November 23, 2011

Lenore Hart shows how not to respond to plagiarism charges


Lenore Hart

In the face of overwhelming evidence, novelist Lenore Hart has vociferously denied charges that she plagiarized large parts of her historical novel about Edgar Allan Poe‘s wife, The Raven’s Bride — in an argument with her accusers on her Facebook page.

As MobyLives noted a few days ago, Hart — who’s taught writing at several prestigious universities — had been accused on a Poe fan site called The World of Edgar Allan Poe of lifting numerous bits from a 1956 novel by Cothburn O’Neal called The Very Young Mrs. Poe. And indeed, the numerous citations presented certainly made a convincing case. The charges were picked up by spy novelist Jeremy Duns on his blog, The Debrief, which has become increasingly popular since he wrote extensively there about plagiarist QR Markham/Quentin Rowan.

Duns, in fact, was so irritated by the situation that he went to Hart’s Facebook page and asked her to “explain here or elsewhere why you plagiarized the 1956 novel The Very Young Mrs Poe by Cothburn O’Neal? It is blatant, extensive and undeniable (despite your absurd assertions to the contrary) …”

What followed became quickly became a deeply bizarre conversation, worth quoting at length:

Hart: If you also know the sources — biographical and primary, including works by Poe contemporaries who transcribed events and recreated conversations — then you certainly might say I and the previous author are both guilty of sticking to our sources.

Duns: Sticking to sources is fine, but out of 15 million books there are only two that contain the precise phrase “grew narrower and wound in great loops”…. as the only other book to contain that phrase is, like yours, a novel about Virginia Poe, the only explanation can be that you plagiarized it from that 1956 novel. Or can you provide another explanation?

Hart: … by these standards, then, one would simply have to find similar phrases in any earlier work and a later one, and pretty much any novelist — any writer — can be made a plagiarist. Because repetitions are inevitable, which I also suspect you must know. Your theory, though, could certainly have a chilling effect on the tendency of writers to read — anything. No wonder everyone advised me not to respond to web allegations.

Duns: But Ms Hart, this is obvious nonsense. There are 15 million books on Google Books and in this conversation alone I and others have pointed to *six* separate sentences or phrases that only appear in that precise form in your book and a 1956 novel about Virginia Poe. The odds are astronomical against this being the case once, let alone several times. Do you really expect me, the others reading this and your publisher to believe that these verbatim examples are coincidence? Is that really your defence? I would urge you to reconsider. You have extensively plagiarized someone else’s novel, and the proof of it is clear to all.

Hart:  … To go ‘into the Petersburg Depot’ was HISTORICALLY the only way to travel by train to that destination from Richmond at that time. But I can’t say this now, because another author (writing earlier about the same characters and same events, their documented honeymoon trip to Petersburg) also did so? Even if it was the only way the Poes could have gotten there, period, at that time. Hmm. I see.

Duns: You can of course write that. But you could have done it so many ways, and the precise phrasing appearing in only your novel and another about Poe’s wife, along with many other examples of phrasing only appearing in these two books, proves you are a plagiarist.

Hart: … It appears from here on out historical novels will need to be quote-marked and footnoted like ponderous works of nonfiction, just in case. Or to change the historical detail for a “made-up”, but false one, to protect the writer who is writing about anyone ever covered before.

Duns: No it doesn’t. It means you can’t take incidents, scenes, ideas and whole sentences verbatim from another novelist. Is this really going to be your defense?

It was, as it turned out, with Hart finally going silent soon after. But that didn’t stop numerous others from joining in, such as the one who advised Hart, “I strongly suggest you admit both plagiarism and defeat.”

But as a Guardian report by Alison Flood notes, neither Hart nor her publisher, St. Martin’s Press, has admitted anything since. Meanwhile, back on his own website, Duns has noted that at least one thing Hart said in the argument in her own defense was plagiarized from Wikipedia.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.