May 17, 2006

A tale of two copiers

In 1988, Molly Ivins published an article in Mother Jones magazine called "Magnolias and Moonshine". Seven years later, Florence King responded with an article in The American Enterprise magazine, September/October 1995, under the title "Molly Ivins, Plagiarist".

King accused Ivins of three things. The first thing was "gilding the lily". King had written in her 1975 book Southern Ladies and Gentlemen that the southern woman

... is required to be frigid, passionate, sweet, bitchy, and scatterbrained—all at the same time. Her problems spring from the fact that she succeeds.

Ivins quoted this as follows:

In her definitive work, Southern Ladies and Gentlemen, Florence King observes, “The cult of southern womanhood…requires [a female] to be frigid, passionate, sweet, bitchy, animated, and scatterbrained all at the same time…. A horrifying number of us succeed, which accounts for that popular southern female pastime, having a nervous breakdown.”

"Add a l’il more on there, honey, give the folks they money’s worth", King suggests.

The other two alleged authorial crimes are instances of apparent plagiarism. King writes that

My name is strewn through ["Magnolias and Moonshine"], but never where it counts. She credits me on minor observations, but when the subject is politics—her turf—she plagiarizes me.

King cites two instances, both of plagiarism in the paraphrase mode:

IVINS: “Keep in mind that Southerners are so conservative they voted for Franklin Roosevelt, so isolationist they voted for Richard Nixon, so populist they voted for Barry Goldwater, so aristocratic they voted for George Wallace, and that they see nothing peculiar in any of this.”

KING: “The typical Southerner:
—Brags about what a conservative he is and then votes for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
—Or brags about what an isolationist he is and then votes for Richard Nixon.
—Or brags about what a populist he is and then votes for Barry Goldwater.
—Or brags about what an aristocrat he is and then votes for George Wallace.
—And is able to say with a straight face that he sees nothing peculiar about any of the above.”

IVINS: “The Southern passion for military service first astonished the rest of the country in 1898, when Southerners signed up in droves to avenge the Maine. It was the country’s first war since Appomattox, and for 33 years Yankees had questioned Southern loyalty.”

KING: “In 1898, the phenomenon that surprised Americans nearly as much as the explosion of the battleship Maine was the vast number of Southern men who answered the call to the colors. It was America’s first war since Appomattox, and Southern loyalty had been in question for 33 years.”

King was very angry. She is quoted elsewhere as telling reporters that "if we had the right kind of laws in this country I’d challenge her to duel over this." She opens her TAE article by writing that "Most liberals sneer, grate, whine, scream, and picket, but Molly Ivins chuckles wisely and smiles tiredly so everyone will regard her as a lovable cynic", and sprinkles the piece with zingers like "she delivers laid-back wisdom with the serenity of a down-home Buddha who has discovered that stool softeners really work", and "Watching her go through her paces is like watching Ona Munson, who played Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind, doing an imitation of Spencer Tracy playing Clarence Darrow in Inherit the Wind. That’s a lot of wind."

In my opinion Ivins was clearly guilty as charged, although the longest stretch of literal copying was only four words long ("first war since Appomattox, and"), and none of the other literally-copied sequences are more than two words long. This was plagiarism of the paraphrasing type.

Apparently Ivins agreed, because her (apparently immediate) response was to 'fess up and apologize. The December issue of The American Enterprise magazine published an exchange of letters between Ivins and King, under the title "Author, Author!". (Both letters, puzzingly, seem to have been written before the first TAE article came out. I believe that time worked differently back in the last century, at least in the publishing industry.)

Ivins' letter:

August 16, 1995

Dear Ms. King,

You are quite right. There are three sentences in my article “Magnolias and Moonshine” —one of them a really good political line—that should have been attributed directly to you and are not.

On the third matter you raise in your Author Author! column in The American Enterprise, I have no idea how I managed to attribute to you more than you actually said—perhaps a recollection of something somewhere else in one of your books on the South. But I do not think a mistake of excessive attribution can be considered plagiarism.

I owe you an apology and I hereby tender it. I am deeply ashamed. I regret not giving you credit, and devoutly wish the matter had been brought to my attention earlier so it might have been corrected in subsequent editions and the paperback edition of the book.

I hope this does not sound too defensive to you, but there was no intention on my part to deceive anyone into thinking I had not read the many funny things you have said about the South. I hope my good faith is evidenced by the fact that I did cite you directly six times in the piece and praise one of your books as “definitive” on the peculiarities of Southerners as well.

I was inexcusably sloppy about the three sentences in question, with emphasis on the inexcusably.

Over the years, I have not only quoted many of your wonderful lines about the South in speeches—always, I believe, giving you credit—but also recommended your books to hundreds of people. I realize this does not excuse my lifting lines of yours without credit, but I did want you to know.

As for the rest of your observations about me and my work in your Author Author! column, boy you really are a mean b——, aren’t you?

Molly Ivins, plagiarist

King's response:

August 24, 1995

Dear Miss Ivins:

Rather than rehash what I call plagiarism and you call careless attribution, I will speak in general terms.

First, the Washington Post, in breaking this story, referred to your “side” and my “side.” How can there be a “side” in this when everyone involved is either a writer or an editor? All of us, by definition, are on the same side—the word side. Every word I write is a piece of my heart, and I presume you feel the same way.

Second, I’m wondering how you managed to recycle me unchanged from the 1988 Mother Jones article into the 1991 book. When I compiled The Florence King Reader, I reread everything I’ve published over the last 20 years. I polished, revised, even rewrote some of the early selections to bring them up to my present standards, and I also prepared a fresh manuscript. This is how you catch mistakes. Anthologies are harder than they look, so please look next time.

Third, your publisher contends that I am seeking publicity by “attempting to hang onto the cape of Molly’s notoriety.” (You may want to take issue with him over his choice of words.) I have no need or wish for “notoriety”; celebrity is bad enough. I already have the only thing I want: the admiration and respect of people who know good writing and love the English language as I do.

Finally, it’s a shame this had to happen because you and I are such a pair of old rips that we probably would have gotten along like gangbusters. Please don’t spoil any more potential friendships.

Florence King

And now for something completely different.

Recently, Mark Steyn (a witty political commentator, a lot like Molly Ivins) wrote a book review that had some very striking similarities to a 2004 weblog post by Geoff Pullum. Steyn's response to email from Pullum, requesting an apology and a link, was to have an assistant write a note saying that

We cannot see any similarities between Mark's piece and yours other than the quotations themselves, which obviously are the work of Mr Brown, and the grammatical term, which Mark was at pains to credit to you.

It's true that the three quotations are "obviously the work of Mr. Brown", but

Even facts or quotations can be plagiarized through the trick of citing to a quotation from a primary source rather than to the secondary source in which the plagiarist found it in order to conceal reliance on the secondary source. ["Copy Wrong: Plagiarism, Process, Property, and the Law," California Law Review, 1992; quoted in "What is plagiarism?", The Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/17/2004]

However, Steyn's "similarities" are not limited to a selection of quotations from Dan Brown, along with a set of ideas about why those particular quotations are interesting. For an even more striking similarity, the reader should consult the table at the end of this post, comparing Steyn's witticism "Novelist Dan Brown staggered through the formulaic splendour of his opening sentence" to its possible sources: the original quotation from Brown ("Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery"), the title of Pullum's post ("Renowned author Dan Brown staggered through his formulaic opening sentence"), and Pullum's reprise of the theme in the body of the post ("Renowned linguist Geoffrey Pullum staggered across the savage splendor of the forsaken Santa Cruz campus").

Given this (in my opinion clear) sign of influence, do you believe that Steyn didn't read Pullum before writing his review? How credible do you find it that Steyn came up independently with the idea of focusing on Brown's missing the's, and also with the particular examples and their order, and was subsequently given Pullum's grammatical terminology by one of his assistants

... because Mark asked if there was a technical term for a missing definite article and a Welsh University website, which led us to you, suggested the term had been coined by you.

The assistant pointed to an alternative chain of influence, also not credited in Steyn's review:

Mark's interest in this subject was piqued not by your website, with which he was not familiar, but by an item by Mark's former editor at his London newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, on the missing definite article in the first sentence of The Da Vinci Code. Mark mentioned it on a radio show last year and then noticed a similar start in Angels And Demons and wondered if it was a habit.

In a follow-up note, the same assistant insisted again that the idea came from Steyn or from his "colleagues in London", not from Pullum:

Mark had never heard of your website till last week [i.e. after writing the review - myl] and we will be able to demonstrate in court that nobody in our office clicked on two of your three allegedly plagiarized pieces until we received your e-mail. The points you claim Mark stole from you were made by others, including Mark and Mark's colleagues in London, long before we ever clicked on your website, as we would again prove in court.

The issue is not whether Steyn or his assistants clicked on Pullum's "website", but whether they copied Pullum's ideas and words, directly or indirectly. I guess it's possible that Steyn's "former editor at his London newspaper, The Daily Telegraph" borrowed Pullum's ideas and words in 2005, and Steyn then borrowed them from him -- the Telegraph's online archives only go back one year, so I can't check. But Geoff's posts on Dan Brown have been very widely read and circulated on the internet. As I mentioned before, one of them has for some time been on the first page of Google hits for {Dan Brown}. Language Log has gotten roughly four million page views since 2004, and around five percent of these are Geoff's Dan Brown posts, so that something like 200,000 people have read one or more of them. So it's also possible that someone emailed a copy of Pullum's posts to Steyn or to one of his assistants.

Whatever the detailed chain of transmission, I find it very hard to believe that Steyn wrote his Maclean's review "The Da Vinci Code: bad writing for biblical illiterates" without having read Pullum's post "Renowned author Dan Brown staggered through his formulaic opening sentence" (and perhaps others, such as "The Dan Brown Code"). What do you think?

I should mention that Steyn's assistant ended her communications with what might be perceived as a threat:

It is up to you whether you wish to escalate this any further. [...] But, given the intemperate nature of your e-mails, I think it would be better if you spoke to your lawyer and we will refer him to ours.

It's pretty common for people whose words and ideas are copied without attribution to get a little hot under the collar. In contrast to King's public take-down of Ivins, however, Pullum's private request for an apology and a link didn't mention challenging Steyn to a duel, or comment on the looseness of his bowels, or call him a windbag. And as Geoff made very clear, he doesn't see this as a legal issue but as a moral one, where the appropriate and courageous response would be a forthright apology. To my mind, the question here is whether Mark Steyn has as much grace and courage as Molly Ivins does.

[Update (with apologies for adding to what is already an overlong post): Ben Zimmer did a better job of searching the Daily Telegraph's archives than I did, and found the following. On 2/11/2005, Sam Leith's Daily Telegraph "Notebook" included the following item, reprinted below in its entirety:

The Da Vinci Code is an exemplary demonstration of the truth that, more than any other genre, a thriller need not be well written to work. Plotting and pace are all.

But seldom do books manage to grate from before the first word of the opening sentence. "Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway…" It's the dog that didn't bark. The first word - "the" - isn't there. My theory is that a shadowy order of monks has stolen Dan Brown's definite article, and is guarding it at an ancient Templar priory.

According to Nexis, this appeared on p. 22 of the 11 Feb. 2005 edition, well after Pullum's widely-circulated posts on Dan Brown. In particular, Leith's little joke about the how Brown's novel "[grates] from before the first word of the opening sentence" is similar to what Pullum wrote 9 months earlier in "The Dan Brown code":

I am still trying to come up with a fully convincing account of just what it was about his very first sentence, indeed the very first word, that told me instantly that I was in for a very bad time stylistically.

The Da Vinci Code may well be the only novel ever written that begins with the word renowned. Here is the paragraph with which the book opens. The scene (says a dateline under the chapter heading, 'Prologue') is the Louvre, late at night:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

I think what enabled the first word to tip me off that I was about to spend a number of hours in the company of one of the worst prose stylists in the history of literature was this. Putting curriculum vitae details into complex modifiers on proper names or definite descriptions is what you do in journalistic stories about deaths; you just don't do it in describing an event in a narrative.

Leith might have come up with this idea independently, or he might have gotten it from Pullum and thought it didn't rise to journalistic standards of sharing credit, or he might have gotten it from someone who got it from Pullum. This sort of recycling of jokes has always been common, if not entirely sanctioned -- Oscar Wilde: "I wish I had said that." James Whistler: "You will, Oscar, you will."

Leith's note is a small thing, in any case: the fifth of five brief items in an editor's column of miscellanies. And it's credible that Steyn originally got the idea of focusing his review on Brown's the's from this note (though his Maclean's article doesn't credit Leith either). But wherever Steyn first got the idea from, I find it hard to believe, as I wrote above, that he didn't use material from Pullum's post "Renowned author Dan Brown staggered through his formulaic opening sentence", and perhaps other posts, in writing his Maclean's review. And the apparent scale of copying in that case, at least in my opinion, rises to the level where an acknowledgment (or after the fact, an apology) would be appropriate. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 17, 2006 12:02 AM