Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dan Brown, Cassie Edwards, and the Scarlet “P”

There’s a big brouhaha brewing in the worlds of romance and publishing. The bloggers at a site called Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books have discovered that Cassie Edwards, a popular author of historical romances, makes it a habit of dumping tidbits of research into her novels without bothering to substantially alter the wording. In other words, she’s guilty of plagiarism. Well, sort of.

While her unattributed borrowings might have earned her an “F” on a history paper back in school, it’s also true that no one could sue her for plagiarism and win. Which is why Penguin, her publisher, is saying that what she did is NOT plagiarism, but falls under the category of “fair-usage.”

This response by Penguin enraged the Smart Bitches to the point that they called for a boycott of all Penguin books. A bit of calm reflection, however, was enough to make the Bitches come to their senses and realize that while a publisher as huge as Penguin could easily weather such a boycott, Penguin’s poor, innocent authors might well see their careers ruined by such an action. (As one of the House of Penguins’ poor, innocent authors, I’m naturally glad the Bitches realized they weren’t being so “smart” after all.)

Now, I can get pretty irate about plagiarism. I used to be a college professor, after all. And yet I find myself not so much irate as disturbed. Why? Because of Dan Brown.

My first thought when I read the Bitches’ examples—typically a sentence here, two sentences there—was, “Well, at least she bothered to do some research!” I’ve read far too many historical romances, and historical mysteries, and even thrillers, whose authors were too lazy to do even that. Then I heard Edwards has written over a hundred romances in 25 years. I mean, really! Do the math. This lady is frantically churning those suckers out. I’m not saying that excuses her, because it doesn't. Her "borrowing" is far more extensive and systematic than I at first realized. But what precisely do her readers and publishers expect? Leaving time for revisions, copyedits, and galleys, she’s writing her books in less than three months each. As the ever-wise Steve Malley pointed out, what we’re dealing with here is sloppy writing.

Which brings me to Dan Brown, also accused of plagiarism. By multiple people.

One of them, Lewis Perdue, wrote THE DA VINCI LEGACY and THE DAUGHTER OF GOD, in which an art historian is killed, but not before he manages to write a message. In blood. On his own body. Our hero, falsely accused of the crime, sets out with our heroine on a quest that involves secret messages in paintings, a key, a safe deposit box containing another clue, a secret brotherhood with links to the Vatican who try to stop our hero and heroine from finding documents that will rock the Catholic Church to its very core since it seems that there was this woman who was really, gasp, the daughter of Jesus Christ…

When Perdue pointed out these “borrowings” and complained, Brown and Co. hit him with a lawsuit.

And then there are the authors of HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL. Having read HB, HG back in the 80’s, I was stunned when I started reading Brown’s THE DA VINCI CODE. I kept saying, “I can’t believe this! How can this guy get away with this? This is blatant plagiarism.” Except, of course, that legally it was not. As we all know, the authors of HB, HG sued. And lost. (In a sense it served them right for trying to pass off their half-baked conspiracy theory and pseudohistory as real. I have a feeling Danny Boy didn’t realize they’d made most of it up.)

There are many others who “contributed” to Danny Boy’s work. A Russian art historian who wrote a paper called “The Da Vinci Code,” from which Brown allegedly took the, well, “code.” Authors of books on the Goddess tradition in Western culture, authors of books on art. Even an article called “Leonardo’s Lost Robot,” written by robotics expert Mark Rosheim. We're talking big chunks, taken virtually verbatim. Maybe if these guys could have gotten together and brought a class action lawsuit against DB, they’d have won.

The thing that gets me about all this is that Dan Brown, who in my opinion has the ethical standards of pond scum, managed to come out of it smelling like the proverbial rose. Instead of snide articles in PW and the TIMES a la Cassie Edwards, journalists rushed to say, "Well, when you write a bestseller you have to expect to be sued," as if those making the accusations had no case but were driven by shear greed. As a result, there are still MILLIONS of people out there buying his books, calling him brilliant, eagerly awaiting his next--well, I hesitate to call it his "creation." Why is this guy not reviled? Ridiculed? Laughed out of the industry, never to be published again? Why, in other words, was he not treated the way Cassie Edwards is being treated? At least no one is accusing her of not coming up with her own characters, plots, and situations. Comparing her to Danny Boy is like comparing a shoplifter to the perpetrators of the Great Train Robbery.

Is it because she’s a woman? Because she writes romances rather than thrillers? Because Dan Brown made megabucks from the tale he so clumsily cobbled together from the works of others? Because the mainstream media who gushed about his "brilliance" had so much invested in his “success” that they didn’t want to admit that the megastar they’d helped create was, well, something far less than admirable? Like a cheat and a liar and a sneak?

Because in the end, what is plagiarism except theft?

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Blogger Steve Malley said...

Money talks, Dan Brown walks.

Dan might have lost all that money in a lawsuit, but first he had it to spend fighting down any such lawsuit. And tens of millions buys a *lot* of Battlin' Lawyers.

Sometimes, the wicked prosper....

1:55 PM  
Blogger Shauna Roberts said...

Another point I haven't seen anyone mention yet (although I have not been following this brouhaha closely)—Cassie Edwards lifted from books that were out of copyright. So what she did was entirely legal, unlike Dan Brown.

Of course, just because something is legal doesn't make it ethical, and vice versa.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

Part of the problem is that it's much, much easier to show plagiarism with word for word borrowings than with the borrowings of ideas and plot twists.

8:30 AM  
Blogger cs harris said...

True, Charles. Song writers find it much easier to sue for theft than fiction writers. In the case of DB, however, he also indulged in word for word lifting. And since, as Shauna points out, most of Edwards' sources were in the public domain, she also can take the "it was legal defense." What I don't understand is why the guy's image wasn't irreparably tarnished.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Lana Gramlich said...

Things like this bug me greatly. Writers are supposed to be original, right? Supposed to be creative & rely on their own skills. I understand the need for research, but outright plagiarism is just evil.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Lewis Perdue said...

One way Dan came out smelling so well is the sanitizing he got from the highly paid PR spinmeisters that Random House hires.

In addition, Publisher's Weekle etc. KNOW that they cannot afford to antagonize Random House and the massive amounts of advertising they spend.

And yes, Steve Malley made an important point: when you are part of Bertlesmann, the largest, multi-billion-dollarr book publisher in the world, you can hire the lawyers that can find all the necessary technicalities to suppress the evidence.

10:19 AM  

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