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