Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Witi Ihimarea and plagiarism, Part II

Further to my 25 November post on the Listener’s 19 November article detailing the plagiarism in Witi Ihimaera’s new novel The Trowenna Sea, the 12 December issue lists more examples, all of them pretty blatant. (The preview is here: the full story will be online on 26 December. The print edition says that all 34 examples of uncredited “borrowings” are on the website but I can’t find them.)

So far, so entertaining for those of us not directly involved. But this struck me:
The Listener asked Penguin whether the usual editing checks were done on the novel before it was published. . .
Penguin hasn’t answered that one, but I think I can. Of course they bloody were.

The thing is, “the usual editing checks” in book publishing are quite different from those in magazine journalism. When editing a novel (I have been a book editor on and off for 26 years) I do a lot of fact-checking as well as sorting out spelling, grammar, structure, pace, all that stuff. But I don’t look for passages that might have been purloined from another writer. You don’t look for them because you trust the writer, as does the publisher. I don’t think the relationship would work if it was as suspicious as the one between a reporter and a news editor is, or should be.

What’s more, the author has signed a contract specifically declaring that the manuscript is free from plagiarism. In my last Penguin contract, Clause 7 begins:
The Proprietor [i.e. the author] hereby warrants to the Publishers and their licensees that [. . .] the Work or any alteration is original work and is in no way whatever an infringement of any existing copyright [. . .]
In the next paragraph:
If it is the Publisher’s belief on reasonable grounds that the Work does infringe any existing copyright [. . . ] the Proprietor shall return to the Publishers any royalty advances paid to that date and reimburse the Publishers for any costs incurred in preparing the Work for publication.
I advise on contracts for members of the NZ Society of Authors so apart from my own with Penguin, Random House, Tandem, Godwit and Cape Catley I have copies of contracts with David Bateman, HarperCollins, Scholastic and several other publishers. Every single one has a clause like Penguin’s Clause 7: every author guarantees that the manuscript is all their own work.

That’s why it is unreasonable to expect that the editor (or, gossip has it, editors) of The Trowenna Sea should have picked up Ihimaera’s borrowings. Jolisa Gracewood did a great job uncovering the 34 – and who knows, there may be more – but she does have the advantage of a background in comparative literature and also (here I am speculating) as an academic she probably has access to Turnitin, the program universities use to “detect potential plagiarism by comparing student work against 3 massive, continuously updated databases of content”. And she wasn’t under extreme deadline pressure, as this novel’s editor was.

My sympathies are entirely with the publisher here. I have no inside information, but from what I know of the process they were committed to getting the book out before Christmas: they had booked the printer (you simply can’t be late or you go to the back of the queue); organised the marketing and publicity campaigns, including paying for advertising in the Christmas catalogues; entered it in the 2010 NZ Post Book Awards (the successor to the Montanas); and all the rest of it. For a big book by a well-known author, there are a host of expensive things to organise well in advance – and they all depend on the publication date being set in stone and the author delivering the work on time. Handing in even just a part of a manuscript on the day it is due at the printer is an appalling way to treat your publisher.

Jolisa Gracewood provides a chronology of the story so far here at Busytown, and also a long consideration of the issues raised followed by a LUQ, or list of Lingering Unanswered Questions.


Robert Smith (no, not that one) said...

That second paragraph in the clause you quote from the contract implies that Penguin could not just get the advance back but sting Ihimaera for all the printing and marketing/advertising costs.

I'd love to be a fly on the wall when he next sits down with his publisher.

Danyl said...

Slightly unrelated, but one of my favorite editors comments was Max Perkins noting on a page of the 'Tender is the Night' manuscript: 'Every single word in this paragraph is misspelled, an incredible achievement, even for Scott.'

Stephen Stratford said...

Which reminds me, even more unrelated, of Mary McCarthy's comment about Lillian Hellman, "Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the."

Jolisa said...

Tantalising last sentence there, Stephen! Are we assuming that's what happened here? It would explain a lot, not least the plundering of Karen Sinclair's book in order to write the epilogue about Te Umuroa's 1988 return to Whanganui, since that part of the novel was written last and presumably well up against deadline.

Even so, I can't think why Penguin didn't at least pause to weigh up the actual cost of postponing the printing, vs the potential cost of sending an unrevised and possibly scrappy MS to the printers. Especially if they were planning on entering it for the book awards.

I absolutely agree that an editor generally does -- and should -- trust that a given manuscript is all the author's own work. Otherwise, why bother? But I can't help feeling that in this case, if someone had sat and read the whole thing right through without a deadline at their neck, they'd have spotted the same things I did: undigested chunks of explanatory prose that uglified the novel.

Whether "borrowed" or not, those passages should simply not have been allowed to stand. (I'd have also blue-pencilled the repetition of the "purple spheres" and the glowing descriptions of aquatic fauna, along with several puzzling zig-zags along the character arc of Gower McKissock, and a few other things too, but that's more a matter of taste).

The dispiriting thing is that the borrowings are (for the most part) so penny-ante that they'd probably never have been noticed.

The material in the epilogue, however, was sitting there waiting to be discovered, and was always going to pose a problem for the author. As it has.

And the borrowed chunks from Peter Godwin's memoir would have popped up the first time some enterprising reader or grad student googled the African death ritual described therein. Also, readers with a background in the Victorians might have spotted the bits about mining and medicine. Hmmm... plenty of purloined letters, hidden in plain sight. If it hadn't been me, it would have been someone else.

And yes, I believe there is more to be found; I've just run out of oomph. I remain astonished that what's been identified so far is still not considered enough to take the book off the shelves for some much-needed revision.

As I've said elsewhere, the novel has a marvellous nugget of historical truth at its heart. Would that Ihimaera had been bold enough to fictionalise it, so that he could run with the story without fear or favour. And would that he had trusted his gifts and simply told the tale from the inside out. I understand the desire to illuminate history in detail, but by harnessing the novel so tightly to the historical record (and to cliched notions of both the Victorians and the historical novel), he has utterly hamstrung it as a work of art.

PS For the record, I did run some of the novel through something akin to Turnitin. But only after I'd identified those first 16 instances. And the software only spotted one of them. So even if Penguin, say, routinely did this with all manuscripts, it wouldn't have caught this one.

PPS And the thing about comparative literature? Is that we never actually compare literature! It's a weird moniker left over from the early days of the academy. We do, however, do a LOT of close reading and a lot of thinking about literary styles and strategies, and that's possibly what helped here.

Stephen Stratford said...

Hello Jolisa from Connecticut!

I've just had a quick read of the epilogue but have to say I don't think I would have picked anything there as borrowed. I would, however, have picked quite a bit as sub-standard writing, especially when Kui, I think it is, is speaking and quotes from memory letters to the newspaper - let alone the expository stuff that breaks the classic rule "show, don't tell" which I'm sure Witi teaches his students about.

But yes, elsewhere in the novel - as Nicholas Reid pointed out in the Sunday Star-Times - there are weird changes of register/voice and stylistic infelicities that simply would not have got through if the editor(s) had had more time.

As I said in my post, I don't think we can blame anyone in the publishing process but the author. From the outside, it seems obvious that the book should have been delayed, but from what I have seen of the process from the inside this is sometimes just not possible. I guess this was one of those times.

Anyway, the book seems to be off the shelves now and (can't find the link, sorry) it doesn't sound as though Penguin is anxious to get a revised version into print any time soon.

Very unrelated, I hope work is going well on the editing of Shirley Maddock's autobiography. Many of us are looking forward to that very much. She was quite a gal.

Jolisa said...

Hi Stephen!

With the epilogue, I wouldn't necessarily have spotted any borrowings there if I hadn't gone and read the only other major source about Hohepa Te Umuroa. But working backwards, anyone who had already read Karen Sinclair's book would have felt a serious case of déjà vu when they got to the end of The Trowenna Sea.

Interesting you should mention the letters to the editor (actually one letter, one interview) in the epilogue. Those were taken word for word from Sinclair's book, too, along with some of the contextualising sentences. It seems pretty clear that Ihimaera didn't go back through the archives of the Wanganui Chronicle himself, but just transferred the quotes from the book.

This is bad practice for all sorts of reasons. It's always worth looking at the original sources yourself, to make sure that there are no transcription errors -- and, almost more importantly, to check that those are in fact the best bits! (Also, borrowing the letter and interview in the order in which Sinclair presents them pretty much counts as borrowing the argumentation, too: a bit of a no-no in academic writing, if not the literary kind).

So the book is really off the shelves? I suppose that means the shelf stock has run out - or has it been more formally (but quietly) withdrawn?

Thanks for the encouragement about Shirley's memoir. I set it aside for a while and am getting back to it now. I wonder if Penguin would be interested in publishing it... I promise to submit an impeccable manuscript!

Stephen Stratford said...

Re the stock situation, the Herald reports: "Penguin, the book's publishers, offered a full refund for returned copies of the novel, and Professor Ihimaera said he would buy back the remaining warehouse stock.

"A spokeswoman for Penguin said Professor Ihimaera had bought all the publisher's copies, however some books remained in shops.

"She said retailers could still return the books for a full refund, but the company was not ordering a recall."

So there are some copies still to be found, though as it has sold well there can't be many - certainly there were none in the bookshops I've looked at in the last week. And if Witi has indeed bought up all the warehouse copies that makes the book officially out of print (from memory, 50 copies or fewer in the warehouse means a title is OOP.) Until, that is, a new edition comes out, if it ever does.

Chad Taylor said...

Stephen, I am charmed by your gentlemanly faith in the power of a contract, and I have a bridge that may interest you. Maybe even a river... Call now, our hot girls are waiting.

The contractual clause is indeed part of a binding agreement that indemnifies the publisher against financial loss after the fact. But it's no substitute for checking before going to press and JG didn't even have to check very hard. She did most of it via Google. I know UK editors who use Amazon's search engine for same.

I don't believe it takes much time, either, or that the process is precious or mysterious. Surely this is just reading? Ian McEwan's Atonement is an example. You don't need to be a novelist or a historian in order to feel the jolt when the story changes to the nurse's narrative. The source was fully acknowledged: there was never any question of plagiarism. But the jump in style was like gears that didn't mesh. You knew he'd sourced it, even though he'd broken the time line and the character POV to frame the fact.

(In terms of merging reported fact and fiction, I suggest DeLillo's the master. Libra, in particular.)

None of this has been entertaining to watch, even as an outsider. Gripping, maybe, but ghoulish. New Zealand writers have been clamouring for more coverage in the media. I guess we just got it.

Dave Hillier said...

There's an elephant in the room here. No one will say the obvious: Witi Ihimaera is just not a very good writer. No one reading his books would be surprised by sudden shifts in style - it's all clunky, so why would one passage stand out from the rest?

Anonymous said...

'Witi Ihimaera is just not a very good writer.'

Agree. But I wonder if anyone will go through his other books and see if he may have done this "borrowing" before.

Stephen Stratford said...

Dave, my memory is that Nicholas Reid in his very negative review of the book for the Sunday Star-Times did mention the stylistic shifts as a major fault but of course did not consider plagiarism as a possible reason. He has another go again today in the paper's excellent "Best Books of 2009" Roundup, saying the novel "served up cardboard characters and current cliches as if they were insights into history and had no real feel for the past whatsoever". Ouch.

Anonymous, we know of one other example of Ihimaera's "borrowing", in The Matriarch, because MPK Sorrensen, the unattributed "lender", objected strongly in a letter to the Listener at the time, and raised it again there recently.