Literary experts find John Hughes plagiarism defense unconvincing

Literary scholars have criticized Australian author John Hughes for apparently copying excerpts from certain classic texts, including The Great Gatsby, into parts of his new book, The Dogs.

On Thursday, Guardian Australia published a 1,700-word article by Hughes in which he explained why certain excerpts from F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque made their way into his novel. Guardian Australia cross-checked any similarities between Hughes’ work and sections of these classic texts and found instances where whole sentences were identical or where a single word had changed.

This revelation followed just days after the Guardian revealed similarities between the Sydney writer’s book and a 2017 English translation of the non-fiction work The Unwomanly Face of War by the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich.

Asked about the similarities, Hughes wrote, “I don’t think I am a plagiarist any more than any other writer who was influenced by the greats who came before them.”

He pointed to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, which he said “is itself a sort of anthology of other people’s big words. Does that make Eliot a plagiarist? Not at all, it seems. You take it, that is to say, and you make something else out of it; you make it yours.

“I’ve always used other writers’ work in my own. He’s a rare writer who doesn’t… It’s a matter of qualifications.

The Guardian turned to a number of academics to ask questions about Hughes’ claims and, while some expressed admiration for the author’s literary talent, others did not support his justifications. .

“It’s not a cause for moral panic…but whether it’s conscious, unconscious or subconscious, it’s definitely something that I personally am against,” said the head teacher of creative writing and studies. scholars from Monash University, Dr. Ali Alizadeh.

Tom Doig, professor of creative writing at the University of Queensland, said: “It looks like Mr Hughes was saving his cake last week and he decided to eat it this week.”

Last week Hughes responded to initial allegations saying the similarities were unintentional and unfortunate. He issued a public apology to Alexievich and his translators.

TS Eliot
John Hughes cited TS Eliot (pictured) in his defence. Photography: AFP/Getty Images

Wednesday, the guardian revealed that The Dogs also contained passages similar to sections of other famous works of fiction, including The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, and All Quiet on the Western Front.

This time, Hughes claimed the similarities were intentional, saying artists have been recycling, reimagining and rewriting stories since time immemorial. It’s not what you take, he argued, but what you do with it that matters.

Hughes cited TS Eliot in his defense, saying that in The Sacred Wood of the poet he wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets disfigure what they take, and good poets turn it into something better, or at least something different.

Hughes said: “This great masterpiece of modernism, The Wasteland, is itself something of an anthology of other people’s big words. Does that make Eliot a plagiarist? »

Well, no, said Doig – because Eliot footnotes included.

“I think what’s really weird about this situation is that when the story broke last week there was this whole complex of ‘oh, I did it by mistake, oops…and now he has completely pivoted, now he says everything is useful, it’s modernism, it’s part of the big canon.

“Can you accidentally sample and deliberately sample at the same time? I’m sure you can. Maybe he did. But it seems like a pretty weird place to land to me.

Dr Alyson Miller, a senior lecturer at Deakin University’s School of Communication and Creative Arts, told the Guardian that Eliot’s defense of Hughes was “a flawed argument” and that his overall argument didn’t ring true. not true.

“There’s no acknowledgment that it’s part of the writer’s creative process in any form,” she said.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean filling a book with footnotes or citations, but there was no contextual conversation about using other writers as sources in any of the discussions around the novel.”

Eliot’s defense of Hughes was “not good,” according to Alizadeh, but the writer’s apparent borrowing of excerpts from The Great Gatsby is equally, if not more, troubling.

“There is a question of uniqueness of a sentence when we talk about prose fiction,” he said. “Whole passages and paragraphs where they seem to be taken from existing works of fiction, so I think yes, that’s a problem.”

Professor Kimberlee Weatherall of the University of Sydney Law School said it was impossible to get inside an author’s head to judge the level of conscientiousness when copying another’s work.

“I have no comment on whether this is a case of sloppy writing practice and record keeping or something else,” she said.

“Certainly there are questions of degree in plagiarism. Artists often build on what came before. But there’s a big difference between reworking classic stories or classic literature and copying passages word for word. Whether you’re talking about plagiarism or copyright, verbatim – or nearly so – copying would normally be considered inadmissible.

University of Sydney creative writing professor Dr Toby Fitch, who is also the poetry editor for Overland, said Hughes’ claims about ‘collage’ and ‘palimpsest’ might have been interesting if he had made it a point of interest in his novel. .

“Yet none of these literary techniques are at the forefront,” he said.

“But let’s not be confused: the Hughes saga is not a hoax or a scandal. It’s just another annoying misrepresentation of the practice of writers – usually poets, rarely novelists – who use collage and other language-recycling techniques in more interesting ways to subvert author worship and, by extension, the individualistic subjectivities of capitalism.

No hoax, no scandal, but that was enough, it seems, for the administrators of Miles Franklin to delete The Dogs from the long list of the prize last Friday.

Doig said the controversy was unlikely to amount to a mountain of beans for the average reader anyway.

“I suspect that the kind of people who appreciate The Dogs – which is much more of a ‘literary’ effort – might care about the obscure questions of originality and the transparency of intertextuality…but for many readers, this does not It doesn’t matter how “original” something is, how good it is.

” It’s nice ? Is this a good read? And that’s a perfectly legitimate prospect.

On Friday, Hughes’ publisher, Terri-ann White of Upswell Publishing, said in a statement that her trust had been breached by the author.

While her “impulse is always to stand with my author”, White said she was offended by a line he wrote in the article justifying his work published by the Guardian: “I wanted the appropriate passages are seen and recognized as in a collage.”

“The events of the past fortnight in the media and amplified on social media have been personally distressing and concerning to my fledgling publishing venture,” she wrote.

In response to questions from The Guardian, Hughes said he was “deeply sorry” for putting White in a difficult situation.

“In my article on influences, I never intended to imply that I had knowingly passed off other writers’ words as my own,” Hughes said. “I was just trying to try to clarify as much as I could how something like this could happen to a writer of fiction.

“Terri-ann White has been a strong supporter for many years and is a person of great integrity.

“I am very distressed that his reputation may be tarnished in any way as a result of my actions. Small publishers are vitally important to our industry.

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