March 2023


Being John Hughes

By Anna Verney & Richard Cooke
Being John Hughes

Clockwise from top left: Svetlana Alexievich, Patrick Modiano, Leo Tolstoy, John Hughes, Les Murray, W.G. Sebald. Photographs by Sergento, Frankie Fouganthin, Agence Opale/Alamy

How did an acclaimed Australian author become one of the most prolific literary plagiarists in history?

“There’s no such thing as Australian literature”
—John Hughes, The Remnants


The Great Boy of Promise

Back in the early 1980s, though he was still an undergraduate at the University of Newcastle, John Hughes was already being described as a genius. He was the first person in his family to attend university. His grandparents, Ukrainians displaced by World War Two, were, according to him, the only people in Cessnock who spoke a language other than English. Amid the culture of the coalfields and their “mistrust of words”, as Hughes put it later, he grew up reading Tolstoy under the bed covers, and imagined himself writing “words of the same power and beauty”. The teachers who clamoured around him were amazed by his erudition. He seemed destined to write.

At university he became part of a small regional intellectual wave and, though it included talents such as the scholar McKenzie Wark, Hughes was at its crest. The writer Mark Mordue, another of his friends and contemporaries, remembers everybody “talking about this brilliant young guy”. “All the professors and poets that I was aware of were claiming him almost immediately,” Mordue says, “like there was a star over him and he was going to do great things. He was the great boy of promise. He was on the escalator up, up, up.”

On campus, Hughes walked barefoot, his long hair held in place by a floral headband made by his mother, a look “out of kilter with the time”, he later recognised. It was more attuned to his personality, which was open and gentle in comparison to the spikier energies of the period. His self-image was literary, and he imagined himself as “a Pierre or Andrei Bolkonsky, a young man, full of the invincibility of youth, with my life before me and the world at my feet … this talk about books, and politics and ideas”. It felt, he wrote, like a rehearsal for greatness.

Nor was this self-delusion. Others thought he seemed like a Dostoevsky protagonist. Mordue, editing the university paper, dedicated a full page to Hughes’s poetry (his first published work), though it was so thick with Latin and references to antiquity that Mordue didn’t “understand what the fuck he was going on about”. In short succession, Hughes met his life partner, won the University Medal and received the Shell Scholarship to read for a PhD in literature at Cambridge. That year, it was the only scholarship Shell awarded nationally in the humanities. He was on the path of the academic overachiever, and it happened quickly. In time, others would wonder if the weight of expectation was too much.

Cambridge was a forbidding environment for any “colonial”, especially a boy wonder from Cessnock writing about Coleridge. Hughes soon felt disillusioned. To him, the Oxbridge environment was so self-referential it felt parochial. He began to stall. With the dedication of a student who should be studying instead, he threw himself into painting. His final year at the university would be spent trying to create “an authentic Australian art form”: “paintings” where he moulded oils into free-standing forms, then applied strips of canvas to create abstract figures. It was intended, he said, to embody Australia as a kind of “reversal” of Europe (he would return to this well-worn idea of the Antipodes as an upside-down place in the future). Finally, he would sit down to write – but literature instead of his thesis.

These digressions anticipated the inevitable: in 1988, Hughes fell out with his supervisor. She was an exacting, brilliant scholar – his college’s first female fellow – and initially she lauded his work. But by the end, to him, she had become a “sexless predator”. As his scholarship money ran out, she suggested he take part-time work as a postman. He realised, with irony, that this would be a “life in letters”. This moment, and the rueful pun that summarised it, was an anecdote he would repeat throughout his career. The supervisor’s suggestion was the impetus, he said, for him to drop out of Cambridge.

Instead of joining expat luminaries such as Clive James and Germaine Greer, John Hughes headed back Down Under. The genius had become “a drop-out genius”, as Mordue later described him: “All his ambition and expectation never realised.” From Cambridge, Hughes ended up in Sydney before returning to Newcastle, where he returned to the same university department, this time as a tutor. He would also spend time on his writing, working on a novel (unpublished) about a serial killer who murdered academics. His time at Cambridge, he would later say, had been fouled by a “tendency towards self-destruction”.

Hughes’s exit from Cambridge was also a presaging. Those who have known him longest find it almost symmetrical, a kind of bookending. Nearly 40 years later, when his novel The Dogs was listed for the 2022 Miles Franklin Literary Award, his promise would again prove unfulfilled, destroyed in a manner that was both spectacular and somehow familiar.

To the Dogs

The Dogs was supposed to be a defining work for Hughes. Despite the award-winning success of his first published book, the autobiographical essay collection The Idea of Home, his writing career had never quite broken through. In 2020, he finally retired from his role as a teacher and librarian at Sydney Grammar School, and for the first time in decades could write full time. According to a piece Hughes wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald in September 2021, The Dogs was partly inspired by visits to his Ukrainian grandmother. Dying from dementia, she relayed fragmented memories of war and famine, culminating in her family’s flight from Nazi-occupied Kyiv to Naples.

The Dogs matches the weight of these experiences with a high literary style. Its protagonist, Michael Shamanov, is the son of Russo-Italian immigrants; he too visits his mother, Anna, who has Alzheimer’s disease. She tells him about fighting the Germans as an Italian partisan, and finally reveals a horrifying secret: she was forced to drown her baby girl in a swamp, so that Nazi soldiers and their dogs would not be alerted to its cries. Michael discovers he had a sister. The novel’s examination of intergenerational trauma and familial relationships hinges on this revelation, and the incident gives The Dogs its title.

It was effective. Published in 2021, The Dogs was shortlisted for the 2022 premiers’ literary awards in both New South Wales and Victoria. Critics and judges took special note of the climactic episode. James Ley, writing in the Sydney Review of Books, called it a “centrepiece” and an “extraordinary chapter”. Bernadette Brennan, who was on the judging panel for the 2022 Miles Franklin award alongside Ley, thought the book marked a new standard for Hughes. She found its central scene “really, really powerful”, evidence that Hughes had “hit his straps”. As a reader, she also noticed an uneven tone in the novel, and wondered if it needed more editing. Nevertheless, Hughes was finally writing something with soul.

The scene left a strong impression on another reader as well. Anna Verney, co-writer of this piece, came to The Dogs after a series of coincidences. She read the novel while heavily pregnant, and was disturbed by a character named Anna drowning her own baby. By chance, she then sat down to read The Unwomanly Face of War, Nobel Prize–winning journalist Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history relating the experiences of Soviet women in World War Two.

As Anna read, Hughes’s scene in the swamp felt eerily similar to a story in the Alexievich: a Soviet woman’s account of a horrifying incident she witnessed while fighting the German occupation. Side by side, the debt was unmistakable.

“Somebody betrayed us,” begins the passage in The Unwomanly Face of War’s foreword. “The Germans found out where the camp of our partisan unit was.”

“Someone betrayed us,” The Dogs followed. “The Germans found the camp.”

There was the same swamp, and the same hungry baby. A mother who was hungry herself and had no milk. Partisans, 30 in both instances, who must stand up to their necks in water. Dogs hunting them. A rhetorical question, repeated: “You understand?” After the terrible act, no one can look the woman in the face.

More passages chimed as Anna read on. A woman who yells at her husband for proposing, his face burned purple. A young lieutenant who plays the guitar and wonders what love is like. Women who chance upon a castle and put on beautiful dresses and a luxurious robe before falling asleep. Blue snowdrops: “A whole clearing covered with blue flowers … To perish among such flowers! … That’s how I imagined death.” Sentences were sometimes paraphrased, sometimes verbatim. On a more concerted read-through, Anna found nine sections taken from the Alexievich. She drew them together and photographed the relevant pages, noting the page numbers for side-by-side comparisons, and then emailed them to Hughes’s publisher, Terri-ann White.

White had been Hughes’s publisher for more than a decade. His novel The Remnants was released through UWA Publishing in 2012. It was followed by two shorter books, The Garden of Sorrows and Asylum, and a novella, No One. These titles were among a raft of literary works overseen by White at UWA Publishing, a list that garnered the admiration of the writing community but also flew in the face of market conditions. In 2019, the University of Western Australia announced it would close its press after 85 years, cutting White’s role along with other staff. In response, White started a one-woman press, Upswell Publishing, and Hughes followed her to the new stable.

Upswell has an unusual structure for a publishing company. It is a registered charity – not an easy status to attain – on the basis that its books constitute charitable works. White runs it with a sense of mission, a commitment to literature and literary authors that Australia often seems to lack. Her relationship with Hughes was not about to be dislodged by an email. In her response to Anna, she acknowledged that a reader might be “alarmed” by the similarities between The Dogs and Alexievich, but she was convinced – without having spoken to Hughes – that he “did not copy directly from [Alexievich’s] book, as an act of plagiarism”. Instead, she was struck by “the universality of experience in war and suffering”.

Months passed. The Dogs was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award. No appended attributions appeared on the Upswell website or in a fresh edition, and no one assessing the book professionally had twigged. Anna decided to write something other than an email, and let White know. Soon The Dogs would be longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

The World Capital of Literary Scandals

The Miles Franklin Literary Award, often called Australia’s most prestigious book prize, is also its most scandal-prone. In 1995, it was won by an outright fraud, Helen Darville, who cosplayed as Helen Demidenko, a descendant of Ukrainians. She wore braids and a peasant’s dress, and led her supporters in a fake Slavic dance at the prize ceremony. Her novel, The Hand That Signed the Paper, concerned Ukrainian atrocities in World War Two. Before news broke that she was from Brisbane and the daughter of British parents, John Hughes reviewed the book for Meanjin. He had met with Jenny Lee, Meanjin’s editor, in Melbourne, where they went to the football together. It was his first time seeing AFL live.

Hughes told Lee that he was less than impressed by The Hand That Signed the Paper, an assessment that went against the tenor of the book’s reception. With Hughes’s Ukrainian heritage in mind, Lee commissioned him for a review. And his reading was sensitive and acute. Hughes sensed something amiss about the novel, a failure of writerly imagination, he thought, with an emptiness at its heart. “The juxtaposition of a number of different voices might give the novel the illusion of polyphony,” he wrote, “but underlying this complex veneer is the inescapable feeling that the structure has not been fully thought through”.

The review helped catalyse Hughes’s career. After reading it, editor and publisher Ivor Indyk asked him to “put his money where his mouth was”: if Demidenko’s testament to historical trauma had failed, Hughes should try instead. In response, Hughes wrote “An Essay of Forgetting”. It would form the kernel of both a PhD (completed this time, at the University of Technology Sydney) and a book. The Idea of Home was released in 2004, overseen by Indyk at Giramondo. Though Hughes was then little known, it won both the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for nonfiction and the National Biography Award. In a rare instance of Australian literature beating Australian sport, its success ushered Hughes into the Cessnock Hall of Fame ahead of the rugby league legend Andrew Johns. Other writers especially admired The Idea of Home.

The Demidenko affair also helped make a lasting change to the Miles Franklin Award. Not long after the unpleasantness, the prize added a strict stipulation that “all entries must consist entirely of the author’s original work”. Should a majority of judges determine that a winning work is plagiarised, the winner will be stripped of the award, and must repay their prize money in full. Past judges say it would be possible, in theory, for a heavily intertextual work to win the prize, but not without clear attributions and permissions. And so, the scene was set for a second Ukrainian-themed Miles Franklin scandal, decades after the first one.

Though its status was not yet public, The Dogs had been shortlisted for the 2022 Miles. Later, it was even rumoured to have been selected as the winner, though this was untrue – it was not in contention. Days after Anna, for Guardian Australia, published evidence of Hughes plagiarising Svetlana Alexievich, his work was withdrawn from the $60,000 award. Alexievich herself was furious. “I have never heard of The Dogs nor been contacted by Hughes,” she said in a statement issued through a translator. “The verbatim takes from my book are outrageous, and of course I did not agree to this.”

Hughes apologised. The Dogs had been written over the course of 15 years, he said. During this time, he had both transcribed interviews with his Ukrainian grandparents and typed out passages from Alexievich’s book to use as classroom material. The two sets of notes had become confused. There was, he offered, “nothing more disturbing than realising that your creative process is not what you had assumed”. On Twitter, Demidenko, now known as Helen Dale, tweeted the quote.

After the story broke, Bernadette Brennan thought back to an episode at the announcement of the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Attending as a nominee rather than a Miles Franklin judge, she ran into Terri-ann White. Brennan praised The Dogs, and in response White told her the book was fantastic and Hughes’s best. Only later did Brennan learn about the similarities between The Dogs and Alexievich. “Hang on a minute,” she says, recalling the conversation with White, which has troubled her since. “Didn’t you already know by that stage that there were problems with the book? Why, if you knew that, did you just barrel on regardless?”

The Literary Detective Agency

The response to the revelations was a mixture of derision, sympathy and scepticism. Some thought that Hughes was simply too good a writer to plagiarise. Others realised that the Alexievich book had only been translated into English in 2017: they thought it implausible that Hughes could copy from it, teach it, and then forget the provenance of these passages so quickly (later, his agent declined on his behalf to provide any notes or manuscripts that might corroborate this sequence). On Twitter, the Australian literary community began to take a closer interest in The Dogs. In particular, writer and critic Shannon Burns and the University of Tasmania academic Emmett Stinson were picking up echoes of other works in Hughes’s writing.

On June 15, Guardian Australia reported Stinson and Burns had found similarities with passages in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, as well as translations of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Andreï Makine’s Le Testament Français. In a number of the instances, entire sentences were the same. James Ley returned to his copy of The Dogs and found he had written “Tolstoy?” in pencil on one of its pages. His review of the book had also been prescient: “the novel is, in fact, a veritable echo chamber”, he had recognised, and it had “something of the roominess of a nineteenth-century novel”. Other writers on the longlist were dismayed: the Miles Franklin was a rare opportunity for them to make news and attract readers, and again a scandal had sponged away attention.

This time, Hughes’s explanation was different. These borrowings were not only deliberate, they were art. “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 told Guardian Australia. “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.” (He had “said the wrong thing” in his initial defence about the Alexievich takings, those close to him said. They worried that he was a poor media performer.) Hughes followed up with an 1700-word essay, also in Guardian Australia. It was a rousing self-defence, and in time he would compare himself and his work to Juan Rulfo, Gabriel García Márquez, Borges, Jean Rhys, Charles Dickens, Peter Carey, Pierre Menard, T.S. Eliot, J.M. Coetzee, Daniel Defoe, Kafka, Beckett, Bob Dylan, Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt, Bartók, Homer, Shakespeare, Bach, Shostakovich, and the Pompidou Centre.

A Breach of Trust

It was too much for Terri-ann White. One of the sentences in Hughes’s defiant apologia stuck with her: “I wanted the appropriate passages to be seen and recognised.” But he had not told his publisher this. She felt “affronted”. She had read many of the works identified in the reporting as sources for The Dogs, but had not recognised them in Hughes’s manuscript. It was a breach of her trust. “I am currently thinking seriously about my options. It will take time to untangle this mess,” she wrote in a statement on the Upswell website. (The statement has since been removed.) Hughes then apologised to White in yet another statement to Guardian Australia. “In my piece on influences I never intended to imply that I had knowingly passed off other writers’ words as my own,” he said. “I sought only to try to clarify as far as I am able how something like this might happen to a fiction writer.”

In Hughes’s 2019 novella No One (also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin), the unnamed protagonist tries to justify himself to an impatient receptionist, poorly. “I’ve usually found in such situations that the most effective thing is to remain silent. If the first explanation, which is usually the best you’re going to achieve, fails, then everything else, rather than dig you out of the hole, will only bury you further.” Was Alexievich’s work included in The Dogs by accident, and the work of other authors deliberately? Some of the lifted passages were particularly flagrant – classic high-school syllabus fodder. Were they supposed to be read as others’ work, or not? Why had this technique, apparently so central to his work, not been mentioned in interviews? Or even to his own publisher? Why not simply acknowledge and attribute? In a response to our enquiries, which Hughes titled “An Explanation”, he wrote:

I wanted my style, my very technique, to make this hiding manifest. For better or worse, my solution was to develop a technique of incorporating fragments of past writers into my work and recycling them there. I didn’t think of it as theft…

My thinking here was purely aesthetic.

What started as an experiment in style, a method of embedding the words of other writers in my own, became for me a way of capturing physically what each of my books was doing at the thematic level. I didn’t think what I was doing was plagiarism (though it may seem strange to hear, the thought never entered my mind). If I did, I wouldn’t have done it. The traces were there for me, as the musical code was there for Bach. My thought was never is this right or wrong, but only does it work? Is it good? I made my own judgment here, and readers have (and will) make their own.

There was no chance to clarify what “manifest hiding” means. After initially agreeing to an interview, Hughes then declined through his agent, Jane Novak. He had never been very comfortable talking to the media, and the events surrounding The Dogs had confirmed for him that he was not very good at it. He was hoping to put it all behind him.

He was not the only one. On August 17, Terri-ann White emailed Galina Dursthoff, Svetlana Alexievich’s agent. She was still “grappling with” an issue, White said. The issue was The Dogs.

“I am keen to keep this novel in print if I can,” she wrote, “with an inserted statement for the remaining print run with a retrospective correction and attribution to Svetlana Alexievich and her translators … Despite this problem of unacknowledged attribution of Svetlana Alexievich, a writer that this publisher and my author admire enormously, this is a very good novel and I’d hope to see it have a life beyond this discovery, especially as it will likely end or at best severely impact this new publishing venture in a financial sense.”

Dursthoff wrote back in disbelief: “You are talking about ‘unacknowledged attribution’, but in fact the verbatim and unmarked takeovers from Svetlana Alexievich’s book are plagiarisms [sic]. Although we have so far refrained from taking legal action, we can in no way authorize the plagiarism retrospectively. Therefore, we must ask you to remove the book from the market in its current form, with the plagiarisms it contains.”

At an uncertain date, The Dogs was removed from individual sale on Upswell’s website, though it remains available for purchase as part of a bundle of titles.

Emmett Stinson and Shannon Burns moved on as well (Stinson and Burns, someone said, would make a good name for a literary detective agency). While Burns had looked at The Dogs after the Alexievich story broke, prepared to defend the novel on its literary merit, he was ultimately disappointed: he thought Hughes’s stitching together of others’ words hadn’t achieved anything transformative or improving. Stinson put the book down too, finding it “just not very good”.

While Stinson and Burns lost interest in unpicking Hughes’s work, two other academics, the poet Lachlan Brown and Millicent Weber, an English lecturer at the Australian National University, pressed on. Their method was painstaking: finding facsimile sentences with computer assistance, and then comparing books line by line, until whole passages unfurled in tandem. Brown and Weber revealed some of their findings on Twitter. Here was Eric Newby’s Love and War in the Apennines. Here was Judas by Amos Oz. Shards of Loren Eiseley, a slab of Sebald. There were commonalities: Europe, displacement, World War Two. Hughes seemed to have a thing for Nobel Prize winners.

Brown has spent part of his career detecting academic misconduct. While he spoke in terms of acceptable and unacceptable creative practices rather than plagiarism, Hughes’s cascading series of defences reminded him of students – alleged plagiarisers – who would at first only confess to takings they knew had been discovered already. Brown also questioned why, when asked about the Alexievich, Hughes had not simply described his practice as collage. After unravelling Hughes’s work, looking at the nature, significance and extent of his borrowings, Brown wondered whether in trying to play an intertextual game, the author had ultimately deceived himself.

Lost in the Library

“Plagiarism” comes from the Latin word for kidnapping. It is not a term of art, and allows for little nuance or degree, especially in the literary world where it is a near-relative of intertextual techniques such as adaptation, appropriation and collage. The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature allows that “the aesthetic pleasure of recognizing an ‘original’ referenced in a secondary version can be considered central to the cultural power of literature and the arts”. Postmodernism made this power more central still.

But books are more than a composite of other books. Writers such as T.S. Eliot did draw from the work of others, but, for the most part, attributed their references instead of hiding their tracks. Writers who took unacknowledged, such as Kathy Acker, often did so as part of a deconstructive sensibility, a repurposing that could highlight historically marginalised positions. It is the difference between speaking to literary works and parroting them, and in this historical conversation, degree matters: wholesale, artless copying has not been judged well by posterity.

John Hughes understands these differences, or once did. He had used intertextual techniques in his published work for at least 15 years. His series of experimental essays, Someone Else (2007), adopts the voices of figures such as Wittgenstein and Osip Mandelstam, and at the back of the book is a list of attributed sources, more than 30 of them. His next book, The Remnants, is full of similar material, staked out by copyright permissions and a list of sources, 29 works in all. These techniques are also referenced in the narrative, when the narrator realises his father’s unfinished manuscript is mainly secondhand, “a book made out of books”. In “A note on sources”, the narrator writes: “[S]ome account needs to be given of those works consulted and cited without acknowledgment by my father … I like to think he would have made full reference to them had he himself seen the work through to its completion.”

In The Remnants, the narrator also says of his father’s takings that it might ease “the burden of conscience to think of my father’s (unfinished) manuscript as a prose Cento”. Centos are, as the novel describes them, “a literary poem entirely, and often ingeniously, composed of lines from other authors and made to apply to a different subject”. It is too soon to say whether The Dogs is a cento novel, but after months of work, we have identified so much unattributed material in it from other literary sources that it is difficult to quantify. Some come from the same authors and even the same books attributed in The Remnants.

If plagiarism is a substantial or exact similarity to another work, presented unacknowledged and used without permission, then there are thousands of pieces of plagiarism – constituting many thousands of words’ worth of The Dogs. They come from dozens of texts, from books by Robert Macfarlane to Peter Ackroyd, from Saul Bellow to Donna Tartt. The “borrowings” run from sentence parts to pages at a time. Our own table comparing the 312-page novel with these books is 170 pages long, and had to be put on hiatus: there were too many examples to enter. When seen en masse, the taking does not represent mere “fragments” of past writers, as Hughes has described them, and these represent only the examples that have been found.

This authorial behaviour in The Dogs repeats a practice that began early in Hughes’s literary career. With No One, which like The Dogs contains passages of unattributed material, it seems to have escalated, shedding attributions and leaning more heavily on unattributed intertextual material. The volume and nature of his copying seems to have no known precedent in published literature. It is sometimes taken from prominent locations: the very beginning of books, their introductions or opening paragraphs. This is true even when the works are famous, such as Kafka’s The Castle or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Less well-known novels – Ralf Rothmann’s To Die in Spring, for example – are copied for pages at a time. Load-bearing words are changed, clauses omitted and sections abridged, but they are unmistakable once compared. It is hard to understand how all of this could reach publication, then sit in print undetected for years.

As some of this came to light, the literary community asked a question both in public and in private: why did someone with John Hughes’s ability need to plagiarise? Even the website Plagiarism Today, which called Hughes a liar, conceded that “looking through Hughes’s history, he is clearly a talented writer”. And before the discoveries, it was common for peers and critics to prefer Hughes’s early work, before he began working more intertextually. Ivor Indyk, who declined to publish The Remnants at Giramondo, found Hughes’s work after The Idea of Home “cold and self-conscious”. It was a sentiment others shared: as Hughes became more and more entranced by the writing of others, many other authors became less fond of his work.

This makes his motive even more mysterious. Crude explanations have been proffered. Memoirists can run out of material, sometimes necessitating a switch of form. Perhaps Hughes’s move from nonfiction to fiction carried anxiety with it, and plagiarism is one cure for writers’ block. But this does not account for the apparent escalation of his takings over time, as he published more novels. There are clues in his earlier writings: in his UTS PhD, “Memory and Forgetting: History and the (Auto)biographical Imagination”, he describes a “preoccupation” with Sebald’s The Emigrants, a book he admits to using “rather shamelessly” as a model. The German writer incorporated other texts into his narratives, sometimes unmarked. Perhaps Hughes, his themes akin, imagined himself an Australian Sebald.

But there is another, unconfessed debt from the same period that is more telling. While in Someone Else Hughes acknowledges the variety of artistic voices and stances he assumes, at least one borrowed passage goes unattributed. This is the first instance of unambiguous plagiarism we have found in his work. In a chapter on the painter Mark Rothko is a short precis of Henry David Thoreau’s memoir Walden. This summary comes, almost line for line, from the website SparkNotes, a set of cribs and summaries intended for high-school English students.

SparkNotes is less popular now, but in the early 2000s it was one of the archetypal sources for high-school plagiarism. It led to such a “plague of plagiarism” the site itself acknowledged the practice and forewarned against it. The “real killer”, SparkNotes said, was “patchwriting”: “Think of paraphrasing as a half-assed attempt to present someone else’s ideas as your own. It’s for people who know full-on copying is wrong, but who think ‘expressing ideas in your own words’ means changing the source’s word choice a bit and maybe throwing in an extra word here or there. That’s paraphrasing, or ‘patchwriting’, a.k.a. plagiarism.”

Hughes did not tell his publisher about the lines from SparkNotes in Someone Else, but Indyk believes it was not a deliberate attempt to deceive. Instead, the source might have been too embarrassing to acknowledge, a downmarket inclusion that would have broken the spell of genius. While Someone Else was well-received, some reviewers wondered aloud about Hughes’s unbalanced relationship with the canon. Robert Lumsden was “unclear if the works were homage or parody”, and Malcolm Tattersall found the essays so derivative that he charged Hughes with having “no values or opinions of his own and only a poor grip on reality”.

“Perhaps he is simply lost in a library,” Tattersall concluded, “that has become both a memory-palace and a maze.” It was a cutting, part-personal reference: Hughes had been appointed librarian at Sydney Grammar School.


Hughes was popular at Sydney Grammar with both staff and students, enough to be mobbed by boys at one of his book launches. He dedicated himself to the school, and it repaid him. His boss, the then headmaster Dr John Vallance, was a close friend (he is the dedicatee of Garden of Sorrows). Along with his duties in the library, Hughes oversaw and designed advanced English classes. His salary was generous, comparable to a mid-career academic’s, and came with perks (he was, for example, commissioned as a lyricist for a choral chamber piece that debuted at a school arts festival). Sydney Grammar is renowned for supporting the creative endeavours of its staff, and he became almost a de facto writer-in-residence.

It was a financially and culturally supportive situation that writers now rarely enjoy. The affirmation could be too much: in the summer of 2020, Hughes appeared in the Sydney Grammar school magazine alongside a photo of him reading his own book. Referring to the Miles Franklin, it read: “Dr John Hughes, our School Librarian, Senior Master in Academic Extension and much valued member of the English Department, has received Australia’s highest literary recognition for his most recent work of fiction.” The “powerful and deeply haunting novella, No One” had been adjudged “a novel which is of the highest literary merit”. In fact, he had not won – the book had only been shortlisted.

Perhaps it was just the bluster of private-school marketing, though Grammar did place a careful premium on Hughes’s extra-curricular role in teaching creative writing. According to the magazine, he had taught it from “day one”, sometimes taking several lunchtime classes of students each week. In interviews about this role, Hughes stressed originality and observation as techniques, and the importance of accepting bad writing as part of the craft. Writing was a “mysterious process”, he told the Association of Independent Schools of NSW, adding that “quality literature provides the perfect model of what successful writers do”. It was, on reflection, an oddly phrased idea, one that sounded similar to a line in The Idea of Home: “I still think of my favourite books as recipes.”

Models and recipes both create copies. So do mirrors, another favourite metaphor for literature throughout Hughes’s work. He had started his first PhD after being “drawn to Coleridge almost as a child is drawn to his reflection in the mirror”, he wrote. In Someone Else (which has a mirror-image of Hughes on its cover) there is a “strange parable” about a book on the shores of a lake being reflected in the water. “The book is so written that every detail will be reflected in its mirror image,” it reads, “and thus the book in the water contains not only all the words and punctuation marks of the book on the land, but also every nuance that might live in the gaps between them.”

Reviewing The Remnants, the novelist Jennifer Mills made note of his day job as well: Hughes spent his working life surrounded by literature, and it seemed to be saturating him. Since taking up the novel form, Hughes’s erudition had become “formidable” but also “inescapable”. “Perhaps Hughes’s other job as a teacher has filtered into this pedagogical mode,” Mills thought, sensing that this blizzard of references might sit better in essays. Years later, when she heard about the controversy surrounding The Dogs, she offered a counter-lesson, also attributed to Sebald: “By all means be experimental, but let the reader be part of the experiment.”

Sebald (who was himself occasionally accused of plagiarism) pioneered some of the techniques used by Hughes, and Hughes had begun secretly applying them to Sebald. As authors they had shared affinities, and some of the same means of articulating them: reinscribing borrowed material as a talisman against forgetting, for example. But instead of a meeting of minds, these similarities demonstrated a shortfall, or a disharmony. Instead of being consciously historical, Hughes’s borrowings could feel rushed, almost crammed, and their transposed settings and contexts became slapdash.

“My wanderings took me to the most remote areas of London, into outlying parts of the metropolis which I would never otherwise have seen,” writes Sebald in Austerlitz:

I would leave my house as darkness fell, walking on and on, down the Mile End Road and Bow Road to Stratford, then to Chigwell and Romford, right across Bethnal Green and Canonbury, through Holloway and Kentish Town and thus to Hampstead Heath, or else south over the river to Peckham and Dulwich or westward to Richmond Park.

The narrator of No One also ventured out “as darkness fell”:

I would leave my room in the boarding house in Newtown, where I was living at the time, and walk down King Street and Enmore Road to Marrickville, then to Dulwich Hill, Croydon Park, Sefton, Canley Vale, across Green Valley to Bonnyrigg, through Kemps Creek and Badgerys Creek, to arrive at Warragamba; or else south over the Cooks River to Sans Souci and Port Hacking.

Dislocated, Sebald’s night-time dérives along the Thames become a 15-hour hike due west of Sydney, culminating in a march along a featureless single-lane highway. Though Hughes’s version in No One takes place over days rather than overnight (“My wanderings, spread sometimes over a couple of days, took me to the most remote areas of the city, into outlying parts I would never otherwise have seen”), his narrator still reconnects with the same far-flung morning commuters as Austerlitz. Each thinks they see faces from earlier in their life that “always had something different from the rest about them”, a quality that haunts them both for days on end. Overheard phrases of Lithuanian become overheard phrases of Turkish, the refrain of a karaoke version sung out of key.

James Ley reflected that “Hughes can be considered an antipodean writer in several senses, one of which is that he knows how to stand an idea on its head”, and Hughes’s borrowings, as in his Cambridge-era paintings, bear this out in literal ways. There is almost a Mr Squiggle–style model of the relationship between Europe and Australia, where everything is upside down. No One, for example, inverts the premise of a book by another Nobel Prize winner, Patrick Modiano. As Modiano’s Paris Nocturne begins, the narrator is hit by a car on the streets of Paris. As No One begins, the narrator realises he has hit a pedestrian on the streets of Redfern. In takings from the text of the Modiano, reversals continue throughout. In Modiano’s Parisian hospital, a police officer speaks “louder”, almost as if with a megaphone; in Hughes’s Redfern, the voice sinks “softer and softer”.

By chance, Modiano’s English-language translator for Paris Nocturne, Phoebe Weston-Evans, is also Australian. Once it was revealed to her, she found Hughes’s use of her work both “jaw-dropping” and fascinating. Some sentences were “exactly the same” she saw, while others, once edited, she thought of as improvements. One made her laugh out loud. In what she called “the kangaroo-face Mum”, Hughes had replaced Modiano’s image of a dog hit by a car with a kangaroo: “The kangaroo did not have a kangaroo face but the face of my mother.”

These sometimes clumsy retreads become less comical when applied to historical grief, one of Hughes’s most enduring interests. His later novels are full of migrants and refugees, the victims of war, abuse and atrocities. But just as the “low whirr” of a slide projector in Sebald’s The Emigrants becomes the “low whirr” of a laptop in The Dogs, so too the Eastern Front horrors of Alexievich’s Soviet interviewees pack up and move to Italy, while fleeing Eastern Europeans in Elias Canetti and Sebald become Kurds or Iraqis. There’s an irony in further displacing displaced persons, and Hughes uses them with an “insert trauma here” interchangeability at odds with his assumed gravitas.

Sometimes, the writing veers into an ethical ugliness. No One is concerned with Australia’s Indigenous history – the car crash is an overarching metaphor of trauma and complicity, and how amends might be made. Even before its publication there were concerns over how a white Australian writer might handle such questions. How would he write Aboriginal characters? At least at first, those concerns were mollified. Even the National Indigenous Times celebrated the novella’s achievements in “bringing stories of mob to the front of the literary world” with a “brave commentary” on issues in out-of-home care in Australia.

Yet the “brave commentary” was partly counterfeit. The book’s musing on “the original tribes” who had once lived on the site of Museum Station, and “whether the misery accumulated … had really ebbed away” or might still be felt in the “present in some way”, came straight from Sebald’s Austerlitz, where it was applied to Liverpool Street Station in London. No One’s protagonist has a relationship with an Aboriginal woman he nicknames the Poetess, not because she is a poet, but because she lives in the Redfern social housing block known as “Poet’s Corner”. On a trip to Taree, she is moved enough by the landscape to rhapsodise: “‘Look … the ibis are flying in over the wetlands.’ … Abandoned fruit trees, split and rotten, moss-tufted, spotted with lichens. ‘China pear, quince, persimmon,’ the Poetess says, tasting a former life”.

She is speaking in the words of Les Murray, from “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle”, itself controversially based on a Wonguri Mandjigai song: “Now the ibis are flying in, hovering down on the wetlands … Abandoned fruit trees, moss-tufted, spotted with dim lichen paints … china pear, quince, persimmon; / the fruit has the taste of former lives.”

Elsewhere, when the narrator of No One recounts his own experience in a care home, it comes in a strange, standalone paragraph marked off by parentheses that sits out-of-step with the narrative:

(… I remember being put in line-ups where prospective foster parents would view all the children … Years later, when I came of age, a senior welfare officer gave me my file. He informed me that my surname would change back to my father’s … ‘He has fine features and is generally handsome looking. He has dark brown eyes and black curly hair. His skin is olive. He does not present as Middle Eastern and could just as easily be identified as Southern European.’ Apparently, I wasn’t quite the child prospective foster parents were looking for. An earlier entry states that I swallowed rat poison and tried to kill myself in Katherine.)

Lachlan Brown and Millicent Weber were the first to identify the source of this patchwriting. It is from the testimonies in the “Bringing Them Home” report into the Stolen Generations, and repeats details and phrases from two accounts from stolen children, one named Paul (confidential submission 133), and one named Millicent (confidential submission 640). In context, the poaching from Millicent’s submission is particularly confronting: she describes taking rat poison after being raped during her first year of high school – she was attacked while doing compelled domestic service. For Brown, the stories in “Bringing Them Home” are “voices from the most vulnerable, the most traumatised groups of people”. On their appearance in No One, Brown says: “To what use are they put? Are they just there to furnish a novel? To get scraps of literary glory? It’s very concerning.”

Wiradjuri writer and academic Jeanine Leane, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne, did her doctorate on Aboriginal representation in Australian literature, and teaches and writes on its ethics. Leane concurs, describing Hughes’s use of the “Bringing Them Home” stories as dangerous and self-serving cultural appropriation. “There are few Aboriginal people today not affected by the cultural genocide of the Stolen Generations policy. Although some of the wording has been changed, the similarities with the uniquely Aboriginal experiences described in ‘Bringing Them Home’ is a frighteningly real example of how the cognitive imperialism of settler literature takes and overwrites Aboriginal history and experiences.” 

“Stealing those testimonies, so brazenly, is the depths of unethical creative practice,” she adds. “These people have already had their lives stolen. This is like stealing their attempt at healing, which their descendants are entitled to as well.” 

There is another lifted section in No One that reveals the provenance of this material. It describes a photo stuck to the Poetess’s fridge:

The newspaper cutting showed a group of six girls, a small cross drawn roughly over the navel of one of them. Her companions look directly at the camera, but her eyes are elsewhere. She’s concentrating on an object I can’t make out, which she’s cradling in her arms. Her forehead stands out like a dome. The caption reads: ‘GROUP OF TINY HALF-CASTE AND QUADROON CHILDREN…’

Carmel Bird’s book The Stolen Children: Their Stories, an edited collection of stories from “Bringing Them Home”, begins like this:

MARKED BY A CROSS drawn in ink at about the place where her navel would be, the child stands in the centre of the group of six tiny girls. Her companions look shyly, sadly, at the camera; but her eyes are downcast. She seems to be oblivious, or at least forgetful, of the photographer, concentrating on a ball that she cradles at shoulder level. This child, with her high domed forehead and gently pouting upper lip, is an orphan among orphans, Australian children of mixed race.

The photo referenced is also on the cover of The Stolen Children. The first two stories in the book are from Paul and Millicent. And as with the Sebald, and the Modiano, and the Alexievich, and the overwhelming majority of the books “referenced” by Hughes, The Stolen Children can be found in the catalogue of the Sydney Grammar School Banjo Paterson Library, which, even judged against the resourcing overkill of local private schools, has a singular collection of literary works.


It’s tempting to form an image of John Hughes in his library, his own authorial voice subsumed under the babble of literary history, his taking becoming more reckless and impulsive. Finding all the authors who speak through him would be a matter of time. However, this picture does not account for the non-literary material that can be found in his work. Though much more difficult to identify, other potential unrecognised territories are glimpsed in his work.

There may even be borrowings from unwritten material in the books. Part of The Remnants describes, almost beat for beat, snatches of the plot and dialogue taken from the 1973 Spanish film The Spirit of the Beehive. The film is referenced in the text, but the same technique, if applied to other cinema, would be almost impossible to detect.

Then there are other possible avenues, just out of view. The descriptions of Alzheimer’s disease in No One are from the Dementia Australia website. In 2018, the same text appeared in a high-school exam question for the regional Da Vinci Decathlon (“celebrating the academic gifts of students in Years 7 & 8”). Sydney Grammar competed in the decathlon. In the exam paper, the text was attributed: “Courtesy Dementia Australia”.

There is also the prospect of unpublished work. While Lachlan Brown hoped Hughes had not taken from his creative writing students, there was a link to “the academic gifts of students in Years 7 & 8” in Hughes’s writing. At Sydney Grammar, he taught Joseph Earp, who would go on to become a music reviewer, poet and the author of a self-published novel. They met when Earp was 13 years old. Earp had already decided to be a writer when he was six. Lonely at school, he gravitated to Hughes’s lunchtime classes, and they formed a close bond, more mentor and protégé than teacher and student. Earp would say that Hughes had saved him, gifting him “the skills and the care to make me a writer”. With this encouragement, Earp began writing at a “blistering pace”. Once, after Earp submitted an especially fine piece of work about World War Two, Hughes “revealed that Hughes initially assumed “I had plagiarised the piece – that my parents had written it for me”.

They talked about The Great Gatsby, Mark Rothko and Walden. Earp loved Someone Else in particular, and when he took a world trip after high school, a copy of Someone Else travelled with him. Earp also read and liked No One when it came out. It was a “skim-read”, he said later, when he was “in the process of getting sober, and my head was in a fog”. Somehow, he missed a section, 250 words or so, describing encounters with a wild fox. He had failed to recognise his own writing. Earp had published this short descriptive piece in The Brag street press, then posted it to Facebook. Hughes had told him that he liked it, and had then gone on to plagiarise the work of his former student.

Once alerted, Earp’s reaction was complicated. It ranged from anger to pride, sometimes in combination. Hughes had failed him as an author but not as a man, he felt. “There is a spectrum, from plagiarism to homage, and all works fall somewhere across that spectrum,” he wrote in a piece published by Guardian Australia. “Some of John’s work, obviously, falls on the plagiarism end – and being shaped by others doesn’t justify not citing your sources.” It was also exploitative of his labour – Earp had been paid just $40 for the Brag piece. “He hadn’t understood the context of what he was doing,” Earp concluded. “He had not done his homework. I feel some cruel satisfaction, writing those words. What student hasn’t wanted to say to their teacher: do your homework.”


Sydney Grammar has declined to comment on Hughes’s actions. So have its former headmaster John Vallance (now the New South Wales state librarian), UWA Publishing, Terri-ann White, Jane Novak and Hughes himself. White declined to comment even to reconcile two apparently contradictory statements: that she felt Hughes had breached her trust, and that she would be happy to work with him again in the future. (White also described herself as “bored” when shown examples of literary plagiarism in No One, which she was presumably learning of for the first time.)

Beyond the usual reasons people don’t talk to journalists, there was a tinge of something else in the refusals. Perhaps Hughes was not the only one to find his reliances embarrassing. High-sounding rationales of intertextuality sound empty when applied to the street-press pieces of former students, or testimonies of trauma purloined from a national inquiry.

Other actions are not so explicable: the decision to take attributions away from The Dogs altogether is hard to understand, whoever made it. Hughes’s tendencies to work intertextually, if not the true nature of his method, were well understood. Could it be called a systemic failure? Can a one-woman independent press be called a system? Even where she’d read them before, White stated that she hadn’t recognised the books revealed as Hughes’s sources in Guardian Australia’s reporting. She said that resulted from a “trust thing” in working with a longstanding collaborator. Australian publishing houses do not usually apply plagiarism software. Once published, the reality was that Hughes’s plagiarism went undiscovered for so long because so few people were reading his books.

In the past decade, English-language literary fiction has experienced a cultural decay so rapid that Arts Council England described it as a “collapse”. While book sales grew overall, non-genre novels sank, and the already financially uncertain status of their authors dwindled further. By 2017, no literary fiction title was a top bestseller in Australia. The next year, after the novelist Brian Castro won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Blindness and Rage, the “awards bump” amounted to only 50 copies sold in six months. An anonymous publisher had once described Castro as a writer with “more awards than readers”.

Long reliant on subsidies, public and private, for its production, literary fiction now needs a similar infrastructure for its reception. In an environment of public indifference or hostility, publishers and agents play a role that can be more pastoral than professional. By one recent measure, more than a third of publishing industry workers surveyed were experiencing mental-health problems. In these conditions of mutual affirmation and wounded solidarity, hard questions can be difficult to ask. If the participants don’t affirm each other, then often no one will.

On a Sydney evening in September 2022, Sophie Cunningham launched her new novel, This Devastating Fever, in conversation with fellow author and friend Michelle de Kretser. Cunningham’s novel is about a writer struggling with a historical novel about Leonard Woolf. The book took Cunningham almost two decades to write and, towards the end of their conversation, de Kretser asked about her lengthy research process: “How did you keep track of all the material?” Cunningham said that while she took extensive notes, “because all the John Hughes stuff was happening just when I was going to the printer, my editor put the book through plagiarism software”. She was relieved, she said, to find that while she had in fact plagiarised herself, she hadn’t “plagiarised others”.

“I spent a lot of money and time getting permission to use the quotes I did,” Cunningham continued. “I was aware of how those things can blow up in your face.” The audience, consisting mainly of other writers, laughed and nodded, whether in good-natured humour or sympathy – for her, Hughes, or both – was unclear.

The Last of Its Kind

A different, quieter defence of Hughes was shopped in literary circles. Not only was he a misunderstood talent whose own process was opaque, even to himself, the tone of his detractors marked them as philistines. Any continuation of the plagiarism story was a product of Australian literary parochialism, not public interest. He was suffering because of a bush-league attitude that failed to appreciate his modal finesse. Internationally, it was suggested, Hughes’s practice would be a non-issue.

Yet fate had provided a counterpoint. In early 2022, the American-Nigerian novelist Jumi Bello had made an admission to her publisher, the Penguin Group imprint Riverhead Books, about her draft novel, already on several most-anticipated lists for the year. A passage was “too close” to a James Baldwin story, she disclosed. A legal read followed, which found more than 30 instances of others’ work in her novel-to-be. In an essay describing the experience for Literary Hub, Bello said she told herself: “I’ve never been pregnant and my narrator is … I tell myself I’m just borrowing and changing the language. I tell myself I will rewrite these parts later during the editorial phase. I will make this story mine again.” It was, she told herself, merely an act of influence.

Bello hit familiar notes to Hughes – that “these are all writers I’ve read and they’ve all passed through my work” – but there were also differences. She had been involuntarily admitted to hospital for a psychiatric illness, and had to scramble to finish her novel on discharge. She had admitted her plagiarism pre-emptively, and then publicly apologised (though it was later discovered her apology published on Literary Hub was part-plagiarised from Plagiarism Today, a turn that resulted in the headline “Plagiarism Today Plagiarised in a Plagiarism Atonement Essay”).

Most divergent was the outcome. Bello was dropped by both her agent and her publisher, who refused to answer questions about her US$225,000 advance. What accounts for such different professional consequences is unclear. When writer Roxane Gay met Bello backstage at an event, Gay reportedly told the younger writer that, “White people plagiarise all the time and they face consequences, but there is generally a path for redemption.”

Mark Mordue hoped so for Hughes. “In the scale of great crimes against society, it’s pretty small potatoes kind of thing,” he says. Perhaps Hughes could write a memoir about the experience as a way out. “Re-reading My Idea of Home, within John there is a soulful and talented writer. I think John’s a fucking prisoner to all these lies and bullshit and intellectual allusions. I hope he busts out of it, even after all of this. I think he’s capable of that.”

There was something self-defeating in it too. In a need, almost a desperation, to be in the exalted company of literary history, Hughes’s method made his books take on an almost algorithmic quality. The components of The Dogs, when laid out, resemble the product that a machine-learning program, trained on the Western canon, might make in trying to win a literary award. Lachlan Brown is among those who felt the resonance: “AI models in the future might look like this. A mishmash of older forms and structures that boil down to a particular recipe with a contemporary spice, or a contemporary flavor. In that way, it may be a prototypical AI generated novel.”

Clear-cut as the Words

In Melbourne, the conceptual artist and psychiatrist Sam Lieblich could not stop thinking about The Dogs and the furore around it. He had no moral position on Hughes’s process, only an enthusiasm for Australian literary scandals. Here was an all-timer. Lieblich found himself “very stimulated”, he says: “it seemed to emphasise in one way or another the influence-anxiety of every writer I spoke to.” With the help of an AI text-generating program called Quillbot, he decided to plagiarise the entirety of The Dogs, paraphrased line by line, and put his own name on the cover.

The result is a book called Clear-cut as the words. Its preface comes from Hughes’s 1700-word “I Am Not a Plagiarist and Here’s Why” defence in Guardian Australia. Its blurb is a paraphrased version of the Miles Franklin judging notes. Though the AI retains close fealty to the meaning of the text, its word choices make eerie sentences, which build up into an uncanny structure. A copy of a copy, losing fidelity. Lieblich has entered Clear-cut as the words into the 2023 Miles Franklin Award.

Despite its humble appearance and photocopy-styled cover, Clear-cut as the words is unmistakably a threshold object, an artefact of the future already here. Together with The Dogs, it marks the end of the classical plagiarism scandal. When a computer can produce prose in any style desired, who will bother with cut-and-pasting from literary greats? In such a world, where novels can be extruded in milliseconds by programs, the kind of thrall Hughes felt to his predecessors will seem nostalgic.

There is one consolation. Several of the writers, critics, academics and publishing professionals consulted for this story were invited to provide a precedent – someone, anyone, who had copied as Hughes has copied. None could. Perhaps such a figure will be found, or one will arise someday. But for now, there is a place in the pantheon: John Hughes may be among the most prolific literary plagiarists in history.

Anna Verney & Richard Cooke

Anna Verney is a freelance writer and lawyer. Richard Cooke is The Monthly's contributing editor.

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