12 Literary Plagiarism Scandals, Ranked
From Hellen Keller to Jonah Lehrer, Some More Legitimate Than Others
As T.S. Eliot once said: “good writers borrow, great writers steal.” Except . . . T.S. Eliot didn’t say that. What he said (or, more precisely, wrote, in the essay “Phillip Massinger”) was this: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” As I interpret that, it means: steal away—everyone does—but steal with purpose. And don’t, um, just copy someone else’s paragraphs wholesale into your novel.
In light of the several recent (and unusually interesting) plagiarism scandals in the literary world, I looked into the sordid history of line/paragraph/story-stealing (or lack thereof)—from the contemporary to the classic. Turns out, while there have been a slew of plagiarism accusations over the years, most of them haven’t exactly panned out. Below, I’ve detailed a few of the most interesting, and just for fun, ranked them—from most ludicrous to most serious. (Admittedly, it’s hard to rank those where no verdict has come down, but let’s just say I’ve gone with my gut.)
When young Helen Keller retold a fable
When Helen Keller was eleven, she wrote a short story called “The Frost King.” She sent it to Michael Anagnos, who ran the Perkins School for the Blind; he published it in the school’s alumni magazine, and it subsequently ran in the Goodson Gazette, where someone clocked it as being very similar to Margaret Canby’s “Frost Fairies.” In Keller’s memoir, The Story of My Life, she describes writing the story:
I wrote the story when I was at home, the autumn after I had learned to speak. We had stayed up at Fern Quarry later than usual. While we were there, Miss Sullivan had described to me the beauties of the late foliage, and it seems that her descriptions revived the memory of a story, which must have been read to me, and which I must have unconsciously retained. I thought then that I was “making up a story,” as children say, and I eagerly sat down to write it before the ideas should slip from me. My thoughts flowed easily; I felt a sense of joy in the composition. Words and images came tripping to my finger ends, and as I thought out sentence after sentence, I wrote them on my braille slate. Now, if words and images come to me without effort, it is a pretty sure sign that they are not the offspring of my own mind, but stray waifs that I regretfully dismiss. At that time I eagerly absorbed everything I read without a thought of authorship, and even now I cannot be quite sure of the boundary line between my ideas and those I find in books. I suppose that is because so many of my impressions come to me through the medium of others’ eyes and ears.
. . .
Mr. Anagnos was delighted with “The Frost King,” and published it in one of the Perkins Institution reports. This was the pinnacle of my happiness, from which I was in a little while dashed to earth. I had been in Boston only a short time when it was discovered that a story similar to “The Frost King,” called “The Frost Fairies” by Miss Margaret T. Canby, had appeared before I was born in a book called “Birdie and His Friends.” The two stories were so much alike in thought and language that it was evident Miss Canby’s story had been read to me, and that mine was–a plagiarism. It was difficult to make me understand this; but when I did understand I was astonished and grieved. No child ever drank deeper of the cup of bitterness than I did. I had disgraced myself; I had brought suspicion upon those I loved best. And yet how could it possibly have happened? I racked my brain until I was weary to recall anything about the frost that I had read before I wrote “The Frost King”; but I could remember nothing, except the common reference to Jack Frost, and a poem for children, “The Freaks of the Frost,” and I knew I had not used that in my composition.
In 1903, after reading The Story of My Life, Mark Twain wrote to Keller to praise it, and to rail against the accusation of plagiarism:
Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that “plagiarism” farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul—let us go farther and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances in plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second hand, consciously or unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them any where except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.
. . .
No doubt we are constantly littering our literature with disconnected sentences borrowed from books at some unremembered time and how imagined to be our own, but that is about the most we can do. In 1866 I read Dr. Holmes’s poems, in the Sandwich Islands. A year and a half later I stole his dedication, without knowing it, and used it to dedicate my “Innocents Abroad” with. Ten years afterward I was talking with Dr. Holmes about it. He was not an ignorant ass—no, not he; he was not a collection of decayed human turnips, like your “Plagiarism Court,” and so when I said, “I know now where I stole it, but who did you steal it from,”he said, “I don’t remember; I only know I stole it from somebody, because I have never originated anything altogether myself, nor met anyone who had!”
To think of those solemn donkeys breaking a little child’s heart with their ignorant rubbish about plagiarism! I couldn’t sleep for blaspheming about it last night. Why, their whole histories, their whole lives, all their learning, all their thoughts, all their opinions were one solid rock of plagiarism, and they didn’t know it and never suspected it. A gang of dull and hoary pirates piously setting themselves the task of disciplining and purifying a kitten that they think they’ve caught filching a chop! Oh, dam—
But you finish it, dear, I am running short of vocabulary today.
When Emma Cline’s abusive ex-boyfriend claimed she stole The Girls from his emails
Last December, the news broke that someone named Chaz Reetz-Laiolo was suing novelist Emma Cline for having used spyware to plagiarize his “emails and other personal documents” in her blockbuster debut, The Girls. (Reetz-Laiolo and Cline had dated in the past, though not since 2012.) Cline countersued, acknowledging that she had installed spyware on his computer (which she had also sold to him), but claiming that it was in an attempt to find out if he was cheating on her. The countersuit also frames Reetz-Laiolo’s original suit as part of a two-year campaign to harass Cline, and accuses him of both physically and emotionally abusive behavior—threatening that he would make her private details and sexual history public, and on one occasion telling her that “given her newfound literary fame, he thought people would be interested in nude photographs of her that he had acquired during their relationship and apparently still possessed. He also told Cline he had been contacted by a magazine to write a tell-all article about her, and planned to do it.”
Reetz-Laiolo, it should be noted, is represented by Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, co-founded by David Boies, recently notorious as one of Harvey Weinstein’s enablers. The countersuit does not fail to note this:
Reetz-Laiolo has attempted to leverage this trove of personal data as a weapon to shame and falsely accuse Cline. And his allegations follow a pattern that started during their relationship—and apparently fits with the playbook of his counsel—of prying into and exploiting Cline’s sexual history to threaten her, even going so far as to make the false and absurd claim that she was an ‘escort.’
Cline’s lawyers have not been the last to point out that both Reetz-Laiolo and his legal team were attempting to use slut-shaming as an aggressive tactic.
But what about the actual accusation of plagiarism? Does that hold any water? Probably not. In New York Magazine, Lila Shapiro wrote:
Regardless of whether these “snippets” [allegedly borrowed from Reetz-Laiolo’s emails] amounted to plagiarism, Cline and her publisher removed all the sentences that Reetz-Laiolo identified prior to publication so they could resolve the dispute, her complaint stated. But Reetz-Laiolo had also asked Cline to remove a small section of the text that his complaint alleged resembled a section of his screenplay, a script she could only have read if she did, in fact, remotely hack into his computer. If the case does go to trial, this will likely be at the center of it, since it is the only instance of alleged plagiarism that made its way into the published version of The Girls. Lobel was skeptical of the plagiarism charge here as well, but if Reetz-Laiolo’s legal team is able to prove that Cline hacked into Reetz-Laiolo’s computer, Cline may be charged with something, though likely not plagiarism.
“What should have been a happy milestone—publishing my first novel — has turned into a yearslong nightmare perpetrated by someone I believed I had finally escaped from,” Cline told the Times. “My only experience of publishing a novel has been one where I am under acute attack, with my sexual history weaponized against me by a cadre of male lawyers. I’ll never be able to get back the years I’ve now spent responding to an ex-boyfriend’s baseless legal assaults and ludicrous, billion-dollar claims instead of writing another book. That’s a loss I don’t know how to fully comprehend.”
When Thomas Pynchon came out of hiding to defend Ian McEwan
In the back of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, he acknowledges the book’s debt to No Time for Romance, Lucilla Andrews’s 1977 memoir of serving as a nurse during WWII. But when Andrews died in 2006, a journalist raised some questions about McEwan’s use of that memoir. In an article in the Daily Mail, Julia Langdon alleged that before her death, Andrews had felt “there was a score to be settled. That Ian McEwan should, so to speak, be brought to book.” Predictably, this all brought up lots of questions about McEwan’s use of Andrews’s material, and whether he had used it responsibly. McEwan maintained that he had done nothing wrong—he had, after all, publicly acknowledged her and her work on multiple occasions. “I did use real events that Lucilla Andrews described,” he told the Times. “As far as I know, my wording has been distinct from hers. My own mother used to read her books, so it was not as if I was plucking some obscure figure from the library shelves.” Several prominent writers, including John Updike, Martin Amis, Thomas Keneally, Zadie Smith and Margaret Atwood, also came to McEwan’s defense. The famously reclusive Thomas Pynchon even felt it necessary to chime in, sending this statement via his British publisher:
Given the British genius for coded utterance, this could all be about something else entirely, impossible on this side of the ocean to appreciate in any nuanced way—but assuming that it really is about who owns the right to describe using gentian violet for ringworm, for heaven’s sake, allow me a gentle suggestion. Oddly enough, most of us who write historical fiction do feel some obligation to accuracy. It is that Ruskin business about “a capacity responsive to the claims of fact, but unoppressed by them.” Unless we were actually there, we must turn to people who were, or to letters, contemporary reporting, the Internet until, with luck, we can begin to make a few things of our own up. To discover in the course of research some engaging detail we know can be put into a story where it will do some good can hardly be classed as a felonious act—it is simply what we do. The worst you can call it is a form of primate behavior. Writers are naturally drawn, chimpanzee-like, to the color and the music of this English idiom we are blessed to have inherited. When given the choice we will usually try to use the more vivid and tuneful among its words. I cannot of course speak for Mr. McEwan’s method of proceeding, but should be very surprised indeed if something of the sort, even for brief moments, had not occurred during his research for Atonement. Gentian violet! Come on. Who among us could have resisted that one?
Memoirs of the Blitz have borne indispensable witness, and helped later generations know something of the tragedy and heroism of those days. For Mr. McEwan to have put details from one of them to further creative use, acknowledging this openly and often, and then explaining it clearly and honorably, surely merits not our scolding, but our gratitude.
When Charles Green tried to get Chad Harbach beaned
Last September, a man named Charles Green filed a federal lawsuit against Chad Harbach, claiming that his bestselling novel, The Art of Fielding, had been plagiarized from his unpublished novel, Bucky’s 9th. The suit came after Green heard that Harbach’s novel was going to be made into a movie, which made him despair that his would ever be picked up—but apparently, Green’s claim has been out in the ether for years. You can read the whole complaint online, and it’s fascinating going, especially if you’ve read The Art of Fielding. The most convincing point of similarity, as others have pointed out, is “the climactic beaning of a troubled baseball prodigy on an 0-2 count in the bottom of the ninth inning.”
Chris Parris-Lamb, Harbach’s agent, said in an email to Buzzfeed:
Chad has never seen BUCKY’S NINTH or met Charles Green. He has dozens of time-stamped files of the novel from the years he worked on it, which will show that the ‘uncanny parallelisms’ Mr. Green cites were in place as early as 2004, many from its very conception in 2000, and numerous classmates, professors and writing group peers can attest to this fact. Any similarities between the novels is pure coincidence, and this lawsuit is wholly without merit.
Reporters with access to all the manuscripts and facts seem to agree.
When Bob Dylan plagiarized SparkNotes for his Nobel Prize Lecture
In case you needed any more proof that Dylan didn’t deserve a Nobel Prize in Literature: he couldn’t even write his own Nobel lecture—he had to plagiarize it from the SparkNotes summary for Moby-Dick. Obviously, he didn’t have much to say on the subject. Or, as Joni Mitchell put it: “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.” You live, you learn, I guess?
When Jill Bialosky spent way too much time on Wikipedia
Near the end of last year, poet William Logan published a review of poet and W.W. Norton Editor Jill Bialosky’s memoir, Poetry Will Save Your Life, in which he wrote not only that her book was very bad, but that she had “plagiarized numerous passages from Wikipedia and the websites of the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation.”
In a statement, Bialosky said: “William Logan has extracted a few ancillary and limited phrases from my 222-page memoir that inadvertently include fragments of prior common biographical sources and tropes after a multiyear writing process. This should not distract from the thesis of this book, which derives from my own life, my experiences and observations. I will, of course, correct any errors that are found for future editions of the book.”
The statement above was published in The New York Times, along with a story about the plagiarism accusations, which prompted “72 Friends of Literature,” including Jennifer Egan, Nick Flynn, Louise Glück, Joy Harjo, Amy Hempel, Marie Howe, Major Jackson, Claire Messud, Robert Pinsky, and other luminaries, to write a letter to the paper in Bialosky’s defense. The letter chided the Times for “giving a large platform to a small offense,” and went on:
It is important for your readers to understand that the charges brought against Jill Bialosky by the critic William Logan refer to a handful of commonly known biographical facts gleaned from outside sources. Given the trust that is assumed between a writer and her readers, this mishandling is not something to shrug off. Yet it bears saying that Ms. Bialosky’s inadvertent repetition of biographical boilerplate was not an egregious theft intentionally performed.
Indeed, the plagiarized material seemed to be limited to contextual biographical blurbs about authors whose poems Bialosky quoted, and was not related to the meat of the memoir. While some still claimed she shouldn’t be let off the hook, it seems like a pretty low-grade offense to me—lazy or careless, maybe, but not morally bankrupt. As at least one writer has mused, it was probably an intern or an assistant’s mistake anyway.
When Dan Brown got sued, and then got sued again, and then. . .
Three separate parties have accused Dan Brown of plagiarizing their work to create his mega-bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code. First, there was Lewis Perdue, who argued Brown had stolen from his novels The Da Vinci Legacy and Daughter of God. The judge wasn’t having it—”Any slightly similar elements are on the level of generalised or otherwise unprotectable ideas,” he wrote in his ruling. Next were Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, two historians who claimed that Brown had “appropriated the architecture” of their 1982 book The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail. The judge dismissed the case. “Even if the central themes were copied, they are too general or of too low a level of abstraction to be capable of protection by copyright law,” he said. Baigent and Leigh appealed; but their appeal also failed. Now there’s Jack Dunn, who has actually been trying to sue Dan Brown for allegedly stealing “hundreds” of elements from his book The Vatican Boys, for a decade or more. After losing his plagiarism case in 2007, he has recently begun preparations to open a new one. This one is in the middle, because I suppose we’ll just have to see . . .
When a prizewinning South Korean novelist stole from a prizewinning Japanese novelist
In 2015, the Man Asian prize-winning novelist Shin Kyung-sook was accused of plagiarizing Yukio Mishima’s short story “Patriotism” in her own story “Legend.” Novelist Lee Eung-jun, comparing the stories, wrote: “This is a clear case of plagiarism, a dishonest act of a literary work which cannot be acceptable to any professional literature writer.” Shin initially denied the accusations, claiming not to have read the story in question, but ultimately (sort of) admitted to them, and in any case apologized: “I sincerely apologize to the literary writer who raised the issue, as well as all my acquaintances, and above all, many readers who read my novels. . . Everything is my fault.” The story collection in which “Legend” appeared was pulled from the shelves.
When a debut novelist stole from Martin Amis—and Amis himself caught him
Jacob Epstein wrote his first novel when he was a senior at Yale—but it appears he did a little too much studying for it. In a 1980 review of Epstein’s Wild Oats in The Observer, Martin Amis himself said he had found “some 50” significant similarities between the novel and his own The Rachel Papers. “The boundary between influence and plagiarism will always be vague,” he wrote. Reading Wild Oats, it soon became clear to me that the boundary, however hazy, had been decisively breached.”
Epstein apologized, admitting to the plagiarism but claiming it was unintentional—a matter, essentially, of lost citations. “I did not realize until June 1979,” he wrote, “when I returned to New York for the publication of Wild Oats and one evening got down from a closet a carton of old papers and notebooks, that certain phrases and images in my novel, which I had through were original, or had been adapted from other sources into my own language, come verbatim, or nearly verbatim from The Rachel Papers. . . I do not know any good way to apologize for this, nor the way to explain to you how my respect for your writing became something so lacking in respect.”
“The psychology of plagiarism is fascinatingly perverse,” Amis wrote. “It risks, or invites, a deep shame and there must be something of the death wish in it.”
Epstein is now, apparently, a successful TV writer.
When a Harvard student plagiarized chick-lit:
In 2006, a Harvard undergrad named Kaavya Viswanathan published her first novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. Soon thereafter, her university’s own newspaper reported that the book featured “several passages that are strikingly similar to two books by Megan F. McCafferty—the 2001 novel Sloppy Firsts and the 2003 novel Second Helpings.” Like Epstein, Viswanathan said the similarities were unintentional, but the extent of the overlap seemed to belie that argument—and later, further similarities were found with Sophie Kinsella’s Can You Keep a Secret?. Those weren’t the last—accusers also noted parallel passages or sentences in works by Salman Rushdie and Meg Cabot. How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was pulled from bookstores, and Viswanathan’s deal for a second novel was canceled.
It was this incident that sparked that mini-fight between Jennifer Egan and Jennifer Weiner, by the way: in 2011, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Egan said:
My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them. Look at The Tiger’s Wife. There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models? I’m not saying you should say you’ve never done anything good, but I don’t go around saying I’ve written the book of the century. My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower.
Weiner, of course, took exception to this characterization of McCafferty and Kinsella.
When Q.R. Markham, a.k.a. Quentin Rowan, made a book out of other books:
You might describe Quentin Rowan as an overachieving plagiarist. He didn’t just crib one line, or make copious use of a single text, or even limit his plagiarism to his debut novel, the spy thriller Assassin of Secrets. He cobbled together bookshelves worth of different texts to create his novel, and almost everything he published in his short literary career had parts that were stolen. In a profile of Rowan in the New Yorker, Lizzie Widdicombe writes that Rowan constructed “his work almost entirely from other people’s sentences and paragraphs”—which, in someone else’s hands (Jonathan Lethem’s, for instance) would make for its own kind of literary art. But he wasn’t trying to be meta. He was trying, he wrote, “to make the best ’60s spy novel I could.” That meant stealing wholesale from John Gardner, Geoffrey O’Brien, Charles McCarry, Robert Ludlum, and many more.
The Paris Review published two of his stories: “Innocents Abroad,” which “was largely copied from a 1913 sea captain’s memoir, The Venturesome Voyage of Captain Voss, which Rowan had found on his mother’s bookshelf,” and “Bethune Street,” which was constructed out of prose lifted wholesale from Janet Hobhouse, Stephen Wright, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh. Rowan had gotten away with it. But when he sold his novel to Mulholland books, his editor John Schoenfelder wanted changes. “The requests,” Widdicome writes, “threw Rowan into a panic:”
“I thought, Oh, wow, they want it to be more than just a parody of these silly men’s paperbacks—they want it to be a real thriller.” He wrote, in an e-mail to Duns, “That’s when things really got out of hand for me. I just didn’t feel capable of writing the kinds of scenes and situations that were asked of me in the time allotted and rather than saying I couldn’t do it . . . I started stealing again.”
This time, however, he would not get away with it.
When Jonah Lehrer dug himself into a hole the size of Bob Dylan’s ego:
This one’s a saga. First, it was only self-plagiarism, although of a fairly insidious strain—in June of 2012, Jim Romenesko noticed that one of New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer’s pieces had “borrowed” from an earlier Wall Street Journal piece he had written. Turns out, it had happened a lot. Bizarre, but something that could be chalked up to laziness—if that had been all.
But that wasn’t all. Soon, journalists uncovered even more instances of plagiarism—actual plagiarism, this time—and journalist Michael Moynihan discovered that some of the quotes Lehrer had attributed to Bob Dylan in his book Imagine appeared to be fabricated. By the end of July 2012, Lehrer had resigned from The New Yorker. “The lies are over now,” he said in a statement. “I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers.” Similar issues of recycling, plagiarism and bad quotes were found in Lehrer’s Wired blog posts; they fired him. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt recalled Imagine, as well as the earlier How We Decide.
In 2013, Lehrer gave a speech at the Knight Foundation entitled “My Apology.” He was paid $20,000 for this speech. “I am the author of a book on creativity that is best known because it contained several fabricated Bob Dylan quotes,” he said.
I committed plagiarism on my blog, taking, without credit or citation, an entire paragraph from the blog of Christian Jarrett. I lied, repeatedly, to a journalist named Michael Moynihan to cover up the Dylan fabrications.
. . .
The lessons have arrived in phases. The first phase involved a literal reconstruction of my mistakes. I wanted to have an accounting, in my head, of how I fabricated those Dylan quotes. I wanted to understand the mechanics of every lapse, to relive all those errors that led to my disgrace. I wanted to understand so that I could explain it to people, so that I could explain it, one day, in a talk like this. So that I could say that I found the broken part and that part has a name. My arrogance. My desire for attention. My willingness to take shortcuts, provided I don’t think anyone else will notice. My carelessness, matched with an ability to excuse my carelessness away. My tendency to believe my own excuses.
But then, once I came up with this list of flaws, and once I began to understand how these flaws led to each of my mistakes, I realized that all of my explanations changed nothing. They cannot undo what I’ve done, not even a little. A confession is not a solution. It does not restore trust. Not the trust of others and not the trust of myself. At worst, my detailed explanations sounded like an excuse, a distraction from the more important reality I needed to confront.
Because my flaws—these flaws that led to my failure—are a basic part of me. They are as fundamental to my self as those other parts I’m not ashamed of. This is the phase that comes next, the phase I’m in now. It is the slow realization that all the apologies and regrets are just the beginning. That my harshest words will not fix me, that I cannot quickly become the person I need to be. It is finally understanding how hard it is to change.