Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Literary homage or blatant plagiarism? Astrologer and chick-lit author Jessica Adams has been accused of plagiarising an Agatha Christie short story in her story, The Circle, which she contributed to the summer edition of The Big Issue. That link has PDFs of both stories, so you can decide for yourself. I also really like the way that the Murdoch press continually refers to Adams as "best-selling Australian author and Fairfax newspapers astrologer".

My opinion is that Adams has perpetrated a particularly shameless theft, not only of Christie's entire plot down to the smallest detail, but also of the characters and their relationships. The only differences are that Adams has changed the setting from rural England to rural Tasmania, the Stonehenge-like circle from a shrine to the goddess Astarte to some Aboriginal relic, and the murder weapon from a bronze dagger to a stone shard.

I would call it undergraduate, except that some undergrad plagiarists my friends and I have encountered are even more retarded: eg, the plagiarised bits of their essays are in a different font, or they cite the source of their plagiarism in the bibliography. For me, Adams' story is more like when my brother Lina was in year nine and plagiarised a short story that I'd written when I was in year nine, but in order to make it look more plausible, actually un-corrected my writing with misspellings and grammatical errors.

This has got me thinking about the nature of originality. In a well-considered response, Malcolm Knox writes: "Being nationally 'exposed' as a formula writer cribbing from another formula writer, for no money and a tiny audience, shows how virulently the stain of plagiarism can spread." And last year Malcolm Gladwell wrote about how a profile he'd penned for the New Yorker became the basis of the hit play Frozen. But galling as it is to hear theatre critics sagely quote dialogue that he'd written, Gladwell realises the limitations of the common idea that literary plagiarism is always 'wrong' and plagiarists should always go down for it:
Old words in the service of a new idea aren’t the problem. What inhibits creativity is new words in the service of an old idea. And this is the second problem with plagiarism. It is not merely extremist. It has also become disconnected from the broader question of what does and does not inhibit creativity. We accept the right of one writer to engage in a full-scale knockoff of another—think how many serial-killer novels have been cloned from The Silence of the Lambs. Yet, when Kathy Acker incorporated parts of a Harold Robbins sex scene verbatim in a satiric novel, she was denounced as a plagiarist (and threatened with a lawsuit).
Leaving aside the problematic distinction between plagiarism as legal problem (attribution of royalties) and moral problem (theft of intellectual property), I want to think about the Jessica Adams case in terms of whether originality and genre writing are incompatible ideas. Here is my confession. I have long held Adams up as an example of everything that's wrong with the Australian publishing industry. I also see Adams as an encouraging sign that minor things like an ability to string a sentence together need not hamper one's career as a writer.

A few years ago, I was reading my favourite cutting-edge journal, Sunday Life, which had a puff piece about Adams which, although not explaining the alarming difference in colour between her face and decolletage, did explain how she became the astrological chick-lit behemoth we behold today. You see, apparently Adams had been working for a women's magazine, and had so annoyed her co-workers with her superstitions that she ended up writing the horoscopes. From there she compiled a book of horoscopes for women, and it was only a hop, skip and jump to convince her publishers to let her write nincompoopish novels aimed at women.

Here is a passage from Adams' first novel, Single White E-Mail. She went on to write others with names like Tom, Dick and Debbie Harry.
The act of taking my clothes off has done something to me on the inside as well, and the more I try not to cry, the more I do cry. It feels all wrong, I suppose. Not just because he's different, and we're stuck in this plastic beige hotel room in the middle of the Blue Mountains. It's more to do with me. I'm conning myself and I've only just realised it. I'm not sure who I thought I was being this weekend. Tattoo Lawyer? Whoever it was, the only person I've actually managed to pack is me. And I'm useless. I might have woken up feeling numb about Dan a few days ago, but he's the only person I want holding me at the moment. (Single White E-Mail pp129-130)
I got this novel as a present years ago and was outraged about the plainly ill-informed way it depicted the workings of an ad agency (this was back when I was interested in being a copywriter). I had a whole paragraph outlining the reason for this outrage, but it would only bore you. Basically, I think Jessica Adams is a poor writer because her awkward, over-explicated dialogue and semi-coherent prose are self-indulgent without being self-aware, let alone aware of how her writing sits in relation to other people's.

On one hand, it feels quite petty to expect this kind of intertextuality from genre writing, when as Knox points out, it is by definition unoriginal. And part of the pleasure of genre writing is anticipating and recognising its conventions. But on the other hand, shouldn't good genre writing rework and challenge its conventions rather than just repeat them? Isn't that where the originality lies? I am quite astonished that Adams sees her propensity to strew her writing with astrological jargon (rather than riff on Jane Austen novels, for example) as proof of her originality:
"People who are fans of mine and also astrology fans have instantly picked up on that and seen that the basis of the story is, I guess, one of my trademarks," Ms Adams said.

"I always leave a little astrological clue in what I'm doing, have done in all my novels.

"Honestly, I don't ever think Agatha Christie used astrology in any of her short stories."

Indeed. I think Adams shouldn't be allowed to get away with ripping off Agatha Christie simply because they are both genre writers. I think she should be shown up as the thoughtless hack that I have always suspected her to be. In conclusion, here is the horoscope that Adams, a Leo, had penned in the Sunday Life the previous week:

If you face opposition or challenging people this week, you're likely to come up with your most cunning plan yet. You'll get away with it, too, if you're clever, but don't get carried away with your success.

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