You Have No Right! Or Do You? I Don’t Know Anymore
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After weeks of thinking, whining, ranting, and being generally disoriented in the aftermath of Savage Gate (phrase courtesy of Seressia Glass), it finally dawned on me that all of the brouhaha, both with the plagiarism thing and the mean girl thing, is all about boundaries (yes, I know I’m slow). Where does “inspiration” end and plagiarism begin? What is and isn’t appropriate for readers to discuss? What is and isn’t okay for readers to want to know? What once seemed like a series of no-brainers to me have suddenly become contested territory, with ongoing struggles and negotiations, not only on the limits of intertextuality (which is a wonderfully vexing or fascinating gray zone, depending on your perspective), but also of where blogging ends and “reporting” begins, and even on the limits of civility (this last, of course, not always addressed directly).
For every right someone claims, of course, a boundary in the form of a competing right or limiting obligation circumscribes it. And every boundary one person thinks is obvious seems foreign to someone else. For example, as someone who doesn’t really need to know what an author thinks of processed meat or face care products, I am interested in how I can find out more about 5th century Visigoths or 19th century American women frontier lawyers. Inquiring about an author’s historical sourcework for a book seems a much more natural inquiry to me than a personal question about an author’s life. But apparently not everyone sees it that way. And what seems obvious to me – that authors and readers lose every time plagiarized books are given a pass, either overtly or inadvertently – maybe isn’t so simply defined by others. Rights and boundaries, once again. Where do they begin and end?
Most of the time I’m content to just muddle along, griping, as is my way, but basically content with the kvetching nature of online communication and the tensile negotiations between authors and readers. But the fallout from Savage Gate has got my spooked. Because for once is seems really important that there be some understanding of rights and boundaries, some agreement about what readers and authors have rights to and where our obligations to one another begin and end. Because on this issue – textual honesty – we should, it seems to me, stand together, if not necessarily in agreement. And yet, there not only seem to be significant schisms, but outright hostility between readers and authors. Hostility that has an uglier-than-usual edge to it.
You may remember the literary brouhaha of a little over a year ago involving Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement and Lucilla Andrews’s memoir No Time For Romance. An Oxford student noticed some similarities and contacted Andrews about them. Somehow, almost a year afterward, the story made the international press, and suddenly McEwan was under scrutiny of plagiarism. In an editorial for The Guardian McEwan wrote an eloquent and detailed defense of his use of Andrews’s memoir, concluding with the following:
I have openly acknowledged my debt to her in the author’s note at the end of Atonement, and ever since on public platforms, where questions about research are almost as frequent as “where do you get your ideas from?”. I have spoken about her in numerous interviews and in a Radio 4 tribute. My one regret is not meeting her. But if people are now talking about Lucilla Andrews, I am glad. I have been talking about her for five years.
I have been thinking a lot about Ian McEwan’s comments lately, about their sense of confidence, their lack of defensiveness, and their seeming lack of rancor. Whether one believes that McEwan acted badly in not offering a more detailed acknowledgment to Andrews or in not changing some of the phrases that echo hers, it is difficult, I think, to deny the tone of calm explanation in his words the sense that he, indeed, respects the rules as much as his critics. That he respects his readers, even those who accuse him. That he has, within his grasp, an understanding of and respect for the very issues for which he is under fire. That he isn’t standing behind an infantry line, defending his very life and limb against, well, against whatever might try to invade across his comfortable boundaries.
Despite the fact that a reader found the similarities between Atonement and No Time For Romance, and despite the press attention and accusations of everything from "discourtesy’ to plagiarism, the McEwan story never seemed to develop into a grudge match between the author and readers. So why did the Cassie Edwards issue careen so quickly down that road? Why the charges of “dishonor” among various smart bitches and intimations of witch huntsamong apparently mean girl power-mad, Google-happy readers, waiting to assault authors with questions about research sources we apparently have “no right to ask”?
Yes, yes, I realize that some of it was heat of the moment anxiety on the part of some authors who perhaps felt overwhelmed by the number of people weighing in on various blogs. And I can see where some of the reader anger over the number of examples could seem overzealous and not a little bit intimidating. And certainly not every reader showed their best face during the discussions. But still. It felt to me (and still does) that there was a frighteningly easy shift into reader v. author discourse, not just a deflection away from the issue of plagiarism, but a potent antipathy, especially from authors to readers.
There are so many things that have been circling in my head that I don’t know how to bring them all together in a coherent statement. I know they seem to cohere in the way I read Ian McEwan’s statement – from a man accused by some of no less than plagiarism – in contrast to the way I read numerous comments and blog posts in the aftermath of the Edwards situation. I understand that we’ve hit on yet another dispute over the boundaries of blogger conduct, author professionalism, reader expectations, and genre community ethics. But all I have are questions and problems.
For example, is the fact that McEwan can come across as so quietly confident a reflection of a inherent respect that literary fiction gets, as opposed to the quest for mainstream respect Romance seems endlessly to pursue? In other words, is it that McEwan didn’t have to be defensive because he was speaking from a perceived position of cultural power that Romance authors and readers might not feel themselves? And is the reader – author exchange going to be forever tainted by the perceived outcast status of Romance?
Or is there something different in the author – reader relationship in literary fiction than in Romance, something that changes the dynamics when an issue like this one arises? And is that something different related to gender or fan culture or something else (or a combination of things)?Do authors, in general, really feel reticent about discussing the outside sources they use in their books? McEwan’s statement (and my own experience with lit fic authors and readers) reflects a very different dynamic, one in which authors writing about history expect that their readers will be interested in that and will want to talk about it. So is there a sense in Romance that readers shouldn’t be interested in those things, that it’s a secret somehow, or is there a fear that any reader asking will want the information for unsavory purposes (like Googling the author’s book or writing something similar)?
Or are the references to witch hunts and bitches, etc. merely an anchor for an underlying disdain for a certain type of reader – that is, the reader who writes and/or reads critical reviews, the reader who doesn’t venerate the author or view every book published as entitled to a positive review (or no review at all)? In other words, did the Edwards situation just allow for voice to be given to simmering discontents on the part of authors toward readers? Or do authors feel that the Edwards controversy was itself an anti-author exercise, and if so, where did that perception come from?
One of the things I’ve had the hardest time understanding is the idea that bloggers and/or readers are exercising some sort of “power” in reporting on the plagiarism issue. Those comments feel to me (I’m not saying this is the case, just that it appears a certain way) as if some authors see themselves as lacking power or as in fear of readers. And this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this dynamic either, but the common theme seems to be this idea that authors have to fight against bad reviews or blog discussions, and other reader-centered exchanges. Simultaneously, though, I sometimes get the feeling that there are unspoken expectations and entitlements that readers are not meeting or recognizing – that we are crossing a line, somehow, by critically reading novels or writing critical reviews, or talking openly about something like plagiarism and even going so far as to talk about a specific author. If authors feel entitled to certain things, what are those, specifically, and can they be openly and civilly expressed and discussed?
Several authors expressed a real anxiety about how readers would act in the aftermath of the Edwards situation. Do authors really have so little trust in readers, or is there something else going on there? And if so, what is it? And where is all that hostility coming from? Is it really centered on this one issue, or is it reflective of other issues? And if it’s reflective of other issues, what are those?
If there is really a basic level of antagonism between authors and readers, I cannot imagine we can ever hope to come together on an issue as fundamental to our shared interests as plagiarism. And if that’s the case, maybe we need to face it now. To get it out in the open so that everyone knows what to expect and can feel liberated from inadvertently crossing someone else’s boundary line or feeling the need to defend one’s own rights. That’s certainly not my vision for the idea online Romance community, but sometimes I worry that’s where we’re headed, and while it might sound enticing in theory, I don’t think it would provide welcome relief but simply a new boundary crossed from which there’s no going back and, ironically, no real advance, either.
I don’t know anymore, so please help me understand all of this better.