Let’s Talk about Plagiarism with Lauren Baratz-Logsted

“NEVER EXPLAIN, NEVER COMPLAIN,” EXCEPT…

by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Sometimes, I feel like the Queen of the Personal Motto. I live by The Five-Minute Rule, which means that whatever happens on the publishing side of my life – good or bad – I only give it five minutes of attention before returning to the really important thing: writing. When asked for advice from writers, I always say “The only person who can ever really take you out of the game is you”; I’ve said that so often, and with such positive results for others, I’m thinking of TMing it. And when it comes to reviews, I offer you “never explain, never complain.”

Well, never is a strong word. I may complain privately. And in a rare blue moon, I may send a gently worded email to a reviewer – not to complain about the review; never that – but rather to clarify something. But talking back to reviewers who negatively review your work, setting up a fake email account, getting your friends to take up pitchforks and torches to go after someone on GoodReads – none of these things end well. It’s not just that it’s potentially career-damaging, it’s that it involves spending too much time mired in negativity when…what am I supposed to be doing with my time again? Oh, right. Writing. I’m supposed to be writing.

The truth is, I’m never going to write a book that doesn’t have at least some detractors – no author is – and some of my books may have lots of detractors, but I’m grateful to those readers who love what I do, I’m grateful to those readers who find fault with what I do, I’m even grateful to the haters; the bottom line is, I am grateful to be read.

So, never explain, never complain, except…

There is one time, and only one, when a writer cannot stay silent, and that is if there is a charge of plagiarism. If you are guilty, you must publicly admit it. If you are not, you must fight the charge.

Four years ago, a blogger charged me with plagiarism concerning a book of mine that had been published two years prior, How Nancy Drew Saved My Life.

How Nancy Drew Saved My Life is an odd duck of a novel. I call it my contemporary comedic gothic. How many of those have you seen around lately? It’s about a twentysomething Manhattanite who accepts a job as nanny to the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Iceland. I can’t honestly recommend that you go out and read it since – full disclosure here! – it’s probably the weakest of my published novels. How’s that for surprising honesty? Well, with 24 novels published, I have to regard one of them as my weakest. If you want to read the funniest comedy I’ve ever written, on the other hand, then the book you’re looking for is The Bro-Magnet; and if you want the best book I’ve ever written of any kind, hands down that would be the Victorian suspense novel The Twin’s
Daughter (currently a Kindle bestseller, with only Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth and
Cassandra Clare ahead of it on the bestseller list; and at $1.99, a steal!).

But I digress. Also, I sales pitch. So sue me.

And back to our story.

Having been alerted that there was a new review of How Nancy yadda-yadda, I eagerly checked it out. Some writers will tell you they never read their reviews, but I’m not like that; I read all of mine. The good ones make me feel good. And the bad ones? Sure, sometimes they sting, and I can’t do anything to change the book in question, but every now and then I do learn something that will hopefully have a positive effect on the writer I become in the future. When I got to the review, however, it wasn’t a review at all. It was one blogger, denouncing me as a copying thief and saying that I blatantly stole my material from Jane Eyre. I’m going to call this blogger Blogger 1 because I don’t want to engage in finger-pointing over a four-year-old offense. Blogger 1 had been inspired to attack based on having read Blogger 2’s review which accused me of being a thief.

Now let’s back up for a minute.

When I originally described How blah-blah here, I left out part of what I usually use to describe it because I wanted you to see the accusation first. How, I tell people, in addition to being a peculiar comedic gothic, is one part Chick Lit, one part Nancy Drew, and one part Jane Eyre. That’s right, I actually tell people what I’m doing. The main character actually says to the reader that she feels like she’s living Jane Eyre’s life. How can it be stealing, how can it be plagiarism, which by definition involves an intention to deceive, when at every turn I and the character tell the reader what I’m doing?

The truth is, it’s not plagiarism. It may not be a good book, but it’s not plagiarism. It’s a
re-visioning, which is a perfectly legal and time-honored thing to do.

Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fictionand the National Book Critics Circle Award? A re-visioning of Shakespeare’s King Lear, updated to the 1970s and set on an American farm in the Midwest. The Great Gatsby? It’s been re-visioned so many times, it’s hard to know where to start, from Nelson DeMille’s Gold Coast (with a John Gotti character as Gatsby) to Lauren Baratz-Logsted’s Z: A Novel (with a window washer who may or may not be Zorro as Gatsby). I could go on. But I won’t.

Instead, I’ll simply say that I contacted Blogger 1 and explained much of what I said above, about re-visioning etc, adding that if Blogger 2 didn’t even notice the similarities until halfway through, then she couldn’t be much of a JE scholar since the pattern is set from the start, with me doing everything short of opening the novel with the infamous red room! And what did Blogger 1 do? After admitting to never having actually read the book herself – !!! – she apologized and then she issued a retraction. I was satisfied and went back to writing.

So why did I make the effort when normally I never explain and never complain? Why, this time, did I do both? Because unless the charge is true, no author can afford to let a charge of plagiarism stand. On the Internet, that kind of thing spreads like wildfire and before you know it, it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not because the stain to your reputation has already been rendered indelible.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

And now it’s time for me to get back to writing.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted is the author of 24 books for adults, teens and children. You can
read more about her life and work at www.laurenbaratzlogsted.com.