Monday, January 14, 2008

Ad Lucem! Semper Ad Lucem!

PART II: The Ethics of Authorship

"Toward the Light, Always Toward the Light"

The Romance fiction genre's recent crisis of spirit, occasioned earlier in the week by the discovery that Romance writer Cassie Edwards has been plagiarizing other writers for decades, was ameliorated and considerably lifted yesterday. Popular top-selling author Nora Roberts pledged to match up to $5000 in donations to the Defense of Wildlife Fund, a group dedicated to saving seriously endangered species, including the imperiled black-footed ferret around which controversy swelled when it was discovered that a prominent nature writer, Paul Tolme, had parts of his article on ferrets lifted by Edwards for passages in her book called Shadow Bear.

Tolme wrote a delightful piece this week in Newsweek about his experience of seeing his words about ferrets copied in a "bodice-ripper." Although Romance authors and fans hope to reinvigorate and change Tolme's reference to "standard romance novel schlock," one other line of his article caught the eyes and interest of the thousands of loyal members and hundreds of new readers who read the blog Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books.

Although he said he is no longer angry at Cassie Edwards for stealing his words, Tolme added: "Ignorance of law and ethics is no excuse, however. Plagiarism victimizes writers. It betrays the trust of readers. It tarnishes the craft of writing. But there is another victim here that has been lost in the discussion: the ferrets."

Oh brother! Watch out, news media. Watch out, nay-sayers who think there's no such thing as viral networking with quantifiable, verifiable results. One cannot buy this kind of public relations and publicity. All hail the ferrets!

With that line, Mr. Tolme has probably saved a lot of ferrets because it wasn't long before the Bitchery group practically adopted the black-footed ferret as its mascot. One member put up ferret-oriented anti-plagiarism t-shirts on Cafe Press, and Nora Roberts posted that she would match donations to the Defense of Wildlife Fund. Within hours the Bitchery had tallied nearly $3000 in donations that came from its readers. Some commenters seemed more interested in adopting Mr. Tolme, although it is not known if he is available for same.

As of this writing, Candy Tan and Sarah Wendell, the two women who run Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books, who initially alerted the world to the Cassie Edwards books that contain wholesale passages and paragraphs taken, without authorization, or credit, from other authors, have discovered dozens of examples of this plagiarism in a goodly number of Edwards' nearly 100 books. But it took another best-selling author, Nora Roberts, to help bring more attention to a discovery, originally made by poster Nikki, that Edwards had also stolen from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Without a doubt, Edwards steals from some of the best!

Comparing these two excerpts, one can easily see why Edwards is being accused of plagiarism:

SAVAGE OBSESSION, by Cassie Edwards, 1983, Page 284:
"The odors of the forest, the dew and damp meadow, and the curling smoke from the wigwams were left behind as Lorinda [...]"

SONG OF HIAWATHA by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1855: Lines 3-5 of the Introduction: "With the odors of the forest, With the dew and damp of meadows, With the curling smoke of wigwams..."

Earlier in a thread of the comments sections about the Edwards situation, a poster who has his own website jokingly wondered if Ms. Edwards had ever taken credit for the famous verse in Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha that begins, "From the shores of Gitche Gumee....[...]" The popular poster, TeddyPig, was astounded when he realized another had found alarming substance in the answer to Mr. Pig's lighthearted question.

Indeed, with this discovery at the top of a heap of discoveries of apparent plagiarism in various Cassie Edwards' books, discoveries made by both the head Bitches and a volunteer platoon of Bitchery readers (including Opinionhead), the list of original research from which Edwards lifted almost word-for-word, and sometimes, precisely word-for-word, sections, include Encyclopadia Britannica, National Geographic magazine and Pulitzer-prize winning author Oliver La Farge, awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Laughing Boy, which was written in 1929 and for which a valid copyright is still held. If you want to see some very good detective work, see page 34 in the Bitches PDF file (called a Centralized Document of the Cassie Edwards Texts), referenced in my blogpost of day before yesterday. These women have documented the comparisons between what La Farge wrote in 1929 and what Casssie Edwards wrote in 1990.

As well as Roberts, several other Romance authors have posted their impressions and opinions, including Victoria Dahl, J.C. Wilder (who also writes as Dominque Adair), indy writer Silapa Jurun, Arlene C. Harris and Laura Vivanco. Another posster on the Smart Bitches site, Lisa, who links to a blog signed by Elle, provided sufficient genealogy material to cause even the most casual observer to question the authenticity of Cassie Edwards' claims that her grandmother was a full-blooded Cheyenne. You can read her article here.

Edwards apparently later corrected this to be her paternal great-great grandmother, but the blogger Elle, who (like this writer) has more than a passing familiarity with genealogy, did some basic research and could find nothing linking Edwards to the Cheyenne nation via bloodlines. While Elle, at this point, merely questions Edwards authenticity and veracity on this subject, my reading of even cursory research efforts occasions me to strongly doubt that Edwards has 1/16th Indian blood, if she has any at all.

There were many very feisty Romantic genre readers who weighed in on the subject of Edwards---far too many to mention in one blogpost. Many of the posters are authors whose blogs and websites you might enjoy visiting. They include: SusanWilbanks; S. Andrew Swann (who also writes as Steven Krane and S. A. Swiniarski), Jennifer Armintrout, Kay Hooper, and Theresa Meyers. Other writers who have weighed in on the Cassie Edwards situation over at the Bitches site include E. Ann Bardawill, Australian writer Bronwyn Parry whose first of two books will be puslished this year by Hachette Livre Australia, author Diane Castilleja, Katrina Strauss and Ciar Cullen.

And the reason I mention any names at all is because I've really had my eyes opened in the past few days by what I've read in the Bitchery posts and comments sections (you must read the Comments section after the main posts to get the full flavor, and fury). The insight I've gleaned goes way beyond the subject of plagiarism (and even ferrets!) because these women are passionate about what they write, what they read, what they feel about the genre of Romance fiction, specifically, and writing generally. This is my way of acknowledging them.

You can tell from the Comments sections that the writers are good and the readers are sophisticated, intelligent, savvy, funny-as-hell big mouths with equally great big hearts. They're real people; I like that. The forums themselves can get introspective or crazy wild, but, amazingly, most seem to "course correct," as one poster put it, after some of the passion spends itself into a sigh, and the quieter minds come out of the shadows with reason and logic draped in soothing words and calming tones.

I've also been linked, via the Bitchery, to a couple other sites that I found very informative. One, Dear Author, is written by six devoted readers who specialize in reviewing books from the Romance, Fantasy and Manga genres and dish up some very tasty commentary on issues affecting authors and the publishing industry. Again, the Dear Author blogposts are nicely enhanced with Comments from readers of that blog. An especially moving blogpost titled The Many Faces of Plagiarism provided brief biographical notes on the Edwards' victims. In the case of the deceased victims (about a half-dozen that we know), there's something deeply upsetting about seeing names, faces and bits about the plagiarized authors' lives. I think another writer, author of the Mind Meanderings in a blogpost titled "Silence is the Voice of Complicity," put it best with these words: "It was bad enough that she did this while giving neither credit not attribution to the true authors, most of them deceased writers whose works had fallen out of copyright — which, to me, reeks of grave-robbing." Indeed.

A third site to which I have been introduced through my new associations with the prior two is Teach Me Tonight, Musings on Romance Fiction from an Academic Perspective. This blog, written by Sarah S.G. Franz, Gwendolyn D. Pough, Pamela Regis, Sandra Schwab, E.M. Selinger and the above-mentioned Laura Vivanco, serves up a delightfully insightful, thought-provoking and well-written buffet of bon mots ranging from the deliciously esoteric through the abundantly fruitful to the frequently fecund---essays that reveal a depth of thought and the academics' eyes for detail and logic on a variety of subjects of interest to anyone who seriously intends to write Romance fiction and for anyone who enjoys reading good to great Romance fiction.

Oh, and don't forget the ferrets. If you go here, take a screenshot of your receipt and send it here---that way, Nora Roberts will have to cough up five grand in matching monies, and see, everyone will live happily ever after, unless of course you're a ferret-word ripper-offer.

To paraphrase a poster whose name I swear I cannot remember, you can't make this stuff up!


Occasional Guest Blogger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Occasional Guest Blogger said...


You’ve summarized the issue brilliantly, and I never expect anything less from you. This discussion, varying in tone and urgency, is rumbling across the Web on forums, lists, blogs, and websites as well as in email correspondence. Ultimately, the finger-pointing will probably leave the problem unsolved, if no one accepts responsibility for enforcement. Crowdsourcing to detect plagiarism after publication isn’t the answer.

As a copyeditor, I once agreed to barter for my services. I received my “payment” before the manuscript I arranged to edit was completed. When I obtained the work, I quickly noted the sections that required reprint authorization. They weren’t attributed to the original sources, but I knew the writer well enough to recognize the shift in writing style (and quality), and he readily admitted what he’d done. I want to believe he didn’t know it was wrong. I explained to the author how to write to the original publisher to request reprint authorization and warned it would probably cost him more than it was worth. Ultimately, he decided to revise his book, but he never supplied me with the finished manuscript for editing. I assume he didn’t have it self-published. Instead, he probably continued to use photocopies, deceiving himself with regard to the application of fair use.

Whether the publisher is an individual or a multinational conglomerate, the law applies. In practice, however, there’s no incentive to pursue a case against an individual of little means, and there are many loopholes through which an unscrupulous author can slither.

I haven’t noticed anyone involved in this discussion mention the availability of subscription-based or free software like Copysentry, EVE2, Glatt, iThenticate, Plagiarism Finder, Scan My Essay, Turnitin, and WCopyfind. As you found, search engines are also very effective when used to detect infringement.

Of tangential relevance is the assumption of some bloggers that if they link to their sources, they are not committing copyright violations when, without authorization, they repost entire articles published elsewhere on the Web or in print. In certain circumstances, bloggers have been awarded the right to protect their confidential sources. If bloggers desire the protection of the law, they must also learn to respect the legal rights of other writers and publishers. Blogging is simply another form of publishing, regardless of its profitability.

Furthermore, all of the information anyone would ever need to know about copyright law, plagiarism, and fair use is readily available and easy to find on the Web. It’s well known, as Paul Tolme says, that ignorance is no defense.

azteclady said...

TT, a teenie tiny thing: I think you are referring to Laura Vivanco--not Vivicano--throughout the post.

For occasional guest blogger: the use of plagiarism detecting software has been brought up in the comments at both Dear Author and Smart Bitches.

T.T. Thomas said...

No, no, it's not a teenie thing (but thanks for saying so)---I've corrected the spelling and thank you for pointing it out. Can I claim brain overload from this whole incident? Thank you azteclady!

azteclady said...

Thank you--I'm enjoying having another well written blog to visit.

Laura Vivanco said...

Thanks for the mention of Teach Me Tonight. I'm delighted you've found it interesting.

However, I thought I should clear up a little confusion which seems to have arisen. I'm not a research scientist, and I know next to nothing about genealogy, so I think when you picked up the information about Cassie Edwards's ancestry you must have been thinking of someone else, possibly Lisa (who on the blog she linked to seems to sign herself as Elle), who made a comment about that issue on this thread at the SB's site.

My background is in Hispanomedievalism, but I'm now working on literary criticism of modern romance novels.

T.T. Thomas said...

Oh Laura! I am so very sorry---I actually did have Lisa's (Elle's) name and link in the original draft, so I'm gonna pass the blame to "formatting error," which, not surprisingly, points right back at MOI! Thank you Laura, and yes I very much enjoy the Teach Me Tonight site.

Elle said...

Hi TT,

I'm Lisa/Elle -- same person. The Elle=L, for my first initial. I'm the one who did the genealogy, as Laura pointed out. Assuming I have the right ancestors, I think her claims of NA ancestry are doubtful. At any rate, given the recent events, the onus is on her to prove it. I heard there is a picture of this alleged Cheyenne ancestress in one of her books, I am going to see if I can find it at my local used bookstore (no royalties for CE) and see if it doesn't show up on Google Images. Thanks for the link!


T.T. Thomas said...

Hi Lisa,

Makes me a bit nervous to think what you might find. I'd love to see the picture of the relative. I'd like us both to be way off base on this one, but the odds are not good for her, so far. Let me know if you need any help in the geneology department. Glad you checked in! TT

Laura Vivanco said...

The comment threads over at the Smart Bitches's website were so long, and there were so many of them, that I think they could take the blame for causing any "formatting errors." ;-)

T.T. Thomas said...

Aw, you're too nice Laura. One more error and I was going to have to change the blogname to Opinionhead: We give you a new spelling for your name, a new career, a new hobby, and, for a small fee, we'll be happy to do a complete life makeover---call now, no obligation. Five Romance books to first 10 callers!

And btw, Robin (OccGuestBlogger), thanks for your comment and links to even more programs.

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