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‘Assassin of Secrets:’ Plagiarism scandal or cutting-edge work of genius?

November 9, 2011

 Taking a quick break from Miami Book Fair coverage, I ask the burning question: Is Q.R. Markham the clumsiest plagiarist in history — or is he a genius of appropriation and spoof, a literary Duchamp?

If I can stop laughing long enough, I’ll tell that I come down soundly on the latter interpretation.

Assassin of Secrets — a much-praised new spy novel that turns out to be constructed largely of sections lifted entire from previous spy novels — is the funniest and most revealing development in genre publishing in my lifetime. And (ahem) I’m not young.

Visit the Miami Book Fair International website to see the glittering author list (Roseanne Cash! Jeffrey Eugenides! Nicole Kraus! Michael Ondaajte! Hundreds more! Literally!). This year’s fair runs Nov. 13-20.

If one clever boy can cut-and-paste his way to such pre-pub praise as “instant classic,” what does that say about the spy novel as a general enterprise? Before we answer that question, let’s treat ourselves to the spectacle of venerable critical venues and fellow spymeisters wiping the egg from their faces:

  • “A dazzling, deftly controlled debut that moves through familiar territory with wry sophistication.” Kirkus (starred review).
  • “[F]ine writing keeps the enterprise firmly on track, and the obvious Ian Fleming influence just adds to the appeal.” PW (starred review).
  • ” Dangerously sharp, and genuinely fun–and very, very, very smart…I want more books from the mind of Mr. Markham!” (Greg Rucka, bestselling author of The Last Run and Queen & Country ).
  • “Q.R. Markham’s thrilling debut is just like his spy hero: ambitious and audacious. More, please.” (Duane Swierczynski, Edgar-nominated author of Severance Package and Fun & Games ).
  • “Instant classic!” (Jeremy Duns, author of acclaimed spy novels such as Free Agent and Song of Treason)
  • All this for a book in which long sections are lifted virtually verbatim from such novels as License Renewed, a James Bond novel by John Gardner; Body of Secrets, a nonfiction spy book by James Bamford; The Tears of Autumn, by Charles McCarry; The Prometheus Deception, by Robert Ludlum.
All told, 13 books have been identified as supplying the actual text for much of Assassin of Lies, and more may be found as readers and Internet jockeys pour over the text.Little, Brown, which published the debut spy novel under its Mullholland Books imprint, yanked the title on Tuesday. It had been in stores since Nov. 3, and was set for Nov. 10 publication in the UK.Provided you can bear the mouse-squeak of dry handwringing, the full story can be found at the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal and many other sites online.

Q.R. Markham turns out to be a pseudonym for Quentin Rowan, a poet whose work has appeared in the Paris Review and the Best American Poetry 1996 anthology. He is said to be an investor in a Brooklyn bookstore, Spoonbill & Sugartown.

Since Tuesday,

Markham/Rowan and the UK dust jacket.

Rowan has laid low. No one’s talked to him yet.To Duns’ credit, once he became aware of murmurings on the Internet, he joined the hunt. By the simple expedient of typing lines from Assassin into Google, he quickly identified 13 previously published novels from which Markham/Rowan had lifted substantial material. (You can find Duns’ thorough and honest mea culpa at his website, The Debrief.)”Entire sequences are from other novels,” Duns told the Wall Street Journal. “He didn’t even bother to rework anything. It must be the worst case of plagiarism I’ve ever seen. How did he think he’d get away with this? He fooled me, but others were bound to notice eventually—as they did.”

The worst case of literary plagiarism — or a daring act of 21st century literary art? After all, this kind of thing is exactly what David Shields calls for in his manifesto Reality Hunger, one of the most discussed nonfiction books of last year. Shields declares the world has grown “unbearably artificial,” while the literary novel has become as lifeless a form as the bodice ripper.

Shields argues against the perceived superiority of the individual imagination, and lobbies for an emerging art consisting of cut-and-paste, mash-ups and other forms of appropriation. Indeed, Reality Hunger is composed almost entirely of unsourced fragments form other publications, his own and those of other authors.

Markham/Rowan seems merely to have taken Shields’ principles and applied them to the spy novel — thereby exposing the “unbearably artificial” nature of this popular literary genre. As everyone –experts such as acclaimed authors, critics, and the editors at Mullholland Books — thought Assassin of Secrets an outstanding espionage novel, then should it not be embraced rather than withdrawn?

I call upon Little, Brown to put the books back on the shelves and to defend Markham/Rowan as a courageous new kind of artist. Pair him with Shields and stick them on Oprah — what a show that would be! What? Orpah’s no longer on? Bah! Then put ’em on the Daily Show!
Or perhaps Markham/Rowan is a brillaint hoaxter, Assassin of Lies a bold and brilliant spoof. Maybe he intended not to get away with passing off his “novel” as a serious piece of genre entertainment, but to foment exactly this kind of uproar, just as Duchamp did when he drew a mustache and goatee on a cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa.And of course, it may be that Markham/Rowan is another sad, pathetic plagiarist who really did hope to get away with it. God, I hope not.But whatever the facts may turn out to be regarding Rowan and his motivations, the truth about spy novels is out. No one can tell a real one from a brazen mash-up. And that means that spy fiction in general is, as Shields might say, imitation writing, the narrative analogue to canned soup or processed cheese.

Even today, Duns admits: “I really did enjoy the novel, which seemed to me to combine all the familar tropes I like about spy fiction into one book, but to use some wonderful imagery and language to do so.”
Hoo-ha. What fun! My thanks to you, Mr. Markham/Rowan!
23 Comments leave one →
  1. Jon Jordan permalink
    November 9, 2011 2:29 pm

    It wasn’t cool when Vanilla Ice did it and it’s not cool now. If he had told people where the stuff came from it would be art, he did not, so it’s just stealing.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 9, 2011 4:40 pm

      What did Vanilla Ice do that every rapper does — except of course, suck. Ice sucked in his own special way. But samples and mash-ups are old, old news by now. I don’t quite get your point.

  2. November 9, 2011 2:51 pm

    Markham’s method would probably work on any book that relys on a formula–westerns, horror, crime, vampire, etc. But plagiarism would be much harder to pull off in a work of what is called “literature” where voice and style are so distinct. I’m thinking George Eliot, John Updike, Norman Mailer, William Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Tolstoy or any combination you can name … well, the list is endless. But then again – didn’t William Burroughs do a cut and paste job on NAKED LUNCH, lifting passages from newspapers and magazines and other books? Seems like I read that he did, but I’m not sure. Of course, many might say that Burroughs wrote porn, not literature.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 9, 2011 4:41 pm

      Yes, but Burroughs did it by cutting and shuffling, so that startling new arrangements emerged. I still don’t like it, but it’s not exaclty plagiarism. I like to think you’re right about serious literature being proof against this kind of thing. Surely you are….

  3. November 9, 2011 2:56 pm

    You know, sometimes I can’t tell when you are kidding but I really hope this is one case where you are. This has nothing to do with “genre” writing. He also fooled the Paris Review with his “fiction.” A dirtbag is a dirtbag and it has nothing to do with how high or low he’s aiming.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 9, 2011 4:42 pm

      But the work he did for the Paris Review was poetry. I haven’t seen it, but for now I’m presuming it was original.

      • November 9, 2011 7:28 pm

        He published a story in the The Paris Review called “Bethune Street,” in which he “wrote”:

        “Time gives poetry to a battlefield, or some equivalent modern-day gathering at the rim of the awful, and perhaps these St. Luke’s girls were like little flowers on an old rampart where an attack had been repulsed with heavy loss many years ago.”

        He ripped off Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana:

        “Time gives poetry to a battlefield, and perhaps Milly resembled a little the flower on an old rampart where an attack had been repulsed with heavy loss many years ago.”

        There’s a lot more of this. I agree with Steve. The guy’s a jealous little jerk.

  4. November 9, 2011 4:10 pm

    Sometimes a lazy thief is just a lazy thief. Success eluded the sadly deluded “author” and so he ripped off a baker’s dozen real authors who had to actually work for it. It’s not brilliant, it’s theft.

    James A. Moore

  5. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 9, 2011 4:44 pm

    Whether it’s brilliant or whether it’s theft depends largely upon his intent. Was it theft when Duchamp painted a mustache on the Mona Lisa?

    And no one is engaging poor Mr. Shields, and his argument that originality no longer being possible, we should all just steal from each other…

  6. November 9, 2011 5:55 pm

    FYI, Rowan has made a habit of stealing from other writers, as discussed here:

    You can also get an inkling of his motivations here:

    Was he out to make a postmodern statement about contemporary fiction? I don’t think so. It seems to me he was motivated by envy, contempt and greed.

    Please don’t make him a hero. He doesn’t deserve it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 9, 2011 10:25 pm

      How very disappointing, but you do make a powerful case.

  7. tskov permalink
    November 9, 2011 6:50 pm

    A mash-up? A re-mix? I love it. Brilliant. Wish I had a copy.

  8. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 9, 2011 10:51 pm

    Let me remind everyone that I did allow in the original post that Rowan might be another sad, pathetic plagiarist who thought he get away with it. Which dumber than a Ponzi schemer, another species of miscreant who always gets caught.

    This doesn’t let the spy genre off the hook, however. A number of experts — critics, editors, and other writers — read and loved Rowan’s fraud. They did not detect any change in style as it slid from one theft to another. Which can only mean that spy thrillers have grown so lazy and derivative that one cannot be told from the other.

    Some exceptions exist, of course. Le Carre — natch! And while I don’t read a lot in the spy genre, I can name two others: Oleg Steinhauer, with his trilogy about an average-guy spy, Milo Weaver. Charles Cumming is the author of Trinity Six, among other thrillers, which is one of the best books I’ve read in the past year, a novel that beautifully modulates between character development and suspense.

    I’ve always believed that the conventions of genre writing, like the conventions of, say, the sonnet, can be not only confining but also liberating. In the crime suspense game, where I read somewhat more, I can name a number of excellent writers, from the obvious — Elmore Leonard, to lesser known but still famous such as Richard Price, Laura Lippman, and many others.

    What’s more, at every opportunity I have made the case that literary fiction is a genre, too, which never fails to bring cat calls raining down on my head from the highbrow crowd. True, in theory literary fiction has no limitations, its practitioners can go wherever their muse leads. But in practice, literary fiction has its fashions and conventions, too. One is the penchant for failing to bring a plot of conclusion, which is almost always more annoying than profound. Another is the way it ignores what people spend most of their time at –working.

    Nonetheless, the failure of the many experts who saw this book before it went on sale to detect the least problem is itself a meaningful problem. It strongly suggests that not only are spy novelists adhering to conventions, as they should, but that they are also writing not from experience or research or their own imaginations. No, clearly they are writing from their reading of preceding successful spy novels.

    This is a recipe for derivative mediocrity at best, genre senescence at worst.

  9. November 9, 2011 11:02 pm

    I am amazed that he was able to glue together passages from different writers while leaving them virtually unchanged and end up with something cohesive. Maybe it’s not that he fooled these reviewers, etc, but that these reviewers and such who praised the book up the wazoo have no real credibility and can be bought by L&B??

  10. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 9, 2011 11:33 pm

    Wrong, wrong, wrong. As a reviewer, I can tell you that’s not how it works. No one “buys” positive book reviews. It’s not that kind of corruption. It’s the corruption of ego.

  11. November 10, 2011 12:41 pm

    You know what they say– ‘Any press is good press’.

    Kudos to you, Chauncey, for going out on the proverbial limb here. I say if I’m not willing to at least read Q.R. Markham’s work, listen to Girl Talk, or go to a Mr. Brainwash show then shame on ME!

    p.s. And not surprisingly thanks to all this “negative” hubbub his book sales are up!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 10, 2011 1:02 pm

      Wait two minutes. I’m about to post on that.

  12. November 14, 2011 11:51 am

    The phenomenon of Assassin of Secrets may well be a commentary on the genre, on mainstream publishing houses, and on modern editorial practice, but whether Rowan is guilty of plagiarism or not has nothing to do with either his motivation or these interesting but ancillary issues. The simple fact is that he stole the work of others. A person who takes goods from a department store without paying for them is a thief and does not get off by proclaiming his actions to be performance art.

    As a writer of genre fiction, I take exception to those who would praise theft as art. Canny criminals who get caught are not set free simply because they were clever or stole with panache. My own work (under pen name, Lior Samson) is too little known to have made it onto Rowan’s radar, but had it, I would have been happy to do my bit to sue his pants off or even to help him spend time in the splendid isolation of a secure facility where he could write using his own words rather than those of others.

    –Larry Constantine (Lior Samson)

    • dana permalink
      November 14, 2011 3:36 pm

      Appropriations such as this are good for art and are good for sales. The worst thing that could happen to publishing is for people to lose interest. It’s good to have guys like QR showing people how to really get down and boogie with books.

      As a writer, I want people to be engaged with my work, if the spirit moves them. Most people will never read my reading. Of the few who do, most will read casually. I would feel lucky if my writing MOVED somebody to rip it from its pages and make it live a more full life.

      I wonder if there is a connection between the soaring costs of college education and our crazed desire to keep the wheels of business turning however businesses decide is best.

      It is surprising to hear artists favoring restrictions on the creative process.


  1. Q.R. Markham Assassin of Secrets Faces Massive Plagirism Charges | Readers Entertainment News
  2. Plagiarism is not Art – Q.R. Markham, Helene Hegemann and the Excuses of Cheaters | Cora Buhlert
  3. Art and theft, or, what’s good for the goose | That Shakespearean Rag

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