New attack on Brad Vice is merely poor journalism



Normally Thanksgiving brings out the good in people . . . probably because everyone’s groggy from the tryptophan in the turkey they ate. However, it appears that Robert Clark Young missed out on this year's turkey and happiness infusion, as evidenced by his new attack-dog article on Brad Vice’s supposed plagiarism (an issue I debunked weeks ago).

In the article, Young expands upon the nasty comments he originally made about Vice on storySouth (such as this inane example, located in the comments below Jake's original essay). However, I’m going to ignore the fact that Young's comments attack anyone from the South and compares any defense of Vice to support of slavery (which Young implies all Southerners still support). And never mind the fact that Young's article is published in a poorly regarded weekly newspaper.

No, the more important truth is that Young's article is poor journalism.

The reasons for this are simple. First, Young's article tries to make it sound as if he has discovered a new case of plagiarism. However, all that Young has done is show that Vice used The Junction Boys, a nonfiction book about Bear Bryant by author Jim Dent, as a reference source for his short story "Report from Junction." Like any writer, Vice had to research some obscure issues (in this case, screwworms and one of Bear Bryant's early football stars) and used Dent's book to make sure he was accurate. The similarities in what Young points out arise from the sentences describing a common process. Descriptive terms can not be considered plagiarism since there are only so many ways to write certain descriptions. For example, how many writers have written the sentence "He ran up the hill"? If I wrote this exact sentence in a story of mine it would not be plagiarism because it is a simple descriptive sentence.

More importantly, though, the examples that Young gives from Vice's dissertation to support this new charge of plagiarism are incorrect. For example, Young states that Vice's dissertation has this sentence in it:

"(T)he maggots will most likely screw themselves into its brain ... before they exit back through its eyes."

I will admit that this sounds similar to Dent's original sentence of "They sometimes would screw themselves into the brain and exit through the eyeballs." However, when I read page 180 of Vice's dissertation I discovered that Young's use of Vice's quotation isn't correct. Vice's original sentence actually reads:

"In fact, with worms that close to its head, the maggots would most likely screw themselves into the bull’s brain and drive him completely mad before they exited back through the eyes."

That sentence no longer sounds at all like Dent's. By using an excerpt from Vice's original sentence, and the creative use of an ellipsis, Young makes his case for plagiarism sound stronger than it actually is. The other screwworm sentences Young quotes from are also different than what Young says they are (the sentences all occur in one short section of a paragraph on page 180 of the dissertation). Since Young says he went back to Vice's dissertation to get an accurate accounting of what Vice did, it is strange that the examples he gives to support his plagiarism charge are so inaccurate.

Of these so-called plagiarized sentences, the only ones that actually resemble each other are the last examples Young gives. Young states that Dent's book has the sentence "He kicked the gelding and rode up on a ghastly sight" while Vice's short story in his dissertation has "Kurt kicked the gelding and charged up to a gruesome sight." The reason these sentences are similar is that the character in Vice's short story is based on Dennis Goehring, who is described as "One of the most hard-nosed, toughest players Bryant ever had." Vice's character was originally called Dennis Schaffer and is obviously based on Goehring. Since Vice's book aims to intergrate fiction with the actual events that occurred during Bear Bryant's life (which is a form of literary sampling) it makes sense that Vice would adapt an actual event from Dennis Goehring's life to a story based on this most famous of the Bear's early players. The similarities in these sentences result from the fact that they are describing the same event (a cow giving birth to a calf, which is then eaten by buzzards).

Once again, though, Young fails to quote accurately from the dissertation. Vice's original sentence reads, "Dennis kicked the gelding and charged up to a gruesome sight," while Young's quote gives the character's name as Kurt. Obviously the name of the main character changed from Dennis to Kurt by the time the story made its way to book publication. In fact, this brings up the question of if Young actually took his quotes from Vice’s dissertation or the book publication of The Bear Bryant Funeral Train. The article is unclear on this (again, poor journalism). Regardless, Young states that Vice’s dissertation makes the clearest case for plagiarism, which strongly implies that his excerpts are from the dissertation. As Young says in the article, “Plagiarism tends to be a first-draft offense; it is now possible to trace Vice's plagiarism from its genesis in his original documents.” But despite this claim by Young, he fails to quote accurately from the original document.

While Young's use of creative excerpts from Vice's dissertation is bad enough, a worse sin is that he fails to mention anything that might support Vice's assertion (and the belief of others) that what Vice did was not plagiarism. For example, Young fails to mention that on page 144 of Vice's dissertation is an epigraph from Carl Carmer's book Stars Fell on Alabama. When the dissertation was published as The Bear Bryant Funeral Train by the University of Georgia Press, this epigraph was left off for some reason. As many commentators have remarked, if Vice had included a citation or epigraph in his book, no one would have accused him of plagiarism. Yet here in Vice's dissertation is that called for epigraph. Young, however, ignores this evidence in support of Vice.

The final reason that Young's article is poor journalism is that he fails to note his personal relationship with the Sewanee Writers' Conference. Since the last third of Young's article is an attack on the Sewanee conference and anyone who is connected with the place (such as Barry Hannah), one would think that Young might mention he himself attended Sewanee at the same time as Brad Vice. The failure to disclose this information leads one to wonder if Young's article is part of a vendetta against Sewanee and Vice.

In short, Young's article is simply poor journalism. By altering the quotes from Vice's dissertation and ignoring evidence that would support Vice, Young makes the plagiarism case against Vice appear stronger than it is. Young also fails to disclose a serious conflict of interest in his attack on the Sewanee Writers' Conference. Because of these issues, I am reluctant to trust this article.



COMMENTS



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I read the New York article and that was the first time I'd heard about Brad Vice. Must admit, the article sounded convincing. But after reading this I can't believe that paper didn't do more fact checking or something before they published the article. Disgusting how people can twist facts like they did about Brad Vice.




I was asked to give all examples of how Young's use of quotes from "Report From Junction" deviate from what Brad Vice actually wrote. In addition to the two examples given in the essay above, here are the other ones:

Quote 1:

Young quotes Vice as writing:
"(T)hey will screw themselves into the vital organs and suck the life right out."

Vice's actually wrote in his dissertation (page 180):
"Some of the worms had probably already burrowed deep into the body of the calf, and soon they would screw themselves into the vital organs and suck the life right out of him."

Quote 2:

Young quotes Vice as writing:
"Screwworms are the larva of blue-bellied blowflies, which lay their eggs in the wounded flesh of living animals."

Vice's actually wrote in his dissertation (page 180):
"Screwworms were the larva of blue-bellied blowflies that lay their eggs in the wounded flesh of living animals."

Quote 1 has a major change while Quote 2 has a more minor change. The fact is, though, that these changes make the plagiarism charge appear stronger than it really is and, regardless of anything else, it is poor journalism not to quote accurately. Since Young make a big deal about quoting from Vice's dissertation as a way to reach the truth on this matter, in my opinion these errors by Young seriously undercut the conclusions he reaches.




This case gets curioser and curioser. Regardless of whether there was intentional plagiarism here, I would like to clarify one thing--I never likened my work to Vice's. I likened the hysteria and witch hunt nature of the attacks to what I experienced on Zoetrope, the online writers' workshop.

Ms. Beverly Jackson continues to stoke the old tired fires of my so-called plagiarism on Zoetrope, something I've steadfastly denied over the 4 years since it happened. The details are no longer important. I'm not trying to defend or attack anyone at this late date. The point is that writers in general get hysterical about the "P" word. It's the equivalent of being called a racist at an NCAAP meeting.

Ms. Jackson, the editor of the now defunct Lit Pot, an ezine which published many Zoe pals, made a big point about my still being on Zoetrope with a pseudonym. I'd wager half the members or more use pen names there. She suggested members "play a parlor game" guessing who I am there. This sort of thinking represents much of the effete snobbery of a few long time members of the site. They'd lock the place up and publish each other repeatedly if they had their way.




Here's a comment on From Here To Obscurity (from P.M. Cormano) about Young's conflict of interest:

(Young) attended as a fellow (fellows usually have one or two books and come for free) in '98 or '99, and according to my source, was reamed in a workshop led by Barry Hannah. My source described the event as "less a 'coordinated workshop attack' than a dozen or so people independently arriving at the same conclusion: that his piece blew ass." He also gave a reading that was widely regarded as egregiously terrible, after which he probably experienced some degree of alienation, as people tend not to want to be around someone who has just publicly humiliated themselves. My guess is that his grudge is with the Conference and Hannah in particular, not Vice, whose slip-up just seems to be an occasion for revenge. For more insight into Young's pysche, check out his Wikipedia entry, which is about the same length as John Updike's or Philip Roth's, and the Wikipedia stub for Comic Novel, which includes this sentence: "Notable American comic novelists include Robert Clark Young, Hunter S. Thompson, John Kennedy Toole, Joseph Heller and Terry Southern."




It's an iffy situation. I once got a reader accusing me of plagiarism for describing Oscar Madison, from the tv show The Odd Couple, as 'a sportswriter for the New York Herald who's a slob', or something akin, while they said another article on the series described Madison as 'a sportswriter for the New York Herald who's sloppy'.
What people do not seem to realize is that facts are not copyrightable, and entries on such are not. In The Odd Couple example, since these are the top cogent facts about the character, there are only a limited # of ways to state them, w/o sounding ridiculously stuffy or ornate.
The examples you give, Jason, undermine the claims, and also what is missing is the context. This is true in what defines a cliche, as well. A term like 'broken heart' is a cliche when naked, but if it were in a story about a whale who was harpooned, literally in its heart, it could still have resonance.

For example, there is the famous endline in Rilke's poem Archaic Torso Of Apollo, 'You must change your life'. Word for word that line has appeared hundreds of times in published poems since- some as obvious homages, and others in different contexts, such as ironical uses. A poem by James Wright, called 'Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota' ends with the line 'I have wasted my life', which directly ties to Rilke, and is used in much the same manner. In spirit it's an obvious steal from Rilke, but it's also an homage. Yet, its use so parallels Rilke's that I think a stronger case for
plagiarism could be made against Wright, than the poetasters who used Rilke's own words, although it's still a very pallid one.

There's a difference between historians stealing, Ambrose and Kearns-Goodwin, and fictive 'stealing'. Even TS Eliot lauds the great writers who steal successfully. Having just read Les Miserables- the full version by Victor Hugo- I saw many scenes that were in works by Dumas and other swashbuckling tales before it. Hugo generally does them better- but is it homage to Dumas, or theft?

To me, the more interesting question is, even if we assume all the charges against Vice are just- which seems an iffy proposition, given that his accusers' poor journalism is as, or more, questionable than Vice's 'plagiarism'- I am befuddled as to why anyone would plagiarize such pedestrian, if not banal, verbiage. Stealing from Rilke- one of the greatest published poets- is understandable, just as trying a life of crime if you can steal the Hope Diamond, or break into Fort Knox, might be understandable, but Vice's plagiarism is on the order of ripping open a cereal box in a supermarket for a decoder ring, or knocking over a 7-11 for a pack of Reese's Pieces.

Perhaps what should be questioned is not why a writer would steal from another, but steal from mediocrity, at best?





I do find it hard to believe that a man with such credentials as Mr. Vice would resort to what Mr. Robert Clark Young states as "plagiarism." However, having looked at Mr. Young's article, and Mr. York's and Sanford's cogent analyses and explanations here, I still have to say the error is wholly on Mr. Vice's part. "Sampling" of literature is very different from sampling of music. When a writer is "sampling" snippets of other writers' work, there must be an obvious point, either the piece is satirical or parodic. Vice's claim that his piece is an "homage" to Carmer seems highly suspicious. Perhaps it was, but perhaps he should have had the foresight to realize, during the many times he had the opportunity, that when his "homage" was not, in fact, as recognized by as many people as he first assumed, he should have made the homage more explicit by using proper citation. The Dent passages further implicate Vice, in my opinion. Yes, screw worms do a very specific thing, yet if I were writing a description of them in a piece of fiction I would find my own way of expressing what it is they do, without resorting to any of the language that Mr. Dent uses. Surely, that is what creative writers do.

I'm sorry, I believe Mr. Vice committed a colossal error of judgment, and that there is simply too much evidence against his claim that it was all merely innocent.