Taking It Personal: The Politics of Advocacy
As many of you know, for several weeks we — and indeed much of the literary world — has been discussing the curious case of Brad Vice, the (former) Flannery O'Connor Award winner who has been accused of plagiarism, whose book has been pulled from bookstores and libraries and destroyed by the University of Georgia Press, whose degree and whose job are now on trial at various instutions of higher learning.
Last week, novelist Robert Clark Young, one of the early public voices against Vice (here and elsewhere), published a piece in The New York Press, entitled "A Charming Plagiarist: The Downfall of Brad Vice," in which he presented what he purports is further evidence of Vice's plagiarism and further proof that Vice is a criminal.
Young's findings should advance the discussion.
There have been a number of new entries in the public consideration. My colleague Jason Sanford has stated here his determination that the passages cited by Young in his new article are indeed paraphrase rather than wholesale quotation, and he has commented that Young's article hints more than passingly at a personal issue between him and Vice, a hint that has been elaborated by other commenters, especially one C. M. Carmano, who describes the terms of the difficulty arising between Vice and Young. And a comment here on our site points out (rightly, I think) that the passages Young scrutinizes in his article relate facts, which cannot be copyrighted, and which can only be stated in so many ways without ceasing to be facts.
Yet, the dialogue, in so many places, is closing down.
My colleague received this e-mail earlier today:
How dare you come to the defense of the plagiarist Brad Vice? Plagiarism is the lowliest act possible for a writer. There is no doubt that Mr. Vice has committed it. ANY fair-minded person would conclude so from a comparison of the texts. Therefore, I can only conclude that you have some ulterior motive in defending this creep. This puts you in the same company as Vice.
Perhaps more than almost any other issue, plagiarism rouses the righteous passions of authors and editors and publishers. Most of us work for credit, without hope of money, and our integrity is the sole basis of our livelihood — which makes even the suggestion of criminality a liability, a damnation.
So, I have received e-mails that declare "Now Vice is completely destroyed" and "If you've got a fork, stick it in him, 'cause he's done."
Nevertheless, I am amazed (as always) by the alacrity with which so many people are willing not only to conclude that their assessment of the situation is accurate but as well that their accuracy gives them the authority and the opportunity to condemn — as morally bankrupt, even criminal — those who disagree and even those who simply do not agree.
Some people have seen enough, I know, even though it seems that not everyone (perhaps not anyone) has seen everything.
Some of the commenters, here and elsewhere, alleged that since the stories in question were also in Vice's PhD dissertation he may have committed his offense earlier and that not only his book but also his degree might be in question. Vice's dissertation director has stated, in a letter posted here, that she knew of Vice's intention to embed quotations from Carmer's Stars Fell On Alabama in his story "Tuscaloosa Knights," and as anyone who wishes to download the dissertation can see, Vice included an epigraph from Carmer's book in his dissertation text, both facts that significantly damage the argument that Vice intended to deceive.
Mr. Young's newest entry extends his argument by attempting to establish a pattern of plagiarism in Vice's work by comparing a handful of sentences from "Report From Junction," which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, with passages in Jim Dent's The Junction Boys. Here, again, the similarity is unmistakable, but whether or not it is legally plagiarism hinges on one's assessment of the status of the material in the original text and in Vice's text. If these are statements of fact, that could have their roots in reference works, not just in the earlier story, then there's no legal offense, since neither facts nor particular statements of fact can be copyrighted. More to the point, however, is the fact that the editors at The Atlantic Monthly had, as many people know, recognized the similarities between Vice's story and Dent's work and had determined Vice's text to be in the clear. Dan Wickett has published the facts here:
In an email, C. Michael Curtis, Senior Editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and editor of "Report from Junction" as it appeared in The Atlantic Monthly V. 290 n. 1 (July-August 2002), let me know that he was aware of the Dent book "… and decided to postpone its publication until we had worked with Vice to prevent easily-avoided overlap in some particular details. The story of Bear Bryant’s first A&M football team seemed to us well-known and not the property of Mr. Dent or anyone else. Further, the heart of the story we believed, then and now, to be the invention of Brad Vice, even though elements of its drama is placed in the familiar setting, as above."
As I say, for some the facts are clear, but not everyone who's come to some clear conclusion on this matter has seen all the facts.
None of us know, for example, the chain of reasoning that motivated the University of Georgia Press's recall of Vice's book. Maybe it was, as many people believe and indeed as it appears to be, a punitive act. On the other hand, as some have conjectured off the record, it might have been part of a strategy to avoid financial liability: if they make no money off the book, then if the quotations are eventually found to violate the University of Alabama Press's claim on the copyright, then even if they are asked to pay a percentage of their own take, they won't be paying anything. It's not my argument, or my assessment, but it is a possibility, and none of us knows the full story.
None of know what the University of Alabama Press's official response has been. I have been told that Daniel J.J. Ross's e-mail reply, quoted in The Tuscaloosa News and again in Mr. Young's New York Press article, was not an official response but rather a rather quick and informal reply to the case presented by two Tuscaloosa librarians.
Finally, I don't think anyone has received a full explanation from Vice himself. The best we have seems a few quotes in the University of Georgia Press's announcement and as well in a few newspaper articles.
So, though I don't begrudge anyone their assessment that Vice committed plagiarism, however much I disagree with it finally, I do find it rather curious that so many can approach the undecided or the disagreeing and condemn them as criminals.
I can't speak for everyone, by my interest in this discussion has all along been to have a discussion, an exchange of information, to consider all the angles. Nevertheless, some of the comments, some of the back-channel responses, and a great number of e-mails received by my colleagues and by other bloggers previously unknown to me suggest that if you are willing to consider another angle then you must be in league with the criminal (whose guilt is clear and has been proven). As if the attorney who defends a murderer must also be a murderer. Or be interested in murder. Though here, I'm not even sure everyone can agree that a murder has taken place.
Legal issues aside, I realize that even the possibility that the act was committed as alleged, that each bit of evidence or observation that appears to support the allegation is, if not enough to secure a conviction, enough for personal conviction, is enough for personal satisfaction, is enough to trigger a demand for satisfaction and to take the mechanisms of condemnation and of justice and revenge into one's own hands. For some people anyway.
The offense, even if not a legal offense, appears to be a moral offense. Many people seem to feel that Vice, by not announcing his embedding, has committed — beyond the question of a relatively small number of sentences whether stolen, borrowed, or adapted — a serious offense against the fictive contract that says the author will originate the story and its world entirely.
This is to say, I suspect — and I understand as well — that the question of originality isn't confined to an interest in a handful of sentences but is more importantly assigned to the body of work, even to the writer him- or herself. I suspect this concern animates much of Mr. Young's interest in seeing Sewanee as a cabal, as a concerted effort that combined to "make" Vice (even though other bloggers have already shown that this argument is built on sand rather than rock), to somehow fake a career. The occasion to see counterfeit work at one level in some people encourages the desire to prove that the counterfeit is complete and total. And as fiction is a matter of appearance, of perception, and (as a craft and pursuit) about clarity and surety of vision, such appraisals demand an almost coercive enforcement, whether through violence or shame or direct attack.
Such an interest in originality suggests why the response to the allegations and the demonstrations of borrowing in Vice's work (whether plagiarism or allusion) has produced what seems to me a response more severe than that following demonstrations that Stephen Ambrose employed material (at times whole paragraphs) without attribution, Knowing history to be a work of reportage and attribution as much as a work of origination, Ambrose's failure to credit is easily rectified, and even if it casts doubt on the honesty, on the location of his labor, ultimately he survives it, since the report is what is required. In Vice's case, I get the sense that the report wouldn't be quite enough, which is why the book could not be reissued with a correction: instead, the offense strikes right to the heart of our expectations of a fiction writer, that he or she be original all the time.
I understand that expectation, though I worry in this case the dialogue — on which so many stand, on which so much stands — will ultimately deprive us of the opportunity to consider the shape and appearance of a fiction that works in the ground between the work of origination and the work of reportage. Is this what Vice meant when he described himself as a "regional post-modernist," a writer whose fundamental understanding of a text is that its capacity to do work is defined by those texts that precede it?
This possibility is intriguing intellectually, but I take a personal interest in it as well. Like Vice, I grew up in Alabama. I grew up far from Tuscaloosa, and I don't know what that's like, but I can tell you that outside of Gadsden, it always seemed like the world was old and worn out, that everything had been done before. It took me many years before I discovered that writing could provide me with a means by which to answer the signal lack of originality in the kudzu-spread of fast-food restaurants, indoor malls, and mountain twang that bounded my youth, and years further before writing would allow me not only to confront the lack of centrality in my own life and circumstance but as well to dig back into what seemed a dead past for a sense of a real world, to understand that I lived not in the ash of the world but just above or just beside a real place.
I've just read the version of Vice's work that's available in dissertation form, online, and not what's in the now-pulped Bear Bryant Funeral Train, but what I have read, and what I continue to see, does seem part of a pattern, but not a pattern to deceive. Rather, the pattern I see, the pattern I take an interest in, is a pattern of responsiveness that requires from the reader a rare level of sensitivity but at the same time does not wish to bar a reader on account of his or her lack of familiarity with the inspiring and informing texts.
Wordsworth did it — in The Prelude, of whose lines nearly 10% are adaptations of passages from Milton's Paradise Lost. Most people who read Wordsworth now may have very little appreciation for this, just as most people might never have heard Vice's adaptation of Carmer's work, but just as The Prelude still makes for interesting reading, so too, I suspect, does The Bear Bryant Funeral Train. Maybe after all these issues are settled in more official courts there will be occasion to read this again and see.