Literary experts find John Hughes’ plagiarism defence unconvincing

Literary academics have taken the Australian author John Hughes to task for apparently copying extracts from some classic texts including The Great Gatsby in parts of his new book, The Dogs.

On Thursday Guardian Australia published a 1,700-word article by Hughes in which he gave his explanation for why some extracts from F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front had made their way into his novel. Guardian Australia has cross-referenced all the similarities between Hughes’ work and sections from those classic texts and found some cases in which whole sentences were identical or where just one word had changed.

That 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 Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich.

When asked about the similarities, Hughes wrote: “I don’t think I am a plagiarist more than any other writer who has been influenced by the greats who have come before them.”

He pointed to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, which he said “is itself a kind of anthology of the great words of others. Does this make Eliot a plagiarist? Not at all, it seems. You take, that is, and make something else out of it; you make it your own.

“I’ve always used the work of other writers in my own. It’s a rare writer who doesn’t … It’s a question of degree.”

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

“It not a cause for moral panic … but whether it’s conscious, unconscious or subconscious, it’s certainly something that I’m personally against,” said Monash University’s senior lecturer in creative writing and literary studies, Dr Ali Alizadeh.

Tom Doig, a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Queensland, said: “It seems like Mr Hughes was keeping his cake last week, and he’s decided to eat it this week.”

Last week Hughes responded to initial allegations saying the similarities were inadvertent and regrettable. He issued a public apology to Alexievich and her translators.

On Wednesday, the Guardian revealed that The Dogs also contained passages similar to sections from 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, arguing that artists had been recycling, reimagining and rewriting stories since time immemorial. It’s not what you take, he argued, but what you do with it that counts.

Hughes quoted TS Eliot in his defence, saying that in the poet’s The Sacred Wood he wrote: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

Hughes argued: “That great centrepiece of modernism, The Wasteland, is itself a kind of anthology of the great words of others. Does this make Eliot a plagiarist?”

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

“I think what’s really weird about this situation is that when the story broke last week, there was this whole elaborate ‘oh, I did it by mistake, whoops … and now he’s completely pivoted, now he’s saying it’s all purposeful, it’s modernism, it’s part of the great canon.

“Can you accidentally sample and purposefully sample at the same time? I’m sure you can. Maybe he did. But that strikes me as quite an odd place to land.”

Dr Alyson Miller, a senior lecturer at Deakin University’s school of communication and creative arts, told the Guardian that Hughes’ Eliot defence was “a wobbly argument” and his argument overall didn’t ring true.

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

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

Hughes’ Eliot defence was “not good”, according to Alizadeh, but the writer’s apparent borrowing of extracts from The Great Gatsby is just as troubling, if not more so.

“There is a question of the uniqueness of a phrase when we’re talking about prose fiction,” he said. “Passages and entire paragraphs where they seem to be lifted from existing works of fiction, then I think yes, it is a problem.”

Prof Kimberlee Weatherall from the University of Sydney law school said it was impossible to get inside an author’s head to judge the level of awareness when copying another’s work.

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

“Certainly there are matters of degree in plagiarism. Artists do, often, build on what has come before. But there’s a big difference between reworking classic stories or classic literature and copying passages word for word. Whether you are talking about plagiarism, or copyright, word-for-word copying – or near that – would normally be considered beyond the pale.”

The University of Sydney creative writing lecturer Dr Toby Fitch, who is also the poetry editor for Overland, said Hughes’ claims of “collage” and “palimpsest” could have been interesting, if he’d made them a point of interest in his novel.

“Yet none of these literary techniques are foregrounded,” he said.

“But let’s not get this confused: the Hughes saga isn’t 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 the cult of the author, and by extension the individualist subjectivities of capitalism.”

No hoax, no scandal, but it was enough, it seems, for the Miles Franklin trustees to remove The Dogs from the award’s longlist last Friday.

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

“I suspect that the kind of people who’ve been enjoying The Dogs – which is much more of a ‘literary’ effort – might care about arcane issues of originality and transparency-of-intertextuality … but for plenty of readers, it doesn’t matter how ‘original’ something is, just how good it is.

“Is it enjoyable? Is it a good read? And that’s a completely legitimate perspective.”

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 by my author”, White said she was affronted by a line he wrote in the piece justifying his work published by the Guardian: “I wanted the appropriated passages to be seen and recognised as in a collage.”

“The events of the past fortnight in the media and amplified on social media have been personally distressing as well as concerning for my very new 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 piece on influences I never intended to imply that I had knowingly passed off other writers words as my own,” Hughes said. “I sought only to try to clarify as far as I am able how something like this might happen to a fiction writer.

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

“I am very distressed at the thought that her reputation might be tarnished in any way as a result of my actions. Small publishers are vitally important to our industry.”

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