19 February 2012

Plagiarist of Secrets

The latest New Yorker has a fine article by Lizzie Widdicombe about the "Assassin of Secrets" plagiarism case. It seems a fitting subject for mid-February, a time of year marked by stories about rare honest politicians/statesmen, confessing about cherry trees or showing the world their warts or whatever.

"Assassin of Secrets" was the name of a book written by Quentin Rowan under the penname Q.R. Markham, a thriller in James Bond style, published by Little Brown last year and recalled (all 6500 copies) only five days after publication.

The extraordinary thing about this plagiarism was its range. Rowan just didn't steal from one or two selected sources. One authority on the subject, Edward Champion, found more than 34 acts of theft within the book's first 35 pages.

Rowan stole, unsurprisingly, from Ian Fleming. He also stole from the writer who was authorized to continue the Bond series, John Gardner. He stole from other spy novelists, such as Charles McCarry and Robert Ludlum. And, just to prove his range as a thief I suppose, he stole from works well outside the genre, such as a nonfiction history of the National Security Agency. 

Widdicombe has interviewed Rowan, who is remorseful, and she has found some fascinating material about the making of a plagiarist. What sticks to me, though, is a matter of lineage. Rowan is the great-grandson, on his mother;'s side, of the renowned theologian Walter Rauschenbusch.

Rauschenbusch was a key figure in popularizing the notion of the "Social Gospel" in the early 20th century. His books included Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) which contains a dire-sounding warning to conservatives. "Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies the faith of the Master."

If I try to hold the ideas of Rauschenbusch and the actions of Rowan in my mind at the same time, what happens?  Do I explode?

No, but the phrase "regression to the mean" acquires a certain prominence.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.