Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Lenore Hart, the alleged plagiarist, and Edgar Allan Poe, the alleged nineteenth-century writer

I was pleased to see that a Salon piece on plagiarism published yesterday mentions the Lenore Hart affair, but disappointingly — and quite misleadingly — it refers to the evidence as mere "allegations". Since I get the impression that some people may still not fully appreciate just how clear-cut this case is, I thought it'd be useful to explain the mechanics behind my conviction that the media's fear of any comeback from calling a plagiarist a plagiarist is misplaced.

Here's a quick primer on plagiarism-hunting in the Internet age. It may once have all hinged on subjective judgment calls and grey areas but it's now advanced far beyond that. Today it's about examining quantifiable data and calculating probabilities — probabilities that offer a lot more certainty of making the right call than state-of-the-art DNA profiling.[1]

Here's how it works.

Last year, blogging about the glut of one-minute’s silences at Spanish football matches, I wrote this sentence:
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 let’s suppose a luckless hypothetical plagiarist (we'll call her “LHP” for short) came along and rewrote my sentence like this: 
This season, would any Spanish football ground worth its salt go without one to mark Councillor Somebodyorother's sad demise? (The stadium’s Tannoy is playing up again, I’m afraid.) 
LHP has been careful enough to cover her tracks by paraphrasing almost every important word or phrase. If we mark the text she's copied verbatim, all we're left with is this: 
This season, would any Spanish football ground worth its salt go without one to mark Councillor Somebodyorother’s sad demise? (The stadium’s Tannoy is playing up again, I'm afraid.) 
There’s no way Google could ever catch that, is there?

Yes, there is. Ridiculously commonplace though the words themselves may seem, the exact string “without one to mark" has only ever been used once by anybody on the whole of the Internet — by me. Type it into Google (including the inverted commas, to avoid hits for each individual word) and see for yourself

As if that weren’t "huh?" enough, now comes the really weird part. LHP could have stayed much closer to my original, like this, yet even so remained practically Google-proof:[1] 
Now no self-respecting Spanish match can forgo having one to mark the passing of Councillor Mumble (the PA system wasn’t all it might have been, sorry) 
It turns out that "now no self-respecting" has been used half a million times, and even the six-word string "one to mark the passing of" gets over a thousand hits, but put "without" before it and we find nobody has ever used that exact string except me and LHP.[2] And if, of all the possible contexts for LHP to have used that string in, it appeared in a piece that also happened to be about one-minute's silences at Spanish football grounds, and if we then factor in the extensive paraphrasing — changing "passing" to "sad demise" and "match" to "game" and so on  — then  ... you get the picture. 

That's how Lenore Hart came such a spectacular cropper. Presumably to avoid detection, she took great pains to change words that were of obvious semantic consequence 
 she must have worn her thesaurus to dust  but she failed to pay enough attention to those piddling little text strings that are of merely syntactic significance. What she did is like a burglar meticulously vacuuming the furniture and carpet to remove any trace of hair or fibre evidence, and then leaving a big fat fingerprint on the doorknob on the way out.

As Poe wouldn't have put it, just do the math 

There are fifteen million volumes in Google Books' database. Hitting by chance on a non-subject-specific text string — like our "without one to mark" or O'Neal/Hart's "privacy or as protection against" — in only two of them, which happen to deal with exactly the same topic, is several orders of magnitude more difficult than winning the lottery.

But if you end up with a tally of not just one but thirty-one exclusive string matches like this, we leave the realm of mere allegation behind us and stride firmly into dead-cert fact.

Expressed in the simplest, most conservative terms possible, the odds that Lenore Hart didn't plagiarise Cothburn O'Neal's novel are 1 in 1500000031. To give you an idea of just how big that number is, 15 million squared is 225 trillion, while 15 million cubed is 3.375 billion trillion. So 15 million to the power of 31 is ... you get the idea.[4]

Isn't it time to stop alleging that Lenore Hart is a plagiarist and start calling her what she is: a proven one?

1. A margin of error of 1 in 7000 is accepted as sufficiently conclusive for positive identification in crime-scene or paternity-case DNA analyses. 

2. I say "practically" because although Google allows you to use an asterisk to stand in for any word in a string (e.g. "now no self-respecting * match"), it's too cumbersome a method to be viable when checking for plagiarism, because you have to work blind, with no idea which words you need to turn into asterisks.

3. Jeremy Duns has tried the same exercise, typing text strings from his own novels into Google Books, always with the same results: either no hits at all or far too many for it to be practical to wade through them. Just one match is always a loud plagiarism alert.

4. It's actually an even bigger number than 1500000031, because you also have to allow for things like motive (Lenore Hart's first draft, on the same subject as O'Neal's novel, had been rubbished by her editor and she'll also have been under deadline pressure to get the book out before Poe stopped being a hot property because of the bicentennial celebrations) and opportunity (of the seven billion people on the planet, probably only a few hundred are alive who have read The Very Young Mrs Poe, but, on her own admission, Lenore Hart is one of them), etc.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Once upon a midnight cloudy and misty

(This one's pretty hardcore, so please bear with me. Test on Friday.)

We've already established that when faced with writing a scene for which no historical record was available, Lenore Hart cribbed straight from what Cothburn O'Neal had made up. But what about when the events she describes are documented?

Same thing. She mostly ignored the historical source and trusted O'Neal to have done his research properly.

Take the Poes' 1844 trip by train and steamboat from Philadephia to New York, via Amboy, New Jersey. Poe himself wrote about the journey in great, almost absurd, detail in a letter to Maria Clemm, who was his aunt and also his mother-in-law. This explains why, for instance, both O'Neal and Hart mention the 62-cent price of a certain umbrella. And this is the crux of Hart's defence: it's inevitable that she and O'Neal would both say the same things because both were working from the same historical sources. That's obvious.

Inevitable? Obvious? Really?

Let's look more a bit closely at how the two novelists chose to say those same things, because in many cases it was not the way Poe phrased it at all, and in some instances Hart filled in holes in Poe's account by choosing, oh-so-coincidentally, exactly the same words that O'Neal used in the bits he'd been forced to make up.

You can download a side-by-side comparison of the three writers' versions of this whole scene here. If you see something highlighted in red, alarm bells should ring, because it indicates words used by Hart that match O'Neal's version of the journey but not Poe's account of it.

If you don't have the time or inclination to download the document - I did warn you that this was pretty hardcore - then you can take my word for it: it's a veritable sea of red.

In one detail - what time it was when the train departed - we find that Hart completely misunderstood what O'Neal was trying to say and as a result screwed the time up, even though Poe had been quite specific about the hour. Hart says it was "seven fifteen". O'Neal doesn't state the exact time, instead saying that the train left "an hour" after their arrival at the station "a little after six". In that case, seven fifteen sounds about right, doesn't it? Yes, it does - or it would if Poe hadn't clearly said that the train left at seven o'clock, not seven fifteen.

Then there's the weather in Philadelphia the day the Poes left. Hart says it was "a cloudy, misty morning". O'Neal had it as "a cloudy, misty day". So both must have got that detail straight from Poe's letter, right? No, wrong. Poe doesn't mention the weather at all until the end of the journey, by which time it was raining.

The source she used was only "historical" inasmuch as it was a novel written fifty-five years before hers.

But getting back to that rain on their arrival in New York, once again we find Hart misconstruing O'Neal's version of events rather than drawing from Poe's original account. O'Neal just refers to "rain". Hart glosses this as "persistent drizzle", but if she'd actually used the historical source that she claims that she relied on and not just plagiarised another writer's novelisation of it, she'd have seen that the needle was in fact at the other end of the raininess scale. It wasn't drizzling at all but tipping down by the time they got to New York - "raining hard" were Poe's exact words.

There are several other tell-tale details we could mention (the definite article in "at the Walnut Street wharf" which is used by O'Neal but not by Poe, or both Hart and O'Neal saying "boarded a steamer" when Poe had phrased it as "took a steamboat" - dull but dead-giveaway stuff like that), but I'll leave it there and let anyone interested see for themselves in the line-by-line breakdown of the three versions of the scene linked to above.

The conclusion couldn't be clearer. Even when the events she describes are documented, Lenore Hart's "same historical sources" defence is hogwash. Time and time again she couldn't be bothered to turn to the relevant document as her primary source, relying instead on Cothburn O'Neal's interpretation of it.

After all, that 170-year-old prose is full of stupid ampersands and, like, weirdo capitalization and abbreviations; who needs to actually plough through all that turgid stuff when some dead schmuck from Texas has already done the donkey work for you?


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.