Terry Prone: How plagiarist John Hughes doubled down on his own downfall

The novelist responded badly to being caught, capped by his complaint that it had all, you know, really ruined his week
Terry Prone: How plagiarist John Hughes doubled down on his own downfall

John Hughes was revealed to have lifted large swathes of other people's work and first defended his actions, then said it was all a mistake, and ultimately complained the revelation had caused him a difficult week. File picture: Steve Bacon/Fairfax/Getty

You steal something from someone. You steal something that is uniquely theirs, that goes to the heart of the valence of their work. You sell it as yours. Oddly enough, you’re unlikely to evoke interest from the Director of Public Prosecutions and the person from whom you stole is most likely to shrug and regard you with mild pity rather than fury.

You don’t go to prison and you’re not forced to make it up to them. But you are destroyed, anyway. The firm that discovered your talent has to recall your product in much the same way grocery chains recall items riven with botulism. Those who publicly praised you are made to look like fools.

Such is the truth of plagiarism, personified in the last week by Australian novelist John Hughes. His new novel, The Dogs, includes material someone noticed as being closely related to sections of a book entitled The Unwomanly Face of War. This in turn captured the attention of the Australian Guardian.

That paper embarked on an investigation to see if Hughes had just inserted a couple of minor pieces from the book or had been more enthusiastic in his pilferage. They spotted just under 60 instances of text in The Dogs that was either similar to or identical to sections in that earlier book.

Svetlana Alexievich, who researched and wrote The Unwomanly Face of War, a truly magnificent oral history, together with her translator, took a dim view of this multiple theft.

Belarusian journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich celebrating news of her Nobel Prize for literature in 2015. She understandably took a dim view of the news that her work had been plagiarised. Picture: Sergei Grits/AP
Belarusian journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich celebrating news of her Nobel Prize for literature in 2015. She understandably took a dim view of the news that her work had been plagiarised. Picture: Sergei Grits/AP

They suggested that maybe The Dogs might not be legitimately in contention for a major Australian literary award with a kitty worth the equivalent of about €40,000 because, as they put it, “Such things don’t happen by coincidence: not with such specific words, sequences, voicing.”

Hughes’ book speedily disappeared off the long list of that competition.

But the fascinating thing is that Hughes hadn’t confined himself to that one book. He had also folded into the mix passages bearing a remarkable similarity to chunks of household name books by Erich Maria Remarque and F Scott Fitzgerald. By “remarkable similarity” what is meant is sentences — even paragraphs — lifted pretty much verbatim from the original and deposited in his text, sometimes with a word or two changed. But only a word or two.

After The Guardian published their findings, Hughes said this investigation had given him the most difficult week of his writing career. This suggests he did not have the services of a good communications consultant, because even an average consultant would have told him this was not a good place to start. Complaining that your week was spoiled by you getting found out stealing from other writers is odd and pointless. You did it all by yourself, unprovoked.

Saying you had a lousy week is not going to make any uninvolved reader experience a rush of sympathy for you, even if we weren’t in an era where rushes of sympathy are infrequent. But people do odd things when they think they’re retrieving their reputation from the mincer, and that was only the first odd thing Hughes did.

“I don’t think I am a plagiarist more than any other writer who has been influenced by the greats who have come before them,” he said.

Now, no matter how you slice it, that’s proper delusional. Being influenced by a great literary figure who came before you does happen. But being influenced by them and nicking their material are two different things, although Hughes, in his attempted self-justification, went on to claim that writers have always done this kind of copy-nicking: “You take, you make something else out of it. You make it your own.” 

Fine, really. And if he had stuck to that as a theory exculpating his plagiarism, it might not have worked, but consistency might have served him.

Instead, having suggested that it was grand out, entirely, to steal someone else’s work, improve it and put your stamp on it (even though he demonstrably, in most cases, hadn’t either put his stamp on it or improved it) he then said that it was all an accident. 

He advanced a case for the defence of stealing, in other words, and then claimed not to have stolen anything. And then put the tin hat on it by announcing that “there is nothing more disturbing than discovering your creative process is not what you had assumed”.

Hughes, in blaming his creative process for going rogue without telling him, has something in common with other famous people accused of plagiarism.

Svetlana Alexievich was not alone, as John Hughes plagiarised the work of a slew of other writers too, including F Scott Fitzgerald. File picture: Hulton Archive/Getty
Svetlana Alexievich was not alone, as John Hughes plagiarised the work of a slew of other writers too, including F Scott Fitzgerald. File picture: Hulton Archive/Getty

Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian who wrote Team of Rivals, about Abraham Lincoln’s administration, was badly caught out when sections of an earlier book proved to have an uncomfortable closeness to another book on the same topic.

She blamed the research methods of the time, suggesting handwritten notes led more easily to those notes becoming incorporated into a manuscript than would happen today. Many non-fiction writers would say the contrary is true: that it is dangerously easy to input text from a source document and inadvertently include it in your own work. However, Kearns Goodwin had the wit to put her hands up in immediate media interviews, to promise rectification in later editions of the book in question, and to announce that she had asked her publishers to withdraw the paperback edition. That didn’t stop PBS from removing her from their programmes, but — unusually among proven plagiarists — she stayed afloat, in terms of reputation.

Weird commonalities link many of those who have plagiarised, including that three is the magic number of books from which most of them filch material. One exception to this rule is an American writing as QR Markham, who got caught over a decade ago, initially for implanting text from another writer in his novel. Then someone other than the first person to notice the similarities began to check out other sections of the new book that seemed vaguely familiar.

It turned out that the guy had plagiarised more than 10 previous works. Later, with the engaging lack of insight that unites many plagiarists, he claimed that the people most likely to cog the work of other writers were the ones who didn’t really need to, likening it to kleptomania, where people who have more than enough money to buy goods — like Winona Ryder — shoplift them for reasons rooted in their psychological makeup. 

The inference to be drawn from this would appear to be that QR Markham was a good enough writer, all on his own, not to be pimping up his manuscript with any shiny bit that took his fancy from whatever he happened to be reading at the time. He did, however, write letters of apology to the novelists from whom he stole, including thriller writer Charles McCarry

McCarry later commented on the apology with realistic generosity: “Poor guy — all that cutting and pasting and no joy. He has done me no harm and I bear him no ill will.”

Complaining that your week was spoiled by you getting found out stealing from other writers is odd and pointless

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