Plagiarism scandal with antlers

I’ve been thinking of plagiarism recently: I don’t mean doing it. In fact, I’m terrified of doing it accidentally. I did once accidentally do it, of which more in a moment. But I’m kind of obsessed with the writers who do it deliberately. Whenever I hear of a new plagiarism scandal I say to myself, ‘um-aah’, that childhood recognition and awe of somebody so flagrantly breaking the rules – and getting sprung.

Recently a book was withdrawn as one of the finalists in Australia’s biggest book prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, after it was discovered to contain the work of a Belarusian journalist–author. The writer said he had done it accidentally. But when copies of other phrases were discovered that matched ones in Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby, All Quiet on the Western Front, and other books, the author said that despite never having mentioned it to his publisher, he’d wanted those excerpts to be ‘seen and recognised as a collage’.

To which the reaction from almost all other authors on social media can best be described as a deafening barrage of unladylike snorts, and the equivalent of ‘um-aah’.

Often after a plagiarism scandal people will huffily say it’s the editor’s or publisher’s fault because there’s software now that can search for this kind of thing. I reckon that’s unfair. The truth is, it’s not so easy. That’s especially true if an author is doing it deliberately – taking bits of sentences and phrases, julienning them and mashing them up with others, which makes it harder for the human brain or an algorithm to recognise it. I’ve read The Great Gatsby three times, and I’m sure there are heaps of sentences you could slip by me if they didn’t have a Daisy in them.

I’m equally gobsmacked by the literary or art hoaxes, when somebody pretends to be a whole different person or of another gender or race, or they claim a whole made-up motive or invent a memoir. Since 1993 I wince whenever I hear the name Helen Demidenko, Helen Darville or Helen Dale; Norma Khouri or Eddie Burrup (go bonkity on Wikipedia for deets).

As someone who’s terrified of accidentally committing plagiarism, it was ironic (or do I mean inevitable) that I did just that. In the same way you ‘commit’ murder, you commit a plagiarism.  I committed mine as a young cartoonist in a drawing published in the National Times newspaper around the early to mid-1980s. In my comic strip I’d drawn a blue heeler dog with antlers gaffer-taped to its head. A few years later I saw a book called The Last Basselope by American cartoonist Berkeley Breathed and physically jolted and flushed red with embarrassment, even though I was alone.

In a sickening instant, I realised I must have seen an earlier iteration of this idea by Berkeley Breathed, in one of his comics collections. Surely I couldn’t have had the exact same idea independently, the way cartoonists sometimes do. (How many corgis met the Queen at different cartoon gates of heaven in the week of her funeral?) I must have seen it, absorbed the idea and regurgitated it. Should I write and confess to the editor? The paper didn’t exist anymore. Should I tell someone? I was too ashamed. I was horrified, for years scared to trust myself that an idea was original.

So in the wake of the Miles Franklin scandal, I begged my editor–publisher at Penguin Random House, Brandon VanOver of the Philadelphian VanOvers, to run a chapter of mine through a plagiarism detector. I asked him if he’d done it to my work before, and he swore he hadn’t. (I would have.) He added a Jane Austen quote and a William Faulkner one (he’s nutty for Faulkner). We chose the chapter ‘Look Prettier’ from my book You’re Doing It Wrong, which we knew had a few medieval quotes that you’d hope plagiarism software would stick a red flag on (it did). For a heart-stopping moment it seemed a bunch of my sentences had appeared somewhere else, but it turned out to be from an excerpt of the book on the Penguin Random House website. Phew. And it got the other authors’ test quotes bang to rights.

I definitely have influences, which I hope fall short of plagiarism. There’re some of my hero Ronald Searle’s cartoons (especially the pointy nose) in my drawings, and I probably pinched the idea of lots of asides (in brackets) from the author Geoffrey Willans (The Compleet Molesworth), who I read as a teenager. I know I was inspired by Cynthia Heimel (Sex Tips for Girls) and even the so-not-like-me wackadoodle Helen Gurley Brown, who edited Cosmopolitan magazine in the 1970s and told us all how to get a man. But she had her own, unapologetic voice, and that’s what I wanted to have, too.

Anyway, I won’t hear a word against editors. When I told mine about my inadvertent shaming theft of a 1980s dog with antlers, Brandon immediately pointed out something I’d never known. In 1957, Dr Seuss’s mega-selling book How the Grinch Stole Christmas had an illustration of the Grinch’s dog, Max, with fake antlers on his head, which was seen by millions more Americans after it was made into an animated film in 1966. You can still buy the dog-antler costume online.