Last week, The Guardian ended someone’s career. According to an investigation by the newspaper, the acclaimed Australian novelist John Hughes’s new book, The Dogs, contained no fewer than 58 instances of plagiarism from a range of works including Anna Karenina, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Great Gatsby. And it wasn’t a case of word replacement, thesaurus in hand. You won’t find the line “So we thwacked on, boats against the current, conveyed back perennially into the olden days” in Hughes’s book; his plagiarism of Fitzgerald was of an even more flagrant type.
There are whole lines that Hughes lifted, like, “It faced — or seemed to face — the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour.” Hughes then wrote a piece in which he claimed both to have done it by accident, leaving sections of his notes for books in the manuscript or even producing them from memory without knowing, and also to have done it on purpose, in the manner TS Eliot does in “The Waste Land”.
This kind of thing does happen occasionally, and people are always stunned by the brazenness of it. My first feeling, reading about this as a novelist myself, was second-hand embarrassment. For a writer, this sort of incident is a matter of total reputational destruction. But then a more anxious feeling followed.
Admittedly, I’m the kind of person who saw Interpol officers hanging around my security gate at Budapest airport recently, and believed for several wild seconds that they were there to arrest me for a late tax payment I made in Sweden about five years ago. But this anxiety felt more based in reality than that one. Could you plagiarise books by accident? Was it possible that I could have done it without even knowing?
I asked three other novelists what they thought, and, thankfully, they agreed that it’s just not possible to do what Hughes did by accident. And, personally, if I went back to a draft and found something like, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” sitting in there, my first thought would not be “Damn, this line I came up with really slaps,” it would be “This is simply too good to be written by me, and, also, I remember it from One Hundred Years of Solitude, because I have read that book.”
But where is the line between plagiarism and influence? All writers borrow from the work of others, to a degree, a fact that Hughes’s rebuttal uses in a sophist sort of way. “Influence, like memory and the unconscious, plays such a crucial role in the creative process,” he writes.
My friend Eliza Clark, whose novel Boy Parts came out in 2020, put it more bluntly: “Whether they mean to or not: everyone steals when they write (any one who says they don’t is lying). ‘Good’ theft in my mind is the taking of anything from an entire plot to a phrase or sentence — then transforming that beyond recognition into your own work.” An image here, a storyline there, is probably fair game; tweaking and reimagining is basically the entire literary tradition. And many (all?) writers learn to write in the first place by aping the work of others. I have a hard drive full of clumsy rip-offs of PG Wodehouse, Ali Smith and, for my sins, David Foster Wallace that I hope never see the light of day.
And another notion that Hughes uses cynically, but that is vexed in its own right, is that of writing as a process of assemblage: “I wanted the appropriated passages to be seen and recognised as in a collage,” he wrote. I do think novel writing can be done as a collage process. It’s the way I write: gathering up bits of conversation, incidents, personal traits, anecdotes and memories, and reassembling them in a new shape to form a narrative.
But the real question is: what forms those pieces of the collage? Whole chunks of other people’s paragraphs? No. A story someone told you at a party once about their maths teacher who used to take out her contact lens, lick it and replace it on her eyeball without interrupting her sentence? God, yes.
Incidents such as Hughes’s are more frequent in the digital age, with the aid of plagiarism-spotting software and the simple magic of control+F, but people have been doing this for ever. Hughes, though, took it too far, and seems to have lied about it to boot. Maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising. Writers are, among other things, prone to making stuff up.
Imogen West-Knights’ novel “Deep Down” (Fleet) will be published early next year
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