REALITY CHECK by Valerie Laws

Recent events have thrown up the question - what’s really real? Judging fake from true is tricky, and some argue the internet makes fakery more prevalent. I would disagree, but you have to learn the signs and keep your googling finger at the ready. Apart from the phishing scams, pretending to be our banks or Word or Yahoo, we’ve all had emails sent from friends’ accounts. If it says something like ‘hey, look at this!’ and a link, I’d never click on it without checking with the supposed sender first. I beware of Greeks and their gifts, to avoid Trojan Horses galloping through my hard drive. Twitter direct messages from followers are almost always scams, with ‘someone’s spreading rumours about you!’ and a link. Again, delete, sigh, scroll on by.

Facebook can stray into unreality too. Well-meaning friends share and pass on messages which are either hoaxes or have ceased to be true. I now never share appeals about missing persons without googling first. Often it turns out the person turned up back in 2008, sometimes dead, sometimes alive, sometimes after only three days or so. Yet the original heart-tugging appeal has been circulating all over cyberspace spreading exponentially ever since! Especially exasperating are deliberately started privacy panics, suggesting that Facebook has now signed a pact with Satan and if you don’t change settings for every single friend while facing a full moon, your soul will be ripped out with dirty tweezers. Many believe these scares and post long, boring status updates warning us of the coming apocalypse and asking us to soak their name in dettol and throw flea powder at the screen or some such. Again, get googling! Yes I know what you find then might be fake too, but you do get a feeling for faux. I’m sure others will have found this. There’s a particular linguistic register, a preachy tone and style, which is popular for fake stories especially those designed to make us feel smug or shocked. It’s worth checking Hoax Slayer before sharing or passing on. 

'I'm, oops I mean he's a genius, honest!'
People who avoid, fear and distrust the internet often worry that somehow people in blacked-out vans are monitoring their every move if they venture online. Of course some of this goes on, but really, the sheer amount of traffic makes it impossible to do more than search for product names etc. Just imagine how many cat pictures those shady men in vans must look at. Enough to make them ailurophobic. One reason the DDR fell to bits was that so many people were busy monitoring each other, nobody was making the dinner. And that was pre- internet. Which brings us to writing, and reality. Recently in the crime fiction world, daggers were drawn at learning that not only did Stephen Leather cheerfully admit creating sock puppets to review his own books, but it turned out that hugely successful RJ Ellory was doing the same not only to praise his own work but to rubbish that of rivals.

'Pop behind the screen and fill this with metaphors please'
More recently, my fellow poets have been shocked by a plagiarism scandal. Literary plagiarism is rife in the education world, with students using copy and paste to the point where quoting becomes wholesale nicking. Lecturers are supposed to check for this, difficult though it may be. In the poetry world, however, it hasn’t been so often discussed or even suspected. Yes occasionally poets are incensed to find an ‘homage’ has crossed the line into plagiarism of some of their best images or structures. But many of us are haunted by the fear of actually committing plagiarism by mistake, somehow subconsciously recalling something read or heard or seen years ago as our own invention. The Christian Ward scandal began when he won a poetry competition. These are big draws to starving poets, and make big money for organisers, some have prizes of £1000 or more and winning also gives kudos and CV brownie points. The poem turned out to be Helen Mort’s ‘The Deer’ with only a couple of teeny changes. At first comments on facebook and in the media were inclined to be charitable, until the two poems were widely shared online. Ward’s ‘apology’ seemed slippery and ambiguous. Then more poems he’d ‘homaged’, had published, gained from, began to be discovered. This must have been going on for years. (See here  - the two deer poems are quoted in full further down for comparison.) So how many other poets are far more successful than they know, though someone else is grabbing the credit? Just as athletes have to take drug tests, successful poems, at least in competitions, will have to be well and truly googled.

Every star hard-earned I tells yer!
The sockpuppet scandal has led to some strange effects for ebook bods like ourselves. Amazon, in an attempt to purge their reviews of fake people, best buds and authors’ mams and grans, have tried to check readers’ reviews are bona fide. This is quite ironic. In the dead tree book world, writers are regularly, indeed some almost exclusively, reviewed by their friends. If you see a hysterical blurb on a cover, ‘Pant-wettingly hilarious, tear-jerkingly moving, buy this now it will change and indeed justify your life! Sunday Snobb’ then read the novel to discover it’s just meh, it’s surprisingly common for the author’s biog to include ‘journalist on the Sunday Snobb’... It’s a bit cronyist, yes, but what can you do, writers get to know each other, as in any other world. Are our readers, who may be friends, not allowed to post reviews like any other readers?

Some of Amazon’s suspected tactics include looking for any admission of knowing the author, even reviewers using their first name. Fans who follow successful writers eg via facebook often do feel they know them, and as readers not professional reviewers, don’t know the convention of referring to an author by either full name or last name only. Publishers send out books and requests for reviews, yet ebook indie publishers are made to feel dirty for soliciting reviews. If some of us politely and diffidently suggest, if a reader contacts us to rave about our book, that they might like to post that same opinion on Amazon, is owt wrong with that?

The internet tells us truths other media don’t -  media owned by interested parties. What are politicians really up to? Who’s telling us we’re scroungers while snout-deep in the expenses gravy train? What have scientists found out that we’re not being told because it interferes with big corporations making money? It’s all online, nobody controls it, nobody owns it. Revolutions are planned through it. Totalitarian regimes can’t censor it and can’t afford to block it. For every piece of fakery or vicious comment some sad little troll posts online, there are shedloads of truthful information. The e-world may allow lies to spread quickly, but it’s far far easier to discover whose pants are on fire. Before the internet, how many poets, novelists, got away with literary theft, undetected? How could anyone check?

But google exists, and much of what you find through it online is true (though I’d double check before betting my savings). We live in a wonderful time, when books can be shared, bought and sold online, in seconds, often cheap or free. Ancient classics which someone has voluntarily scanned page by page and converted from jpeg to Word to Kindle. Books which nobody has been able to censor or prevent. A time when people, for no return, purely through an altruistic urge to share knowledge, will post information online at considerable effort. Almost anything I need to know, there’ll be a forum, a youtube film, Wikipedia entry, with all of it there. I find this truly heartening.

Valerie Laws' two e-books are
Find out about her 11 published books on her website or on Facebook or Twitter.


Bill Kirton said…
Great post, Valerie. I hadn't come across the Christian Ward examples and the blatancy of his plagiarism is astonishing. How on earth did he think he'd get away with it? And to enter it for a competition! Unbelievable. I find it very hard to be 'charitable' in such circumstances. Plagiarism is theft.

And I'm with you on praising the freedoms we find amongst all the misdirections and misuses of online resources. My only tiny reservation is that, with everything becoming so accessible, the tendency is for knowledge to be cherry-picked and used without really being absorbed. As Michael Gove seems keen to prove, there's less room for critical thinking in education nowadays.
Chris Longmuir said…
I agree with Bill, it was a great post and I enjoyed reading it rather than my usual skimming.
I was in the audience when Stephen Leather admitted he used sock puppets, and I think he was naive to do so, but I also believe he was set up by his traditionally published friends? colleagues? He was told in the Green Room to be controversial, and he fell right into the trap. While I don't approve of what he did, I must say I've now lost respect for the writers who set him up. The Harrogate Crime Festival site has an audio recording of Wanted for Murder, the full panel discussion for £3, here's the link
R J Ellory, on the other hand was found out.
I read the poems and was astounded at the degree of plagiarism - unbelievable!
Susan Price said…
Loved the post, Valerie - and like Bill and Chris, can't believe the sheer cheek of the poetry pinch! It reminds me of that journalist who wrote a prize-winning expose, claiming research and travel expenses, quoting interviewees - and all the time never leaving his New York flat! It is hard to understand the motivation. Do they think they're too clever to ever be found out? Are they incapable of looking beyond the immediate gratification? Or do they just not care?
Lydia Bennet said…
Thanks folks! Chris, I remember feeling rather icky to read how negative many of my fellow-CWA members were about ebooks and self-publishing anyway, and yes Stephen L was rather thrown to the wolves. I don't suppose he cares much. Ellory apologised, and those he'd rubbished forgave him, but then he did something very like it again... Re the poetry plagiarism, a small press publisher once said to me that a lot of people want to BE writers rather than wanting to write. Perhaps this is the satisfaction gained from winning prizes with someone else's poem?
A succession of great points brilliantly made there, Valerie, thank-you!
(I clicked on the link and read both the poems...I didn't expect so LITTLE attempot at modification...incredible!)
Dan Holloway said…
ooh, don't get me started on Christian Ward. In a way I'm glad it's turned out his plagiarism is so widespread, because it makes it look less like a callous attack on the wonderful Helen Mort, particularly heartless given how personal the poem is to her.

On a related electric note I saw that teh most famous short story plagiarist of all, a certain Mr Archer, had teamed up with Kobo for a new short story contest - no, that's not a joke, the man infamous for (among other things) pilfering a short story from a contest he judged has been chosen to be the face of what will come to be known as Kobo's great facepalm moment

What I do think, on a serious note, is that literature - especially perhaps poety - needs to have an open and frank conversation without any mudslinging or namecalling on either side about the whole question of intellectual property. The music community has been having it, rather painfully, ever since technology made sampling possible, but literature has yet to openly have the "when does sampling/remixing go from stealing to a new piece of art?" conversation, and as image macros and flarf and other forms of verbal mashup proliferate it's becoming increasingly important to get out of the "it's stealing"/"anything goes" polarity and at least understand what the complexities are before returning to it. Not that Ward was anything but pilfering - unless the whole debacle was calculated to be a piece of situationism which I somewhat doubt
Very thought provoking post! I followed that poetry plagiarism case with a dropped jaw, noting how people were initially inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt - but once they saw the poems, could hardly believe anyone would be so stupid (as well as unscrupulous.)
Somebody pointed out that there are so many competitions with so many entries that the judges can't be expected to spot everything - I suppose once the poems were actually published he was doomed. Maybe poets should have to put work through Turnitin, like students. Although that causes a whole other set of problems of its own. I'm entirely with you on the need to spot hoaxes and the benefits of the internet in trying to discover the 'things they don't want us to know.' (Like who the real owners of certain companies are. No matter how much they try to hide, they leave a trail. They must really hate the internet.)
Dennis Hamley said…
Great post, Val. Ward's theft, for that's what it is, is appalling. How on erath did he think he wa going to get away with it? It's a literary crime. I saw the film 'Words' on the plane coming back from New ealand. I thought it impossible that anybody who saw himself as a serious writer would do what the main character does. But it seems they do. Yet perhaps we all sometimes have little niggles in our minds. I've frequently embedded a concealed quotation in my prose - and delighted in doing so. I've invented episodes in stories which deliberately echo events in other works becauseI want to make a comparison or an ironic comment. I've practiced inter-textuality in several stories and believe they add more layers to the narrative. I try to do it honestly because, like us all, I'm in a tradition, a great community, and I use the resources of that community. But where is the dividing line between intertextuality and plagiarism?
Lydia Bennet said…
thank you all, glad you enjoyed reading the post! update today, the list of Mr Ward's pinched poems now stands at nine published or prizewinning... the search continues. Those of us he didn't plagiarise are beginning to feel insulted!
glitter noir said…
Well done, Val. I'd like to see a sidebar on the plagiarism subject: blatant ripoff of ideas or plots vs. actual words. No attribution, just coldblooded theft. I have two stories to tell about that but I don't want to jam up your blog. "That's so cool I've got to steal it" is becoming the new writing catch phrase.
visual poet said…
One of the poems in Iota 88, for example,

Nautilus by Christian Ward

After Michael Donaghy

I found it hard to breathe
in father’s study after he died.

It wasn’t the antique diving
suit or Coelacanth specimen

locked in a state of shock
that made me gasp for air,

but the collection of sea shells
given to us as children.

Compensation for his absence.
I regret I won’t live to see

his prize specimen, a sulphur
nautilus, sold off. Mother

said he wanted an heir
but remained unmarried.

Science was his mistress
and after that came my mother

and his son. Before he died,
I came across his name in a journal

of marine genetics. Sharp spikes
of coral were named for him.

is very literally after


by Michael Donaghy (Collected Poems, Pan, p51)

My father would have cherished an heir,
but he remained unmarried.

Science was his mistress, and after science,
my mother. But we were provided

with a collection of seashells
second only to the emperor's.

I regret I will not live
to see the final specimen auctioned.

It is the jewel in the diadem.
A sulphur nautilus,

would like the spring of a gold watch.
My mother would not part with it in life.

When he died I saw his name
in the Journal of Marine Genetics. Sharp,

peach-coloured spikes of coral
are named for him.
Lydia Bennet said…
Michael D was lovely, he came to my first full poetry collection launch. Very similar poems, though this one is saved from plagiarism accusations by the 'after michael donaghy'. Reb, it's hard to prove plagiarism of ideas or plots, which can quite innocently occur to several people independently and it would be hard to prove you were the first one in history to think of it I suppose.
visual poet said…
You could then compare the following, where the formula "after Sheers" is used but the poems are almost identical

The Stammerer and the Mountain, by Christian Ward

After Sheers

This mountain slope is my language.
A skin of stone slipping
under my grip, feet pedalling
the one moving spot.

It stops when I am still,
pressed against its steepness
like a child on its mother,

sliding from under my feet
when I start to move again,
like words from under a memory,
vowels from under a tongue.

Stammerer on Scree — by Owen Sheers

This slope is my language.
A shifting skin of stone
that slips under my grip,
feet pedaling the one moving spot,
sharded slate, flowing hard water.

But when I am still,
crabbed against its steepness,
cheek to its side, a child on its mother,
then it stops.
Stone-ticks out to quiet,
rests itself on the mountain,
meaning everything.

Until I move again,
when it spreads under my hand,
slides from under my climbing feet,
like words from under a memory,
vowels from under a tongue.
Lee said…
I agree with Reb that a sidebar discussion of could be very fruitful. Any chance of this?

A small note about relevant if weird developments: I quoted a published nonfiction book in a short story that was published in 2012 - one sentence - and asked the editors several times to indicate the source, but for both the online and print editions my request was ignored. And this from a reliable university press. Eventually I had to resort to acknowledging my source in a blog post.
glitter noir said…
Thanks, Lee. By way of what I meant, with hopes it inspires more discussion: When my first book, The Suiting, was published one well-known horror writer loved a particular scene involving a pretty clever means of murder. He wrote me an enthusiastic note telling me he had to steal it because it was that good. Darned if he didn't exactly what he said.

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