Plagiarism update: Disgraced ‘Assassins’ sells like hot cakes.
I’m not the least surprised, and I’m sure you aren’t either, that Assassin of Secrets, the spy novel revealed Tuesday as a Frankenbook stitched from at least 13 previous novels, has become a bestseller.
And why not? I kind of want to see the thing myself, though not quite enough to rush out and look for it at my local bookstore. Do we still have a local bookstore here in Fort Lauderdale? Oh, yeah: Barnes & Nobel. The things we must be grateful for these days…
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.
In other news, it’s becoming clear that Quentin Rowan, perpetrator of this delicious fraud, is merely a sad little con, and not, as I speculated in yesterday’s blog, a brilliant hoaxter, or better yet, a trailblazing 21st century mash-up artist.
Little, Brown withdrew Assassin of Secrets on Tuesday — which only incited readers to buy up the remaining copies before they could disappear.
According to the Huffington Post, Assassin of Secrets jumped from 62,924 on Amazon.com’s sales ranking, to 174 by Wednesday afternoon.
You might think this yet another example of the gullibility and general boobishness of the American public, but a far more charitable face can be attached to it. Americans are not stupid (except, of course, when we are), we just love a grand fraud, or its slightly more reputable cousin, a clever hoax.
Yesterday I speculated, with perhaps unseemly joy, that Rowan, who writes under the name “Q.R. Markham,” had produced Assassin of Secrets not as your run-of-the-mill plagiarist, hoping to get rich filching other people’s work, but as a 21st century literary appropriation artist in the manner of David Shields.
Or, almost as good, Rowan was a hoaxter, creating Assassin of Secrets specifically to be discovered and cause just this uproar.
Now it’s increasingly clear that Rowan had no such lofty creative or critical aims in mind. A friend from the Northeast, who must remain nameless, saw Rowan/Markham at a Manhattan book signing last week, and wrote to report the “author” “looked scared to death about something.”
Someone by the screen name of “Steve” wrote to share a couple of incriminating reports: “Q.R. Markham Basically Plagiarized Everything He Ever Wrote, Including a HuffPo Column,” from the New York Observer, and a New York Daily News story in which Rowan is quoted saying, “I can’t lie, making some kind of money off my writing always appealed to me, but certainly the appeal grew stronger as I got older.”
However seamy Rowan’s disgrace may be — and what a nitwit! — it does not diminish the value of Assassin of Secrets as a hoax/art work of potent power. By appropriating the work of so many other writers, he produced a book that fooled editors, critics, and fellow spy novelists. It’s damning to the entire genre that this fraud was not discovered before publication.
A friend who toils in the fields of genre, though in crime fiction rather than spy novels, wrote to ask with some indignation whether I was joking or actually suggesting that genre fiction is inherently inferior, which got me to thinking:
I’ve always held that the conventions of genre writing, like the conventions of the sonnet, can be not only confining but also liberating. Further, I admire the craftsmanship that goes into an exemplary genre novel, even (especially!) if it doesn’t aspire to transcend that genre.
In crime fiction, which I read somewhat more than the spy thriller, I can name a few outstanding authors — Elmore Leonard, Richard Price, Colin Harrison, Laura Lippman, and many others.
What’s more, at every opportunity I have argued that serious literary fiction is also a genre, though one that holds itself in excessive regard. Scorn rains down on my head from the highbrow contingent each time I say this.
True, in theory literary fiction has no conventions, and it practitioners are free to go whether their muse takes them. In practice, however, trends and fashions come and go, and many literary writers scrupulously adhere to them.
Consider the misconception that vagueness is more profound than specificity, that an open-ended story is more literary than one that has an ending. What nonsense.
My affection for the genres notwithstanding, the failure of experts — editors, critics, fellow spy novelists — to detect anything amiss with Assassin of Secrets at each stage of the production process poses problematic implications.
This failure — Little, Brown published the book, critics praised it, authors blurbed it — suggests strongly that spy novelists are not merely observing convention when they write. They are copying the work of other writers whose work has proven successful.
I see three ways to write a genre novel, once you’ve read enough of them to familiarize yourself with the form: 1) You write from life, with conventions in mind; 2) You write from your own creative imagination; 3) You write mostly from your reading of other writers, striving to ape what’s sold well.
Clearly, the general run of spy novelists are following 3 — a recipe for turning your genre into the kind of derivative pablum that would allow a clever con artist to string together passages from 13 existing books and fool experts into thinking it’s really, really good.
Exceptions must exist, and even from my paltry reading of the genre I can name three: Le Carre — natch!; Oleg Steinhauer, with his average-guy spy, Milo Weaver; and Charles Cumming, who, in books like the excellent Trinity Six, touches the bases while focusing more on character than plot.
But the implications of the Markham/Rowarn to-do are clear: Something stinks in spy thriller game.