Monday, 19 December 2011

Lenore Hart falls in the river again

Lenore Hart and her publisher, St Martin’s Press, claim that any "similarities" between her novel The Raven’s Bride and Cothburn O’Neal’s The Very Young Mrs. Poe can be put down to both writers having drawn on the "same limited historical record".

Fine. In that case, given that in their respective novels O’Neal and Hart describe in practically identical terms how their protagonist, Virginia "Sissy" Poe née Clemm, once sat alone by the fire and thought about her relationship with her husband, likening it to the alternately broadening and narrowing course of a river and its alternately calm and turbulent waters,* one of these two statements must necessarily be true:

(A) Virginia, unbeknownst to Poe scholars the world over, left a secret diary to which the two novelists have enjoyed privileged access. Both included the same fireside river-simile scene in their novels because it is a documented historical event. They know what she was thinking because she wrote it in this diary.

(B) Lenore Hart is a brazen plagiarist. Her publisher and the institutions where she teaches are — by their continued inaction — tacitly condoning her deceit, her lies and her intellectual theft.

So, St Martin’s Press, the Norman Mailer Center/Writers Colony and Wilkes University, which is it? A or B?

It’s your call. And your reputation. (Hers, as you must surely know by now, is a lost cause.)

Update - 20 December 2011
The Norman Mailer Center announced today - i.e. within 48 hours of this mess being drawn to their attention - that they have asked Lenore Hart to take leave of absence from their next workshop, where she had been scheduled to teach. St Martin's Press, meanwhile, seven months on, continue with their la-la-la-can't-hear-you strategy. This isn't going to end well.
* See the latest inventory of plagiarised passages found (No. 25).

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Hart tells tales

PhotobucketSt. Martin’s Press, the publishers of The Raven’s Bride by Lenore Hart, have this week defended her blatant plagiarism of words and entire scenes from Cothburn O’Neal’s 1956 novel The Very Young Mrs. Poe by claiming that coincidences are inevitable when both writers have carried out similar “research into historical and biographical sources”.

Yet while most of the thirty-two examples of her plagiarism identified to date not only lack any historical sources whatsoever, at least one of them is a screaming historical impossibility.

O’Neal describes the Poes' arrival at their honeymoon destination like this:

The train crossed the Appomattox after sunset but pulled into the Petersburg depot before dark. Their host, Mr. Hiram Haines, publisher of the Petersburg American Constellation,was waiting with his wife. He was a cheerful, balding man

And here is Hart’s version of the same event:

We crossed the Appomattox after sunset and rolled into the Petersburg depot before full dark. As we descended from the car Eddy spotted our host, Hiram Haines, the cheerful, balding publisher of the American Constellation

The words “crossed the Appomattox after sunset” are, to say the least, problematic. And not only because the only two instances of those exact words in that exact order to appear in the entire fifteen-million-volume corpus of Google Books are — ta-dah — in Cothburn O’Neal and Lenore Hart’s respective novels about Edgar Allan Poe’s child bride. No, that's the least of it. The real problem is that back in the 1830s the train from Richmond to Petersburg didn’t cross the Appomattox at all, after sunset or at any other time of day. The line ended on the north bank of the river and travellers had to finish their journey into the town on the other side by stagecoach.[1]

But wait. It gets worse. Much worse. It turns out that the historical Poes couldn't have travelled by historical train to the historical Petersburg or anywhere near it from Richmond. How do we know this, historically? Because that line wasn’t opened until 1838, two years after they made their honeymoon trip, that's how.[2]

In short, the whole scene is a historical nonsense. And although Cothburn O’Neal, writing from deep in the heart of pre-Internet and even pre-fax Texas, can perhaps be forgiven for making such a mistake in his research, Lenore Hart certainly can’t be forgiven for replicating it, almost word for word, fifty-five years later. I’m not sure which is the more astonishing: the shamelessness of her plagiarism or her abject laziness. Confirming the non-existence of that train took me under five minutes.[3]

So what does Lenore Hart herself have to say about this? In a now-deleted (but much-screengrabbed) Facebook exchange on 21 November with the novelist Jeremy Duns, the person who's done the most to unmask her,[4] she claimed that
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.
That's not merely self-serving obfuscation in the face of damning evidence of plagiarism; as we now see, it's a desperate, tell-tale lie. Hart's claim that the Poes' honeymoon is documented is only true inasmuch as they seem to have spent it as guests of Hiram Haines in Petersburg. That's it. The honeymoon trip, as described in the two virtually identical passages quoted above, is barely documented at all. Nobody knows for sure how they got there (the now-clearly-mistaken claim that it was by train originated in the 1920s, from a source whose credibility on other matters has also been called into doubt), who might have met them on arrival or where that meeting, if any, took place. For those details a novelist would have to resort to conjecture and informed guesses. And that's what Cothburn O'Neal did — but unfortunately for him, and even more unfortunately for Lenore Hart, he screwed it up royally.

Lenore Hart cribbed O'Neal's invented scene, presumably unaware that by doing so she was compounding a historical howler. Although, to be honest, I doubt that she cared all that much about whether it was historically accurate or not, confident as I'm sure she was that nobody was ever going to pick up on her raven-like picking of a dead man’s bones.



1. It would be another twenty-five years until the line was prolonged to the other side of the Appomattox. The “Petersburg depot” that both authors mention had indeed been operational for three years in 1836, but it served only the lines fanning out southwards from the town. There was no rail service from there to Richmond or anywhere else north of the river until the 1860s.

2. Source here.

3. To be precise, it took me as long as it took me to type "Richmond-Petersburg railroad" into the Wikipedia search field. I mean, come on.

4. Although Jeremy Duns has acted brilliantly as the dogged Plagefinder General in this and other recent high-profile cases, the bulk of the groundwork for the exposing of Lenore Hart was done by the Poe blogger Undine, back in March. (See also comments below.)

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Hyperbole: absolutely the worst thing in the history of the human race

“Dan’s coming over later. Said he’d bring beer.”
“You heard about Cath, I take it.”
“No. What about her?”
“She’s won six and half million on the lottery.”

See the problem there? The ante for reacting to any piece of good news, no matter how mundane, has been upped so high that we’ve run out of ways to react to events that are truly out of the ordinary.

The same applies to not-so-good news too, with every minor setback now a “total catastrophe.”

My Twitter timeline has been peppered with people saying how “very sad” they feel about the death of the actress Googie Withers, despite presumably knowing she’d been living in comfortable retirement in Australia, made it to the ripe old age of 94 and has had her life and career remembered with glowing obits in all the papers today.

So how would these people have reacted if a 44-year-old actress had died? That would be “absolutely tragic beyond words”, I expect. But then where is there left to go when you learn of the murder of a child?

(If you happen to think this post is the direst dross you’ve ever read in your entire life, then I am so terribly, terribly sorry I could curl up and die. Possibly.)

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Dirty doorsteps (or why Johann Hari deserves to be harried out of journalism)

In the '50s and '60s, my mum was a Guardian journalist.

That sentence has been spun for maximum impact, although it's essentially true (we'll come back to that in a bit). In fact, she was an old-school reporter - assizes, inquests and children’s page - on the Middleton Guardian, and an occasional stringer for the then-Manchester Guardian down the road. She told me that, as far as she knew, the only other woman reporter ever seen in a coroner's court outside London at the time was one from the Sheffield Telegraph. That was Jean Rook.

My mother's career path followed the only possible route for non-university-educated women back then: start in the typing pool and hope for the best. She eventually got to take letters for (rather than to) the editor, who, having noticed that she had a knack for turning a phrase after she'd knocked his rambling dictation – he enjoyed a drink – into some kind of usable shape, started sending her off to cover the occasional inquest. (He was very much a deep-end kinda guy. "Anything juicy?" he’d ask when she came back in. "Pfft," she’d reply. "Misadventure again. Sorry.")

One fateful day (as she would certainly never have put it), the editor assigned her to cover a Conservative party meeting before some local elections, an event that all the full-fledged reporters had managed to find an excuse to avoid. A local organiser, Mrs (Name Lost in the Mists of Family History), spoke at soporific length about how to get the most out of the chore of canvassing. "At some houses you needn't waste your time," she told the eager faithful after an hour or so of precise leaflet-folding instructions. "You can tell they vote Labour before you even knock on the door. Just look down. If you see a dirty doorstep, you can forget it. Try next door instead."[1]

My mother couldn’t believe what she'd heard. Well, she could, because she'd been taking the whole speech down verbatim in her erm-and-ah-perfect shorthand.

Front-page splash in the paper the next day: LABOUR VOTERS HAVE "DIRTY DOORSTEPS", TOP LOCAL TORY CLAIMS.

Mrs NLMFH rang the editor shrieking that she’d said no such thing. The local party chairman rang the editor, calling for the head of the "recklessly irresponsible young lady" who’d had the temerity to invent such a terrible slur.

The editor stood by his reporter, much as Simon Kelner stood by Johann Hari, except in this case not only was she able to show him her shorthand notes, she’d also had enough nous to take the contact details of a couple of other people who’d heard what Mrs NLMFH had said and would be willing to confirm it.

The local Tories lost the election, my mother was promoted to the newsroom proper and the paper got a healthy blip in its circulation.

The lesson my mother learned that day was one she passed on to me: "Say what you like, and be as shrill and sensationalist as you like, but always, always make sure you’ve got the facts right or it’s back to the typing pool for you, and you won’t get another chance."

It was advice I followed when I worked as an advertising copywriter. Yes, I polished every selling point so hard it gleamed – not unlike a Tory doorstep, in fact – but anyone checking up would find that although it had been spun with Hotpoint-like vigour it would always hold up under scrutiny.

It occurred to me over the last couple of days that Johann Hari has fallen foul not only of my mum’s standards as an old-school journalist but also of mine as an old-school copywriter. Because, let’s not kid ourselves, he’s essentially just as much a copywriter, propagandist or PR for Noble Causes as he is a journalist. (In a 2004 interview he said that his view of a columnist's role was "a sort of paid political campaigner for the causes you believe in," which explains quite a lot, really.)

So, if you met your interviewee on the terrace of a hotel beach bar, don’t say it was a Starbucks. If a psychologist is a flaky fringe figure, don’t call him a distinguished social scientist. And if Hugo Chávez said something to someone from Newsweek, don’t claim he leaned forward, patted your knee, shifted in his chair, took a sip of his coffee, looked out of the window and said it to you several years later. Because if you do, when you’re called on it – and some day you certainly will be called on it - you won’t be able to pull that little ring-bound notebook out of your handbag and point to where it says, in perfect shorthand, "dirty doorstep".


1. Or, as Johann Hari might have put it but for reasons best known to himself never did, words to that effect. The notebook and my mum's cuttings scrapbook haven't survived and the Middleton Guardian's online archive doesn't go back that far. Don't think I haven't checked.

Seven Pillars of Bullshit

The aspect of Harigate II - the allegations of sock-puppetry and serial Wikipedia mischief by Johann Hari rather than his now-proven serial plagiarism - that has been most harshly criticised by his apologists is the "cheap", "unfair" and "vindictive" use that has been made of the porn connection. (To cut an improbably long story short, the online trail left by Johann Hari’s mystery Wikipedia champion leads to one other place only: a hardcore story about pimping out a 15-year-old boy that was posted on a gay website.)

I don’t know why bringing this matter up is supposed to be unfair. After all, Hari himself has written at length and in non-condemnatory terms about not only pornography but also incest and gay sex with teens.

In his introduction to a 2006 piece on his website about "bareback" gay porn, Hari downplays (I’m trying hard to be even-handed here and not say "condones") the sexual abuse of male teenagers in these terms:

[G]ay men are right to suspect that while making porn can fuck up the women who are spat out (or swallowed) in its production, it is less likely to have a psychologically dangerous effect on the men who take part. In 1998 the distinguished social scientist Bruce Ring published a thorough study into the difference between the way girls and boys react to sexually abusive or exposing situations. He found that teenage boys who had been abused "reacted much less negatively than women." While girls were usually dreadfully disturbed, most boys suffered "negative effects that were neither pervasive nor typically intense." So the girl your straight mates watch being gang-banged on camera for cash will probably be deeply disturbed by it for years; the boy you watch probably won’t be psychologically damaged for long.

I’m not going to discuss that argument's worth or even its potential for eyebrow-raising, because I’d rather focus on the one part of it that is, at least at first sight, not contentious: the seven words "the distinguished social scientist Bruce Ring published", because five of them are demonstrably bollocks.

Bruce L. Rind (not, perhaps fortunately for him, "Ring") is a psychologist (not a social scientist) who co-authored a certain paper (not, as suggested, wrote and published it alone) in 1998.

So what about the "distinguished" bit, then?

At the age of 59, Rind is still a non-tenured "adjunct instructor", which is roughly equivalent to an assistant lecturer, hired to teach a specific course for a specific period of time. He teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia, which is ranked 132nd in the U.S. News rankings of American universities (although, to be fair, its Psychology graduate programme streaks home in 50th place). And he’s not exactly a wow with his students either. They’ve graded his classes with an average score of 2.5 (“poor”).

The 1998 Rind et. al. paper wasn’t just dismissed by at least four peer reviewers as "scientifically invalid" and roundly disowned by the American Psychological Association; it's the only paper in the history of U.S. scientific literature to have been condemned by Congress. No, not railed against by some school board in Knuckledrag, Kansas – actually condemned by the House of Representatives. To call its main conclusion, that the sexual abuse of adolescent boys is not necessarily harmful, off the mark would be to do it a big favour. What Johann Hari neglects to tell us is that males who were sexually abused as adolescents have been found by subsequent – and presumably equally distinguished – researchers to be three times more likely to turn to therapy for emotional problems and five times more likely to commit suicide than their non-abused peers.

Both Rind and his long-term colleague Robert Bauserman (one of the co-authors on that 1998 paper) have published extensively on what is sometimes whitewashed as "man-boy love", although some researchers refer to it as "intergenerational intimacy", while Rind and Bauserman go one better and oh-so-scientifically call it "age-discrepant sexual relations (ADSR)" instead. One of the journals that they chose to publish their findings in was the now-defunct Netherlands-based Paidika: The Journal of Paedophilia. Here's an extract from that publication’s statement of purpose, to give an idea of where these people were, er, coming from:

[T]o speak today of paedophilia, which we understand to be consensual intergenerational sexual relationships, is to speak of the politics of oppression. This is the milieu in which we are enmeshed, the fabric of our daily life and struggle. [...] It is our contention that the oppression of paedophilia is part of the larger repression of sexuality, and that this repression in general represents an irrational expression of authority in government. The oppression of paedophilia is therefore dangerous in a wider sense than simply to paedophiles.

The same year that they published the paper that Hari so confidently cites, Rind and Bauserman participated as keynote speakers, alongside two members of the editorial board of Paidika: The Journal of Paedophilia, at a pro-paedophilia conference held in Amsterdam. Rind’s address was later published in the International Pedophile and Child Emancipation Newsletter, which must have been nice for him.

But let’s get back to more familiar and probably more comfortable ground for Johann Hari: Wikipedia. It turns out that such a distinguished titan of the social sciences as Dr Bruce L. Rind has a Wikipedia entry of his own that is...oops, he hasn't got one. (I mean, come on, even my distinguished mate the self-published short-story writer has got his own Wikipedia entry). Rind does, however, feature heavily in the entry titled "Rind et al. controversy" about the huge stink that was raised by the very paper that Johann Hari saw fit to cite to bolster his curious beliefs.

So that’s the "distinguished" bit dealt with. (Maybe we should be charitable and assume that Hari’s autocorrect must have been playing tricks the day he tried to write "discredited".)

And there we have it. Of the seven words "the distinguished social scientist Bruce Ring published", only two actually hold up to any scrutiny at all: "the" and "Bruce".

What conclusions might we reasonably draw about the accuracy and fair representation to be found throughout Johann Hari’s journalism based on this analysis of one teeny-weeny fragment of it? I’m not sure, but I’m confident Andreas Whittam-Smith will let us know before too long.

POSTSCRIPT (14 July 2011)
I was under the impression that Hari's bareback-porn piece, which I quote from, had not appeared in The Independent, as I could find no trace of it anywhere other than on Hari's website. (The length of the piece and the amount of "worked-up" detail suggest it was written for publication rather than as a blog entry, so it might be reasonable to assume that it was spiked.) However, I have now learned that the part of the text that I specifically deal with here (from "the distinguished..." to "'...less negatively than women'", i.e. the Rind et al. citation and quoted material) had already been used by Hari with the exact same wording - yes, the misspelled surname and all - in a completely different article, published by The Independent nearly three months before the bareback-porn post appeared on his blog.

Still with me? This may seem like only a minor detail but it's actually crucial. I used those seven words as an example of the sort of thing that Andreas Whittam Smith might consider looking for when he reviews Hari's writings for the newspaper. I now realise that since the seven words did appear in the newspaper, albeit in a completely different context, they fall slap-bang in the middle of the remit of Whittam Smith's investigation.

Perhaps someone reading this might wish to draw his attention to those seven words, because, besides further demonstrating Hari's penchant for distortion and dissembling, they don't say a fat lot in favour of the paper's editorial filtering processes, do they?

I get the feeling it's going to be a long, hot summer for one genuinely distinguished old gentleman of the press.

(Thanks to Damian Thompson of the Daily Telegraph for pointing this out.)

Monday, 18 April 2011

What's Real Madrid all about, Alfie?


The football Barcelona played at the Bernabéu was just brilliant. Their superiority was patent and on view for all the world to see. They've got something that Real Madrid don't have. The whites were hemmed in by opposition that dominated the midfield throughout the whole match. Barcelona played football and danced; Real Madrid just ran up and down, tiring themselves out.

Only if Xavi, Iniesta or Busquets lost the ball did Real Madrid ever try to put together an attack, but of course it was with a punt upfield in the hope that something might come of it. And whenever those three wanted, they could put the sheep to sleep passing the ball to one another with complete mastery, short and straight to the feet — perfectly executed, tight passes that were safe and sure for whoever was on the receiving end.

It was as if they wanted to take the ball home with them, because it was all theirs. Their mission was to feed the Barcelona strikers — and how well fed they were! — because they are so crushingly effective and the ease with which they create danger is permanent.

"Besides maintaining a very quick pace without once letting it up, the Barcelona players fought like true gladiators. They worked very hard indeed off the ball and never stopped moving.

"There was no negotiation, no refusal to paint their work of art on that green canvas, whatever the final scoreline might say, because they even played pretty football, always well placed. Their positioning in the team is a key factor. All their players show that a level of tactical thinking that is unmatched, with a highly developed sense of interchanging their roles.

The defensive effort was all Real Madrid’s, like the lion against the mouse. They were unable to neutralise their opponents with effective pressing in midfield, which is what they needed to do, although stopping Barça from making you so dizzy you end up reeling is much easier said than done. For the spectator, their well-put-together attacks in combination were a wonderful thing to see.

For as long as Di Maria had the strength to break through on the few occasions he had the ball, he was Madrid’s best player (along with “Saint Iker” Casillas, who deserves to be canonised right now).

Messi is the best in the world. Not only is his football spectacular, as an example of professionalism he also knows no rival. He shone on Saturday and it will be wonderful to watch him again in Wednesday’s Cup Final.

Barcelona’s success comes from their attacking approach, wisely applied to mature and become consolidated in time for the three more Clásicos that are upcoming. Attacking means you have to control time as well as your nerves.

Given all this, it’s obvious that Barcelona are better than Real Madrid, and that trying to build up attacking moves based on counter-attacks is not the most appropriate way to try to catch them by surprise. Their technical and tactical quality is such that they always occupy the pitch in a rational, well-balanced way, leaving no free spaces to be filled and taken advantage of.

Pep Guardiola's team always had their hands firmly on the reins of the match. With this result they’re now another step closer to their third consecutive Liga title, and the truth is that they deserve it, because they've done their homework properly. They’ve never stopped being themselves and it’s plain for anyone to see that they enjoy themselves and have fun when they play.

Another thing that needs saying is that Real Madrid aren’t making their fans feel as happy as they deserve to be, because the fans’ support for the team has been unconditional. Real Madrid showed more heart than order, and in the end their ambitions were frustrated.

Things I liked

I like and admire the huge dominance of Barcelona’s play. It’s football to be watched not with your eyes but with your soul. They treat the ball with respect, with adoration, almost pampering it. Watching this team in action is a delight for us all.

Things I didn’t like

Real Madrid was a team with no personality. This match should set the guidelines for how the next one needs to be faced, because the approach of trying to play against Barcelona with counterattacks is clearly not the way to go.

- Alfredo Di Stefano (Marca, 18 April 2010)

Monday, 14 February 2011

Karajan up the Khyber

Has the craze for minute's silences before football matches reached your parts yet? If not, you don't know what you're missing. Now no self-respecting Liga match can be without one to mark the passing of Alderman Mumble (sorry, the PA system isn't all it might be), now as sadly forgotten as he was then improbably corrupt. Yes, you know, him.

The key features of the new default modality for the minute's silence are that (a) it doesn't last for a minute and (b) it's not silent either. Presumably to save us from our baser instincts - particularly our unfortunate inclination to shout "Just bloody get on with it!" - the minute's (sic) silence (sic) actually consists of a twenty-second random snippet from some petrol-station-sourced K-Tel-equivalent of Herb Karajan's Adagio compilation, while the players all gather round the centre circle and link arms like the Tiller Girls with snoods.

So, football clubs, here's my proposal. If you saw fit to put on a testimonial match for the commemorated one way back when, fine, give them a minute's silence now. Under any other circumstances, isn't that what that half column-inch on page 14 of the programme is for?

* On the rare occasion when the deceased actually did have a connection to the club, it's likely to be the son-in-law of Betty the Boiling Bovril Lady or the bloke who used to hang up the alphabet-coded half-time scores before the advent of video screens proved that truly none of us are indispensable.