The Markham Plagiarism Case

QR Markham, author of the spy thriller Assassin of Secrets, has been accused of plagiarism, as people identify multiple passages in his book that originally appeared elsewhere (such as in books by Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum). The publisher (Little, Brown) has recalled all copies of his book. And it turns out that a Huffington Post article written by Markham also used the words of someone else. So Huffington Post removed all articles by him. In other words, things aren't going well for Markham.

But what makes this case strange is an article in the New Yorker by Macy Halford, speculating that Markham (which is the pen name of Quentin Rowan) deliberately used other people's words in his novel in order to make an artistic statement — both to comment on the lack of originality in the spy genre and to turn his own readers into detectives:

If Rowan is trying to comment upon the spy genre—on how it is both tired and endlessly renewable, on how we as readers of the genre want nothing but to be astonished again and again by the same old thing—then he has done a bang-up job. If he wants to comment on our current notions of discovery, to turn us all into armchair detectives, Googling here and there and everywhere to solve the puzzle, he is a genius.

But Halford acknowledges that if this was Markham's intention, then he was far too clever for his own good, because he shot himself in the foot. Who's going to publish him after this?

This isn't the first time that apologists for a literary hoaxer have argued that the hoaxer's actions should be viewed charitably, as some kind of artistic statement about writing and the creative process. For instance, during the JT LeRoy case, defenders of Laura Albert (who manipulated readers into believing that LeRoy was a real person) made a similar argument, suggesting that Albert was an artistic genius, not a con artist.

The argument speaks to the strange morality that differentiates hoaxes from frauds (or lies). We condemn liars for taking advantage of people's trust. But hoaxes have traditionally been viewed as a special kind of lie — ones in which we forgive the liar and instead blame their victims for being too gullible. So when someone gets caught perpetrating a sensational act of deception, there's often a debate about whether their act should be interpreted as a simple lie or a forgivable hoax.

Such debates usually boil down to two key considerations: Did the hoaxer/liar leave a lot of clues about their intention? (That is, did they make the lie or theft kind of obvious?) And did they profit financially from the act?

Markham pretty much strikes out on both considerations. So I doubt he's going to be remembered as a rogue literary genius.


Posted on Mon Nov 14, 2011


I wonder if art thief Chad Liberman will attempt a similar line of reasoning when he is finally hauled before a judge...
Posted by Robin Bobcat  on  Mon Nov 14, 2011  at  11:12 AM
The Cardiff Giant fails this test. I don't think there were clues left behind intentionally, and profit was definitely the motive.
Posted by George P Burdell  on  Mon Nov 14, 2011  at  10:01 PM
It would have been obvious if the central character flipped between the Markham lead and lets say "Bond".
Posted by Mr R  on  Tue Nov 15, 2011  at  02:03 AM
Good point, George. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I can think of hoaxers who profited from what they did -- and yet were still publicly celebrated. So I'll need to think of some more criteria to figure out why some hoaxes are accepted and others are condemned.

Instead of pointing to whether the hoaxer left clues, perhaps I should have pointed to the obviousness of the hoax itself, and whether people are later perceived as having been gullible for believing it. If a hoax exposes credulity -- even if the hoaxer profits from the hoax -- the hoax tends to get some public approval.

The element of creativity also plays a role, which is why plagiarists are never celebrated, that I can think of.
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Tue Nov 15, 2011  at  01:43 PM
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