Lately, it seems every week brings a new story--or two--about plagiarists, literary frauds, or just simple pretenders. And, while I look forward to watching Can You Ever Forgive Me? this weekend (yay, RedBox), I am incredibly conflicted about the whole thing, especially now that such scams are probably easier than ever to perpetrate.
My recent exploration of pretenders came about in part because of the two documentaries covering the Fyre Festival Fiasco. I recommend them both, as for those of us who are not prone to pretending to the level of fraudulent behavior, they are mind-boggling in their own ways (Netflix did one, as did Hulu. The main difference is Hulu interviewed Billy McFarland at length while Netflix's doc is more about the whole set up with no interviews with BF. So, yeah, watch them both).
After seeing those documentaries, I, like many folks probably thought, "Oh, I would never be taken in like that." And, in terms of paying crazy amounts of money to go to a concert, that is true for me. I usually opt for buying all of the albums of the artist and sitting in the comfort of my own home, rather than go to a show (there are exceptions--Jamie Cullum and Brandi Carlile are examples of where I will pony up for the albums AND go to the shows).
But then I came across less costly fraud. Specifically, the New Yorker story about Dan Mallory came out, followed by tons of other pieces about his pretend author bio. I went back and looked at interviews with Mallory from his book tour before the news broke that he'd faked cancer and peed in cups around his boss' office. In those interviews, he comes across as very odd and unstable. That he was able to get away with it for so long, and that he kept his job by telling outlandish and unbelievable stories so he could be away from work smacked of a certain kind of privilege. His ability to effortlessly give himself a "double doctor" status and shovel his editing work on underlings while he wrote his novel, probably while getting leave pay due to his "cancer" angers me still.
Follow that up with the story of J. T. LeRoy, which happened years ago, but was new to me, and I have a conundrum. The level of outrage over what really was a publicity stunt brought about by a lack of confidence on Laura Albert's part surprised me. But she's weathered the storm fairly well, it seems, landing jobs on shows like Deadwood and also being open in the documentary (streaming on Amazon) and on social media.
While I get that people felt hoodwinked in both of these cases, they still make for pretty amazing true stories about fiction writers.
This week, though, we have a topper, ladies and gentlemen. Romance writer (?) Cristiane Serruya was found to have plagiarized a lot of work from a lot of people. Courtney Milan did a great job of uncovering examples of stolen work, and the last 24 hours have seen multiple #CopyPasteCris posts from readers and other writers. This person reportedly existed, is a lawyer, and claimed to have used a ghostwriter who apparently wasn't honest.
Even if it hadn't come out later from contact with Milan by former ghost writers that Serruya's MO was to provide ghost writers with a pile of excerpts/scenes and ask them to make it all work (thus indicating she is the one copying and pasting, not her exploited ghost writers), she would still be guilty. Why would an indie writer, which Serruya was, hire ghost writers? Editors, yes. But ghost writers? Why?
Probably because she knew ghost writers assume the work was hers whereas an editor well-versed in the genre would catch the plagiarism.
When I was in graduate school a million years ago, I did work in the History department. Specifically, my program had a two foreign language requirement, but you could swap one out for graduate level courses in another discipline if you could prove the work was important to your field and research focus. History and Literature are pretty inextricably linked, so it was an easy case for me to make. I focused on historiography and on women's history primarily, but took a variety of courses. One summer, I took courses with an older professor who took an interest in my writing and my research skills and asked for help on a project said professor had coming up. That assignment went well, and they asked for help with another.
I was still in the coursework phase of my PhD in American Literature. I was flattered. I kept an eye out for articles coming out by said professor, and when the book was due to come out from the first assignment, I asked about how I should list the publication on my CV. After some awkward bumbling, they said, "Oh, I put in a footnote that you offered 'bibliographical assistance.'"
To be clear, I read the essay when the book came out. At one time, I had a photocopy of the essay where I was footnoted for my "bibliographical assistance." Th essay contained pages of work written by me. The material I'd handed this person was the length of a book chapter or regular article that would appear in a peer-reviewed journal in my field or theirs--25-30 MS pages. And this person simply wrote some introductory bits and conclusion bits around what I provided.
I had been a ghostwriter and not known it, apparently. I don't remember what happened with the second project; I remember working on it, but I don't remember where it was supposed to appear. I have a vague memory of it being for a conference presentation or something, so it likely was presented and if printed at all is in some Proceedings somewhere.
Why am I telling this story in relation to all of these cases of pretenders? In part because they are all of a theme, but also because this constant barrage of literary fraud lately isn't anything new. Ironically, the history prof who liberally used my writing railed about Stephen Ambrose when it was found he was a plagiarist. Pot meet kettle.
This all happened in the late 1990s. Google didn't exist. Email was new, and I still checked it at the library, reading green text on a black screen. I was a doctoral student in another department--who would believe me that not only I was doing work on the side that I wouldn't get school credit for, but also that someone with long-standing tenure would steal that work and claim it for their own? I had print outs from my Brother word processor typewriter thing, but there was no way to prove the dates on those files. There was no pulling up files on Google Drive to show chain of ownership. And, of course, I hadn't mailed the paper to myself as a poor girl's copyright.
I never in a million years thought that someone I respected and learned from would steal from me.
And today, I say it is extra shitty when indie writers add to the bad perception of those of us who are busting our humps to write and publish our own stuff. Kindle Unlimited is becoming a cesspool of exploitation and fraud it seems. Those of us who aren't trying to pull a fast one get lost in the sludge--the book stuffers, the plagiarists, the book mills.
Let's hope that the same digital formats that make it easy to steal and easy to catch when folks do copy leads to some clear punishment for plagiarists. My fear, though, is that since Serruya lives in Brasil, and we're not even certain this person fully exists any more than J. T. LeRoy does, that the only thing that will happen is that their income stream is down long enough for them to rebrand themselves and retitle their books.