his last film, is on YouTube and here. No true Johnson fan would watch the five clips in the order given. So here is Part Four:

For fans, David Quantick has done a sterling job in uploading not only those but also this: Johnson’s  TV short You’re Human Like the Rest of Them.

Which leads us to the Pernice Brothers and their song “B.S. Johnson:


Mark Cubey said...

Still have my worn paperback of Christie Malry's Own Double Entry. Somewhere. Terrific book. And off to the library later to grab his omnibus. Thanks for the reminder. A unique talent, reminds me of B. Travel for some random reason.

Stephen Stratford said...

Yes it's a terrific comic novel. I haven't seen the movie but bits of it are on YouTube. And I'm heading for the omnibus too.

Stephanie said...

Hey, what about the connection between B.S. and the american shorthand for bull shit! Amusing, n'est ce pas, in this context??

Well, I smiled.

Stephen Stratford said...

Heh, Stephanie. Hadn't occurred to me - the blindness of a fan - but yes, perfect initials for an avant-garder.

Almost avant-gardener. Now there's a concept - an avant-garden. What would it look like?