Sunday, 8 January 2012

57 varieties of career over. . . or is it?

What this woman has done, clearly, is sit down with a book and rewrite it. —Lawrence Block
An 11-page document containing a side-by-side comparison of 57 improbably similar passages, revealing 31 text strings appearing only in her book and the one she stole from. That’s the extent of Lenore Hart’s plagiarism in The Raven’s Bride found so far by the blogger Undine, novelist Jeremy Duns and me.

Hart’s book is literally (one of her favourite words) rife with stolen bits of business, pilfered scenes, filched colour detail, purloined characters, nicked descriptions and lifted dialogue, looted from a novel that she not only neglected to mention in her acknowledgments but had the klutzy chutzpah to disparage in an interview.

You can download a PDF of the 57 passages here. I’m sure that St. Martin’s Press, her publisher, will be having a look at it. I bet that those responsible for the Wilkes University Creative Writing MA/MFA Program, where she teaches, will too. And I wouldn’t be surprised if a copy is plopped on top of her agent’s in-tray on Monday morning.

Fifty-seven compelling reasons for them all to … well, to continue to play la-la-la-I-can't-hear-you, most likely. Although under normal circumstances this would be a PR horror show to be dealt with as expeditiously as possible, these are clearly anything but normal circumstances.

Lenore Hart’s plagiarism of Cothburn O’Neal’s 1956 novel The Very Young Mrs. Poe was drawn to her publisher's attention twice, not long after The Raven’s Bride was published early last year. St. Martin's Press didn’t deign to reply to those who complained, but now claim that as soon as they learned of the allegations they got Hart to explain herself in writing — a commission she fulfilled by cooking up a rambling, surreal screed peppered with non sequiturs, obfuscation, dissembling and outright lies, which her publisher, in public at least, remains fully satisfied with.

Lenore Hart's own views on the matter can be judged only by a most-unfortunate-for-her exchange with Jeremy Duns that she engaged in on Facebook and has since deleted, although screengrabs are available on request. (Summarising, it's all a terrible misunderstanding, apparently, based on anonymous Web allegations that are not to be taken seriously.) Since then, she and St. Martin’s have kept schtum, no doubt hoping it’ll all go away. Nothing to see here. Move along, please.

Who are they trying to kid? Certainly not any of the other writers, like Lawrence Block or Steve Mosby, or the other publishers, like Melville House, who saw the bang-to-rights evidence and instantly came to the only rational conclusion. Certainly not anyone who commented on the story when it was covered by The Guardian or New York Times. And certainly none of the many people on Twitter who’ve been wondering pretty much every day for the last couple of months why the hell her book is still on sale. So who, then?

As for any debate on the merits of the plagiarism claims, there is no debate. There’s no need for any. The breadth and depth of her plagiarism is out there for all to see in those 57 passages. Indeed, only one person has come out to champion Hart’s cause, albeit under the pseudonym "Red Radiator", in another exchange with Jeremy Duns, this time on the Amazon page for Hart’s book. But as soon as “Red Radiator” was unmasked as a faculty colleague of Hart’s at Wilkes, Sara Pritchard, she suddenly ceased her offensive defence of her chum's integrity (the worst of which was deleted by Amazon), apologised for her previous tone and disappeared, never to be heard from again. So much for Team Lenore.

And that’s where things still stand.

One is forced to ask how it could possibly be in the interests of Wilkes University to keep on stubbornly refusing to address these 57 varieties of career over, instead of doing what Hart’s other professional home, the Norman Mailer Center, did almost immediately when they were made aware of a possible rotten apple in their barrel (or a festering raven in their cage, if you prefer): announce that they’ve suspended her from teaching duties until further notice.

And why doesn’t St. Martin’s Press do what Little Brown did last autumn within hours of learning that Q. R. Markham’s Assassin of Secrets was just a patchwork of pretty much every spy novel ever written: pull the book and quickly turn the page?

Those are very interesting questions.

Enter the salty sea dog
David Poyer is a U.S. Navy captain turned thriller writer. Like Lenore Hart, he teaches on the MFA-program faculty at Wilkes University. Like Lenore Hart, he is published by St. Martin’s Press. Like Lenore Hart, he is represented by ICM. And like Lenore Hart, he lives on the eastern shore of Virginia. With her, in fact. He’s married to her. He has also openly acknowledged acting as her “business manager”.

But most unlike Lenore Hart, David Poyer sells cartloads of books (not Lawrence Block–level cartloads, perhaps, but cartloads all the same). If St. Martin’s Press were to cut Hart loose, then Poyer — one of the most productive cash cows in their stable — might well feel aggrieved enough to turn to another publisher. And if Wilkes were to cut her loose, then Poyer — their showcase act, far and away the most commercially successful writer on their faculty — might well feel affronted enough to take his teaching elsewhere.

Let’s be plain about this: the Poyers are a duo, not just personally but also professionally. But they’re not a duo like Lennon and McCartney; think more John and Yoko. Fail to do right by her and you may notice the walls and bridges of your lucrative relationship with him beginning to teeter.

Is it all starting to make sense now?

Without Poyer’s hands-on management of Lenore Hart’s carefully constructed literary career, without his undoubted industry clout, she'd be unlikely to be published by the prestigious St. Martin’s Press or have an agent at swanky ICM. (The truth is that she’s a mediocre writer, as the exercise of side-by-siding her prose with Cothburn O’Neal’s has made only too clear.) If she was married to a drywall installer, she’d have been thrown to the wolves months ago — book quickly withdrawn, dishonourable discharge from her teaching post, curt letter from ICM: "we regret your profile is no longer in synergy with our strategy blah blah" — a toxic brand to be firmly and swiftly erased. Just like Q.R. Markham.

But she’s not married to a drywall installer. She’s married to “the most popular living writer of American sea fiction”. In short, follow the money. Ethics are fine as long as they don't mess with the bottom line.

(Of course, I may be completely off with these suppositions and extrapolations. But if there is no unseen hand rocking the cradle, then the drawn-out obduracy of St. Martin’s Press and Wilkes simply cannot be explained, because all that's being achieved with each day this impasse drags on is the steady undermining of their reputations.)

I may write another time about what on earth could have come over or driven a professional writer of certain critical repute, with quite a lot to lose, to do something so crass, so cheap, so lazy and so ultimately doomed to humiliating failure. Problems with her original manuscript and deadline pressure from her editor, maybe? (It was published a full year later than announced, under a changed title.) Writer’s block? A nosedive in self-esteem? I don’t know. And quite frankly I don’t much care right now. All that concerns me at the moment is that she never be allowed to do it again, and that she — or at least those who publish, employ and represent her — should own up to what she has done and accept that it is wrong.

Lenore Hart has been shown way, way beyond any shred of reasonable doubt to be a literary fraud, an intellectual thief and a shameless liar, and she mustn't get away with it. But unless enough pressure is exerted to counter her husband’s no-doubt-considerable pull, she just might.

Let’s not let her.


Undine said...

"Problems with her original manuscript and deadline pressure from her editor, maybe?"

Exactly. She gave an interview where she virtually admitted her editor trashed her first draft of the book and told her to start over. She said she was told it had too much about Edgar Poe in it, and she should instead focus on Virginia.

Now, the trouble with that is, we have almost no documentation about Virginia's life. She was a beautiful, sweet-natured, but quiet personality who married at 13, became an invalid at 19, died at 24. That's about it. Not much for a novelist to work with.

Cothburn O'Neal was the only author who ever wrote about Virginia to any extent, and as we have seen, he was forced to pretty much "invent" a life for her. But for someone like Hart, suddenly faced with the job of writing an unwritable novel, he was the only available source material, so she gambled that no one else had ever read this ultra-obscure book, simply because she was desperate to be able to come up with something. She wasn't counting on Poe fanatics with an internet connection. I'd actually feel sorry for her, if she hadn't reacted to getting caught in such a revolting manner.

The Poyer angle you discussed is interesting. It's amazing to think he has enough clout that SMP, Wilkes, "Red Radiator," etc., would willingly make complete fools of themselves defending her.

Thingumbobesquire said...

This whole tawdry affair came to my attention through a blog that I maintain named after one of Poe's stories. The sad fact is that this sort of chicanery is probably very, very commonplace these days. Poe was an original American literary genius. He deliberately provoked the publishing kingmakers of his day through his ironic writ. They hated him for it and did everything in their power to destroy the man's reputation. Poe himself parodied them as the lowest of the low "men of talent" for "business" in his sundry works. It is truly quite lawful that one intrepid spirit seeking to set the record straight about Poe has uncovered yet another typical nexus of human publishing sewage meanly seeking to cash in on Poe's unwarranted notoriety. I do believe that Edgar would heartily approve.

Kelly Robinson said...

I think you're right about the Poyer connection influencing SMP's stance. I've been updating my fiance on this story as it has unfolded, and I mentioned to him that perhaps they were taking their position because she was an unimportant writer who had sold few books, so they were just denying it and waiting for it to blow over. He pointed out that if she was so unimportant, it would make more sense for them to cop to it and ditch her.

He's right. There's clearly more to it, and I think that "more" is Poyer.