Back in November I promised a roundup of the discussion about the plagiarism in Witi Ihimaera’s The Trowenna Sea. Many interesting people had said many interesting things along the way, and it seemed useful to assemble the major links in one place, just for the record.
But I have to tell you, my heart just hasn’t been in it. At a distance the whole thing just seems tawdry and depressing. A storm in a tea-cup – make that a china tea-cup out of place on the veldt – indeed, a china tea-cup as out of place on the veldt as a chunk of somebody else’s memoir in a novel by a once great New Zealand writer (to coin a metaphor).
The storm rumbles on in various places, most recently at Stephen Stratford's Quote Unquote blog and in a new post by Peter Wells. The previous online discussions – links below, in previous post – form a veritable garden of forking paths in which you might lose yourself for an hour or so.
Like the blind men and the elephant, we’re all standing in a darkened room, each of us with a firm grip on a different part of the beast, convinced that that is where the problem lies – the hasty writing, the once-over-lightly editing, the rush to print, the background of the story, the laureate, the university’s “investigation,” the backlash, the counter-backlash – and every now and then someone attempts to delineate the elephant we’re all haphazardly groping.
There are probably many elephants in the room, but those are animals known for their patience and they aren’t going anywhere any time soon. One of them, according to one commenter over at Quote Unquote, is that “Witi Ihimaera is just not a very good writer.”
Well, the looming mother elephant of that particular baby elephant -- ignore her at your peril! -- is, of course, that he was a very good writer. He wrote stories that had never been written before, he wrote fast and well and with authority, and he brought a whole world to life on the page. To some readers, his books were dispatches from another country -- but our own country -- and to others, who had never expected to see their own experiences in a book, they were empowering news flashes that their lives were something to write home about.
(For a glimpse of the predicament of the young Ihimaera – who found himself wedged between the rock of representation of his own history and the hard place of patronising Pakeha patronage -- check out this vivid Kaleidoscope interview from the mid 1980s).
Then Ihimaera came into the academy and helped foster a whole new generation of writers. And now this impressive legacy has messy clay footprints all over it.
“Sentimental” is the word the author himself uses to disparage his early writing, which is silly, if you ask me. Sentiment is no bad thing. Some like it hard-boiled, others prefer coddling, and you can even have it both ways if you want to. A sentimental lens is almost unavoidable when you’re describing a world in the process of disappearing before your eyes. See also James Herriot, Alexander McCall Smith, Giovanni Guareschi, Sara Paretsky, Kawabata Yasunari, Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, Kazuo Ishiguro, and many many other fine writers. Let me spell it out: there’s no shame in that game. The shame is that, in this case, Ihimaera’s combination of sentiment and history-by-the-book curdled on the page into an unappetizing mess.
Far be it from me to teach a grandfather to boil eggs. But how I wish he would go back into the kitchen and start from scratch, and start small, because when Ihimaera writes small, his work is huge.
The latest developments, for those following along at home, include a third piece in the Listener, in which Joanne Black spoke to another author whose words had been borrowed, noted Australian historian Peter Stanley. She also noted that Penguin had forbidden the Listener to quote any further from the novel.
Almost simultaneously with that article, three wise men ventured that enough was probably enough. Lawrence Jones made the kind, calm, and explicitly provisional case that “probably the most Ihimaera can be accused of is carelessness about sources, excessive haste, and maybe taking a few shortcuts” -- henceforth to be known as the Goodbye Pork Pie defence. Hamish Keith tweeted his relief at hearing a “saner voice … amongst the manufactured outrage,” and Graham Beattie begged the Listener to “Give it a rest!”
These Gandalfian pronouncements were the cue for the rest of us to down pitchforks and wander off to the Hobbit Inn to compare pumpkins and think about elevenses.
Talk of lynch mobs was wild overstatement, though. That’s just not how we roll. Lunch mobs, maybe. I’d say that apart from the predictably intemperate (read: racist) grumbling in the expected corners of the internet, the discussion has been pretty respectful, illuminating and healthy.
And who can complain about literature being in the news? Peter Wells wrote “Oddly enough I find these public kerfuffles quite heartening. Literature is so often almost invisible in New Zealand.” And as Chad Taylor put it over here, “New Zealand writers have been clamouring for more coverage in the media. I guess we just got it.”
Well, domestic coverage, at least. It’s terribly ironic, in the age of tweets heard around the world, that the fuss has been largely confined to New Zealand. This was probably a direct result of the Listener’s old-school protocol of protecting its articles by keeping them offline for weeks. (And my own sense of decorum, in choosing not to post the parallel passages, or to crowd-source the ones I couldn't pin down).
I suspect the storm will rumble on as long as the book remains not just on shelves but at the top of the best-seller list. Continuing to sell the book makes the original gesture of apology just that: a gesture, perhaps even a bird-shaped one.
Meanwhile, offstage, I’ve been having the most rewarding – and largely off the record -- conversations with all sorts of people from all corners of the world. Writers, editors, reviewers, academics, and people who experienced some of the events told in the novel. Each has added a piece of the puzzle. Some parts of the story may still never be told, at least in public. But others can and should be.
To that end, and with a view to learning lessons and moving forward, sitcom-style, I offer a LUQ. As in, Lingering Unanswered Questions (it’s like a FAQ, but luqier… for some). With seasonal trimmings. Feel free to contribute your own.
Q. So at no point in the last six weeks have you been contacted by anyone from Penguin or Auckland University so they could compare notes while conducting their own audits of the novel? Isn't that a trifle peculiar?
A. Oh, trifle is never peculiar. It’s a good warm-weather alternative to dense, fruity Christmas pudding.
Q. But, I mean, you've read the book what, three times? And got all those other books out of the library? And contacted other writers whose work you think might have been harvested? Surely they'd appreciate your assistance in sorting it all out?
A. A little cream on your trifle? It's fresh.
Q. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. I am a writer [actually I am a bunch of different writers condensed for brevity and convenience], and this is my worst nightmare. Honestly, we lose sleep over this sort of thing happening by accident. And it’s not just historical fiction, but anything we write that relies on knowing the background, or bringing old words to new life. So here’s what I do: I make sure to move all my research books off my desk and compose in a fresh document, without recourse to cut and paste, but still I worry -- accidents can happen. My editor and I once spent days hunting for the origin of a single phrase I had used, which I suddenly thought I might have heard elsewhere. We didn't find anything. But what if I accidentally plagiarised it? And given that my work plays with the literary canon, what if readers and reviewers think my deliberate allusions are theft? Please don’t judge or punish me for an honest mistake!
A. Dearest writers. If you are worried about it, you are not doing it. If it happens by accident, I trust you won’t have 30+ accidents in the same book. All novelists harvest material from the world around them and brew it into a story; if there are chunks in the stew, I generally believe that you know the protocols and will have put them there on purpose ,and that we will know them by their different typeface, quotation marks, or sheer famousness. Any reviewer or reader worth their salt can spot an allusion at 500 paces. Or 500 pages. If not, our loss. Please keep writing. PS I love you.
Q. If other writers are this careful, how on earth did Ihimaera manage to slip up so often and so comprehensively?
A. “It’s a puzzle,” said Geoff Walker to Paul Henry on TV. “And it’s a puzzle to Witi as well... I can only think that it’s something to do with the creative process.”
Also known as the “We’re taking this novel to Invercargill” process.
Q. Does the University of Auckland consider the case closed?
A. Officially, they are satisfied with the original investigation. They should be satisfied: it was accomplished in less than three days, which is a record for any university decision-making procedure anywhere. It takes a group of academics longer than that to decide where to take the visiting speaker for dinner, bless ‘em.
Q. How does this case affect students who might be worried about plagiarising - or no longer worried about plagiarising?
A. What the University has said is that if “minor” plagiarism – more than a dozen passages, no upper limit specified -- is discovered in, say, your dissertation, all you need do in order to graduate is admit to the bits that have been found, apologise, and then rewrite those bits. At least, that’s my reading of this press release from the Vice Chancellor, although I will happily stand corrected.
Q. If we hold off buying the book now, we can look forward to buying the revised version of the book with an expanded acknowledgements section, as promised by Ihimaera and Penguin for some time next year, right?
A. Given that nobody seems to know precisely how many passages require acknowledgement or rewriting, any revised edition would be subject to doubt about its provenance. I’d also be very surprised if the epilogue section, which relies closely on not just Karen Sinclair’s book but on precious memories and diaries, survived the rewriting process. Short of completely rewriting this one, best to move on to the next project, I think.
That said, Penguin has been officially upbeat about the novel’s long-term prospects. Geoff Walker, to Paul Henry again: “We’ve gone to every single author of the original pieces that are causing offense and Witi has apologized and he’s come clean and I’m happy to say that so far there have been no difficulties and people have appreciated that he’s being upfront about it.”
Q. Any chance we’ll hear more about, as Ngaire Bookiemonster put it, “the process of how a book with unacknowledged copied passages got all the way to the bookshop shelves”?
A. There’s speculation about the “how” over at Quote Unquote: basically, that the manuscript was written in haste and delivered at the last possible minute, thus ruling out the usual checks and balances. I doubt we’ll hear more detail. As with conjuring, the magic disappears if you peek into the black box.
Q. Will Penguin build more buffers into their publication process in the light of this affair?
A. See above. But as Geoff Walker told Paul Henry, “we’ve racked our brains and agonized over just what we could have done. And if an editor is editing a page of text, and the odd sentence has come from another source, unless there’s a marked change of tone, it’s impossible for an editor to pick it up.”
Chad Taylor begged to differ in a comment on Quote Unquote: “In the old days, this was called "editing," or even "reading" -- reading being an active process as opposed to just sitting back and admiring the page count.”
It should be a given that the writer-editor relationship is based on trust, and as noted by a published author in one of the discussion threads here, every writer signs a contract attesting that the work is their own. A publisher should be able to assume that a writer is original until proven otherwise; equally, though, a writer should be able to trust that a publisher will have their antennae out for any issues with the manuscript. In the end, we’re all readers, and we should be good readers.
Q. Is it ironic that having found the first “borrowing” with the help of Google Books and a library copy, you were then largely able to confirm your intuition about other sources by using the power of the internet -- and specifically Google? I mean, given that both Google Books and the web are monstrous devouring engines of cut-and-paste, and unholy nemeses of copyrighteousness?
A. Ironic? I think the earth’s magnetic field just flipped polarity. (Don’t adjust your compasses: it flipped back again when Geoff Walker invoked copyright in forbidding the Listener to quote further from the book, when they were only quoting the bits that Witi had not in fact written himself).
The Google Books angle is indeed a very pointy one. Who knew that by kidnapping your words, Google was actually protecting them from other kidnappers?? The whole palaver might seem to suggest that information doesn’t want to be free, so much as free range: able to graze unmolested on a fairly wide piece of grass behind a nice electric fence, so as to be all the safer from predators.
It’s not news that retired poachers make the best gamekeepers, and that some of the most successful breeding programmes take place in zoos. In a way, Google Books starts to look like a protection racket for writers (“Are you sure you don’t want to archive with us? Wouldn’t want any nasty accidents to happen to your lovely prose… oops”).
It should be pointed out, however, that Google conveys a false sense of comprehensiveness: it won’t help you trace copyings from books that have not been put digitised. There are several other passages in The Trowenna Sea that I am 99.6% sure are borrowed from elsewhere, but I can’t trace them digitally. Which also suggests a definitive strategy for would-be plagiarisers: hit the bricks-and-mortar library and read some real books, you slackers!
Q. O persnickety purveyor of persiflage, cease your pedantic posturings! Full 99.6% of this enchanted tale was born of the author, not ripp’d untimely from other sources! And verily the verbal changelings snatched away to Witi’s bower grow fat and happy and blessed therein. Yet you damn the lot of it! Words, words, words? You with your quiddities, your quillities, your cases, your tenures, and your tricks – ‘tis sound and fury signifying nothing! Madam, your quality of mercy is monstrous strain’d. Yours, etc. Wm. Shakespere, Stratford 'pon Avon.
A. Thank you, Mr Shakspere (funny, I know another fellow from your town with a similar name, although he spells it differently).
Firstly, all parties should have long ago retired the “only 0.4%” figure, because it’s wrong. The original sixteen borrowings were just the start. There’s actually a borrowing per sixteen pages, on average.
With the exception of the heavy reliance on Karen Sinclair’s book and Joan (Hoana) Akapita’s diary, and the paragraph lifted from Peter Godwin, most of the appropriations are penny-ante. A sentence here, a sentence there. But the overall effect is penny-ante wise and pound foolish. As you yourself might have said, sir, many a mickle makes a muckle.
Perhaps we could be kind and round it off to “a tiny percentage.” As a friend of mine pointed out, the faulty O-ring on the space shuttle Challenger only amounted to “a tiny percentage” of the rocket. Or, a seasonal metaphor: if you bake a Christmas cake with slightly weevilly flour, the bugs probably only amount to “a tiny percentage” of the mix. But they’ll still crunch when you bite into the cake.
I don’t mean to go on about this, but really! If someone embezzled “a tiny percentage” of, say, the annual operating budget of Auckland University (a mere few million bucks), or a single department therein (a negligible tens of thousands), they wouldn’t get far with pleading a percentage-based mitigation. Penguin would probably mind a lot if I liberated “a tiny percentage” of their warehouse stock and sold it down the pub.
Ah, but you say, this is literature. It’s different. When writers swipe something – an idea, a phrase, a paragraph, large or small – it’s not like taking someone else’s knickers off a washing-line. (Of course not. It’s like painting a picture of someone else’s knickers on a washing-line, or, depending on how you do it, possibly borrowing those knickers, wearing them to a party, and posting the pics on Facebook). It’s a victimless crime. Indeed, it’s not even a crime: it’s the whole point. Good artists borrow, great artists were last seen buying a round for Ronnie Biggs at a topless bar in Rio. All artistry is theft! Quibbling about percentages is for bookkeepers, not book-lovers!
Which is funny, because what the repetition of that figure of 0.4% really seems to want to say is: it’s barely there, you’ll hardly notice it, so it doesn’t really matter. When theoretically you could borrow 99.6% of the text of a novel from elsewhere (with permission, or out of copyright) and it could be an absolute masterpiece.
This is not that novel. We don’t mind the patchwork in Moby-Dick or in your own work, Mr Shakespeare, for one very good reason: it’s good.
Q. The author himself has said that he was trying to tell the story in a new way:
With The Trowenna Sea, I have always tried to be on the cutting edge of fictional devices, what I have been attempting to do with that book is to create fiction as history. So I think what Trowenna Sea is, is the beginning of a hybrid book in which [you have] the problematics of acknowledgement of historical material and historical inspirations.
Why are you so down on ground-breaking fictional techniques?
A. Cutting edge? Please. That particular edge was being honed a hundred and fifty years ago when a writer put a white youth and a moko’d Maori in bed together, then put them on a ship with an insane captain, plundering every known source about whaling and sailing, mixing in his own crazy teenage shipboard experiences in the Pacific, and whipping the whole thing up into a white-hot lather of mad brilliance. (Moby-Dick: it’s quite good).
Many writers incorporate slices of history, both written and oral, into their writing. Peter Carey. Tom Stoppard. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Salman Rushdie. A.S. Byatt. Don DeLillo. John dos Passos. Leslie Marmon Silko. Haruki Murakami. It’s been done. It’s being done. Do it well, or not at all.
Q. All right, then, let’s assume we weren’t meant to notice. If you hadn’t told us there were plagiarised passages in the novel, would we know? Would it matter, if we didn’t know?
A. That’s a fair question and I’m glad I asked it. I didn’t know, on the first reading. Nor did Nicholas Reid, who also reviewed the book the first week it came out. (See also Reid's Turkey of the Year). And neither of us thought the novel worked on its own terms. Quite independently, we came to the conclusion that the problem wasn’t so much the borrowed bits, as all the bits in between.
Readers may beg to differ, of course. Dr Cath Koa Dunsford, a respected scholar of Pacific literature, gave the novel a rave review, or at least a thoroughly loved-up one.
Q. Let me try again. Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how was the play?
A. You know, the more I think about it, the more there really is no “apart from” here. When I first read the novel, and again when I re-read it, the borrowed passages stuck out like sore thumbs, except that there were more of them than the average person has thumbs. There are passages I haven’t managed to find a source for, but am certain are cut and paste. You can see the seams.
The other P word - my elephant in the room - is pastiche. On any given page we encounter wildly divergent style and substance. Faux-Victorianism one minute, Regency romance the next, then New Age dolphin encounters interrupt encyclopedic retellings of historical events. One major character amounts to little more than a well-embellished plaster saint, another is a feisty mash-up of every brave, passionate, fierce etc woman who ever appeared in a romance novel, while another has so many zig-zags in his character arc it makes you carsick. Of course there are good bits, too, otherwise I’d never have been able to finish the book. But the pastiche is not deliberate, it’s a by-product of the write-by-numbers process. It's not style, it's evidence of the book's having been composed in such a furious hurry.
Paradoxically, focusing on the plagiarism obscures all the other questions we might ask about the novel. Why such a conventional fictional approach, instead of all the other possible ways this story could have been told? Why fictionalise the Pakeha characters out of respect for their descendants, but not the Maori ones? What kinds of stories might be told about encounters between indigenous peoples of the wider Pacific region, both pre-contact and in the early days of settlement? And why so much purple, when there are so many other colours in the paintbox?
There’s a lot to puzzle over. The novel is an interesting failure, the sort of thing academics tend to pounce on, whether or not readers enjoy it.
Caveat lector: according to the astonishing sales figures, there will be many a Trowenna Sea-shaped stocking come Christmas morning. As Geoff Walker said to Paul Henry: “The books that have already sold have been sold. They’re being read and I hope they’re being enjoyed. Because the novel itself is fantastic, it’s untainted in a way by all this peripheral stuff.”
“All this peripheral stuff”? Really? Is that all this was?
Initially, I hesitated to review the book out of respect for the status of its author and the importance of its subject. Then, drafting the review while reading the book, I hesitated to speak unequivocally about how disappointing I found the novel, out of respect for that tender sprout, the writer’s soul, which is always vulnerable no matter how sturdy the carapace that surrounds it. Even once I'd found the plagiarism, I hesitated about going public with what I’d found. Was it worth it?
In the end, for me, it was a question of respect. Respect for the story itself -- for the lived history of Hohepa Te Umuroa -- respect for other writers and their work, respect for readers, respect for our public and private arts institutions, respect for the young writers who struggle to put their own words on the page, respect for Ihimaera’s powerful legacy of stories that had to be told and that were told well, respect for his future work, and respect for the very idea of fine literature. And self-respect.
An old debating friend of mine used to launch into his speeches with the words "I am angry, ladies and gentlemen. I wasn't angry when I got here tonight, but I am now, and here's why." And then he would launch into his rebuttal. It always got a big laugh, because he was such a gentle and funny guy, all arms and legs and a grin. I'm reminded of his shtick now because I too am angry, ladies and gentlemen. Comically, wearily, rhetorically angry. I wasn't when I started writing this post, but I am now. Picture me waving my arms around as I type this.
Even now, I tell myself: it’s just a book. But a book is never just a book. In hindsight, the speedy apologies and the promise of buying back the warehouse stock to “preserve the mana and integrity of the novel” look like cynical expedience.The Trowenna Sea perches at the top of the best-seller list, breaching faith with the people whose words and histories were so cavalierly borrowed, and who have been elbowed aside in pursuit of a swift buck on the Christmas market.
I’m disappointed with Witi Ihimaera for making it happen, with Penguin for letting it happen, with Auckland University for putting PR before process, and with book-buyers for sheepishly queuing up to buy it when there are so many other great options out there.
Well, that’s a stocking full of coal, eh? I won’t grumble on any further, since the words of the immortal Douglas Adams are ringing in my head:
The storm had now definitely abated, and what thunder there was now grumbled over more distant hills, like a man saying "And another thing..." twenty minutes after admitting he's lost the argument.
Maybe we’ve lost the argument, but we can still win the war. In my next post I want to talk about good books, and good things, and good things about books, and I look forward to hearing your best bookish thoughts.