If You Could Plagiarize Anyone, Who Would It Be?

· Joanthan Poritsky

his “confession” that went up on The Fix today is the first I’m hearing about outed plagiarist Quentin Rowan. Under the pseudonym Q.R. Markham, he has been a rising star in the literary world culminating with the publication of his spy novel, Assassin of Secrets, a few weeks ago. It turns out that none of his writing was original, but lifted from a multitude of sources.

In his confession, Rowan tries to explain away his misdeeds, branding plagiarism an addiction that replaced his alcoholism.

They call a person like me a Plagiarist. It’s one of the harsher words we have in our language. Perhaps not up there with Pedophile or Rapist, but not as far behind as you’d think either. For years, I’d been dreading being called that word, and marveled all the while that I’d somehow avoided being caught.

Unsurprisingly, his original writing is pretty terrible:

Some months after my first [AA] meeting a poem I’d written in high school was picked for the Best American Poetry anthology. I was 19. My ego had already left the building. I should have been at my happiest, getting into my studies and rejoicing at the blowjob heaven of youth and possibility in those playground groves of academe. Instead, I spent sleepless nights trying to recapture whatever oddball inspiration I’d had that landed me in the Anthology. (Emphasis mine.)

My eyes don’t roll back far enough. I’ll concede that Rowan has a problem and is in need of help, but that’s no excuse for his actions. He committed a crime, a grave one. He will get no sympathy from me.

The whole affair got me thinking about a session I attended at SXSW in March called “The Blogger Centipede: How Content is Eroding Credibility.” I wrote a little bit about it back when it was fresh. The panel was an illustrious group of movie bloggers including Anne Thompson, Matt Patches and William Goss. In the audience was most of the top- tier online film writers working today. It was a formidable set of professionals who are deadly serious about this business.

The session was about how cribbing content hurts us all; it was basically an intro to not plagiarizing, or how not to be a jerk online. When things moved to Q & A, a woman in the front of the room, who apparently hadn’t been listening too well, asked, “If you could plagiarize anyone, who would it be?” The panel was aghast; the audience groaned. Was she for real? She kept trying to rephrase the same question: who would you steal from if you knew you wouldn’t get caught? The answer, of course, is no one. Plagiarizing other writers undermines the whole concept of writing, and those of us who attended the session were (mostly) people committed to foisting our own opinions on others.

For these many months I’ve given this questioner the benefit of the doubt, assuming that what she meant to say was, “If you had the ability to write as well as any one writer, who would it be?” Now, though, reading Quentin Rowan’s lame defense, I wonder if she meant exactly what she said. Perhaps she was voicing a point of view that comes from the scuzzy underbelly of internet culture, the same place that led to the panel in the first place. Is the taboo of plagiarism eroding? Is it actually becoming hip to do a veritable super-cut of other writers’ words? If you can tweet a quote and a link, why not blog a quote instead? Why not the whole article? It’s just aggregation, right?

The gap between the standup internet citizen and the internet plagiarist is getting smaller. Rowan is now the poster child for plagiarism, but how long until he is viewed as a rock star? He was anything but lazy, which is why his crimes went unnoticed for so long. Sadly, I wonder if there isn’t a surge of new writers who will be comfortable lifting work from writers far better than themselves.

That woman at SXSW may be one of many who have had right and wrong jumbled up for them. I hope that’s not the case, that everyone can see Rowan and his ilk for what they are: charlatans and thieves. The gift of the Internet is that so many voices can contribute to an unending international conversation. There’s no room left for copycats.