“It felt very much like putting an
elaborate puzzle together."
Quentin Rowan, a 35-year-old writer with a photographic memory, wrote his spy novel Assassin of Secrets by stealing large chunks of other spy novels. (And not just a little stealing: in the first 35 pages, he plagiarized 34 times.) After he was caught and his novel was withdrawn by his publisher, he tried to explain the hows and whys to writer Lizzie Widdicombe:
Over fifteen years, Rowan had become adept at it. “All I did was read. I knew what felt right,” he told me. “I could kind of picture the set of books that I had been using”—he corrected himself—“stealing from. And I’d think, What about that scene? I’d see the text on the page. I don’t know what you’d call that.” (The medical term is “eidetic memory.”)...Read the whole story: The Plagiarist’s Tale. The author of “Assassin of Secrets” had a secret of his own. The New Yorker>>
“There was almost a sense of it being a creative process,” he told me. He wrote to Duns, “It felt very much like putting an elaborate puzzle together. Every new passage added has its own peculiar set of edges that had to find a way in.”
I asked Rowan what had been going through his head. “That’s the thing I just can’t properly explain,” he replied. At one point in our conversations, he brought up Mallon’s book “Stolen Words,” which compares plagiarism to kleptomania. Rowan has never shoplifted, but he used the metaphor to explain why someone with literary talents would feel the need to plagiarize. “People who do it tend to be people who don’t actually need to—women on the Upper East Side, or Winona Ryder,” he said.
Rowan has offered a number of self diagnoses. In an e-mail to Duns, he confessed to a weakness for “people pleasing.” He told me that “the driving pressure was this perception that I have to constantly impress people . . . to make them like me.” More recently, on The Fix, he wrote, “I struggled with plagiarism in the same way others struggle with smoking, sex addiction, food addiction, and gambling.”
Critics were unsympathetic, comparing Rowan to a scandal-besieged politician who checks himself into rehab. From The Fix’s comments section: “Good essay. Who wrote it?” “Did I just step on the world’s tiniest violin? Boo hoo.” Yet the essay also spoke to a poignancy in Rowan’s misdeed—its willful perversion of the addictive pleasure of reading.
Most psychiatrists I talked to suggested that chronic plagiarism falls under the rubric of pathological lying, not addiction. Michael Stone, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia, places it in the “impostor” category, which includes financial fraudsters, such as Bernard Madoff. “It’s somebody who pretends to be someone who he isn’t and pretends to have skills that he doesn’t have,” Stone said, adding that it’s not unusual for this type of person to be law-abiding in all other areas of life: “It’s someone who you would speculate is making up for feelings of inadequacy by being overtly generous and ingratiating.” Of the wild risk-taking, he added, “The expectation that they’ll get away with it is embedded in their characters.”
Despite the comparisons to con men, plagiarism is not a crime. If the plagiarist reprints a larger chunk of someone else’s work than a judge finds permissible under the vague doctrine of fair use, he may be violating copyright laws. But plagiarism itself is more an ethical offense than a legal one. Eben Moglen, a copyright expert at Columbia, compared it to a taboo, such as “a table-manners violation.” He said, “There are many people who commit white-collar crimes but would never commit a violation of table manners—would never spit half-eaten food onto their plates.”