June 29, 2022

Books

A dog’s breakfast

By Russell Marks
Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

At the beginning of June, the Bega District News was proud as punch. “Eden author John Hughes included on longlist for prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award”, it proclaimed. How the world turns. Just over a week later, Anna Verney, a lawyer who is also pursuing a Masters of Creative Writing at Sydney University, published an investigation in Guardian Australia that found striking similarities between Hughes’s Franklin-nominated book The Dogs and the 2017 English translation of a nonfiction book, Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War.

The Dogs is Hughes’s seventh book. It had already been shortlisted for the premiers’ prizes in Victoria and New South Wales. When Verney sent the passages from The Dogs to Alexievich in Belarus, she was scandalised. “I have never heard of The Dogs nor been contacted by Hughes,” she told Verney. “The verbatim takes from my book are outrageous, and of course I did not agree to this.”

When Verney presented the similar – in some cases identical – passages to Hughes, he apologised. He had read The Unwomanly Face of War, he acknowledged. He’d even used it to teach students. But then he explained how her words came to be in his book. He’d been writing The Dogs for 15 years, he told Verney. He’d captured “many recordings” of his own Ukrainian grandparents and transcribed them. He’d also typed out the passages from The Unwomanly Face of War he wanted to use in his classes. “At some point soon after I must have added them to the transcripts I’d made of interviews with my grandparents and … [had] come to think of them as my own.”

It was an explanation, not a justification – as Hughes himself recognised. At Meanjin, writer and psychologist Elisabeth Hanscombe was forgiving. With his publisher, Upswell’s Terri-ann White, Hughes made a joint statement to Guardian Australia. White had worked for 14 years at UWA Publishing, where she had published Hughes’s four previous books, and Hughes was among her highest-profile recruits. “I stand steadfast alongside the author, despite the appropriations now evident in this text,” White wrote. “As a writer I understand how creativity can get mixed up in the making of a long work…” White asked the Miles Franklin Award’s judging panel to remove The Dogs from its longlist.

Several other writers and academics dived into The Dogs’ haystack looking for other borrowed needles. Remarkably, they found many. Hughes had lifted entire passages from The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina and All Quiet on the Western Front, as well as The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald and Le Testament Français by Andrei Makine. What Hughes had done with Alexievich’s words looked less like an aberration than a technique.


When confronted with the second lot of revelations about Gatsby and Karenina, Hughes now said it was all intentional. “I don’t think I am a plagiarist more than any other writer who has been influenced by the greats who have come before them,” he wrote in an email to Verney. “This new material has led me to reflect on my process as a writer,” he admitted. But the apology was making way for something else. “I’ve always used the work of other writers in my own. It’s a rare writer who doesn’t … It’s a question of degree.” Hughes then reminded us that that lauded modernist masterpiece, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (which, like James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece Ulysses, turns 100 this year), was “itself a kind of anthology of the great words of others”.

There is, surely, good modernism and bad modernism. It’s just never easy to be certain about the difference. In wartime Sydney in 1943, the young writers James McAuley and Harold Stewart believed they were creating pure bullshit when they sat down and, consulting reference books and selecting words and phrases at random, constructed 16 nonsense poems they attributed to a fictional, recently deceased former insurance salesman they named Ern Malley. Then they sent the poems, along with an introductory letter from Ern’s surviving sister Ethel (who knew nothing about poetry but whose friend suggested she consult someone who did), to the even more precocious Max Harris in Adelaide. For three years, Harris had edited Angry Penguins, which aspired to be a journal of avant-garde art and literature. McAuley and Stewart had both flirted with the kind of thing Harris was into, but by their mid twenties had formed the view that Angry Penguins represented a trendy fashion that took essentially meaningless pastiche and passed it off, “by processes of critical self-delusion and mutual admiration”, as “great poetry”. Ern Malley was McAuley and Stewart’s literary experiment that would “prove” their hunch. Harris fell hook, line and sinker for the hoax, often described as the greatest literary hoax of the century. He lost credibility, and Angry Penguins sank under the weight of an obscenity trial. (“I don’t know what ‘incestuous’ means,” a detective said in the witness box, “but I think there is a suggestion of indecency about it”.)

Yet Ern Malley survived, and thrived. McAuley and Stewart were too good at the nonsense they’d constructed. Harris published the full collection of Malley poems as a book, The Darkening Ecliptic, which sold out in late 1944. Once he’d recovered from the opprobrium, Harris founded a new publication, Ern Malley’s Journal, and republished the poems before he abandoned the modernist project and settled into life as a successful bookshop owner and newspaper columnist in Adelaide. But The Darkening Ecliptic has in fact been republished more than a dozen times, not just in Australia but around the world, most recently in 2017. What McAuley and Stewart had done, apparently more successfully than most of its proponents, was to write modernist poetry. That is: to write poetry in a new way, by taking bits and pieces of existing texts and repackaging them in new forms.

Is this what Hughes was doing in The Dogs? It’s true that The Waste Land does contain quotations and allusions from other texts. But Eliot’s readers knew they were quotations and allusions because Eliot provided footnotes and references when his poem was first published in 1922. Despite comparing his own book with The Waste Land, Hughes has never acknowledged this key difference.

Hughes went on to pen a full response to the plagiarism accusations, which was published in Guardian Australia under the title “I am not a plagiarist – and here’s why”. It’s a response that raises questions about whether Hughes is even aware of what he’s done, and it’s difficult to believe anyone he showed it to would not have cautioned him against publishing it. “Every artist takes,” he declared. “What else do we do but endlessly recycle stories?” It was what is commonly known as “the cento defence” among observers of plagiarism, a “cento” being a poem constructed exclusively of the words of other poets, and commonly used in ancient Athens and Rome. Hughes pointed to what he said were other famous borrowings: Gabriel García Márquez from Juan Rulfo; Peter Carey from Charles Dickens; Jean Rhys from Charlotte Brontë. But it’s genuinely difficult to know what point Hughes believed he was making. The single line Hughes quoted from Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is similar, but not identical, to a line from Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo. Readers knew from the outset that Carey was paying homage to Dickens’s Great Expectations in Jack Maggs (and Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter in True History of the Kelly Gang).

Hughes then cited Pierre Menard without giving any sense of being aware of the irony of doing so. Pierre Menard is a fictional character, created by Jorge Luis Borges in a 1939 short story. That story takes the form of a critical review of Menard’s (fictional) new translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which, following an immersive experience, happens to be word-for-word identical to Cervantes’ original. But Borges’ (fictional) reviewer absurdly favours Menard’s “translation” because of the world-historical context within which it (as opposed to the identical original) was written. With “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, Borges was making a comment about the nature of authorship and appropriation. In his Guardian rationalisation, Hughes wrote that he was “probably closer to Pierre Menard when it comes to the great Russian novels of the nineteenth century” – whatever that means – and that “it’s a great simplification to call this plagiarism”.

The rest of Hughes’s rationalisation rambles, with an almost delusional disconnection from reality, through a range of non-justifications (“My whole writing life has been a dialogue with the books I love”; “I’ve always spoken through the voices of others”; “it’s not what you take but what you do with it that counts”; “It may not be a process that works for everyone, but it’s worked for me”) that the American copyright and plagiarism consultant Jonathan Bailey has seen countless times before. Plagiarism is remarkably common, and to trawl through the cases Bailey has collected on his website, PlagiarismToday.com, is to observe just how repetitious are the justifications writers use when they’re caught. Hughes’s self-comparison to literary greats (including Eliot and Bob Dylan) is the kind of grandiosity that is common among those who claim the right to do things that people ordinarily aren’t allowed to do. When former New Yorker journalist Jonah Lehrer was caught repeatedly plagiarising and fabricating, he blamed, in part, his high IQ. When James Frey was found to have fabricated significant parts of his bestselling memoir, A Million Little Pieces, he claimed that all memoirs change small details for literary effect. Nobody bought Hughes’s defence, least of all Bailey. “If you write in the manner that Hughes describes,” he observed, “you not only make plagiarism possible, but inevitable.” Even if Hughes wants us to accept that his plagiarism was unintentional, it’s impossible to look past the initial act of copying another author’s words onto a blank page, without making the source clear to himself.

The Guardian piece prompted Terri-ann White to finally cut Hughes adrift. “I was affronted when John Hughes wrote, in his rejoinder in The Guardian yesterday: ‘I wanted the appropriated passages to be seen and recognised as in a collage’.” Had that truly been the case, Hughes would have made that clear to White and his readers. But Hughes had already explained that he’d unintentionally passed Alexievich’s words off as his own due to a research-and-writing process that he was now reassessing. He couldn’t have it both ways. There is a line between modernist pastiche and outright plagiarism. Hughes’s Guardian piece, in the end, convinced nobody. It probably would have worked better had it simply been titled “I am a plagiarist – and here’s why”.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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