September 28th, 2006 → 9:59 am @ Seth Mnookin
Dan Brown has claimed many times — most recently in his witness statement in a plagiarism case in London involving the pseudo-history book Holy Blood, Holy Grail — that the inspiration for Digital Fortress, his first novel, came in 1995, when Brown was teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy. “At the time,” Brown said in his statement, “the U.S. Secret Service came to campus and detained one of the students claiming he was a threat to national security. As it turned out, the student had sent a private email to a friend saying how much he hated President Clinton and how he thought the president should be shot. The Secret Service came to campus to make sure he wasn’t serious. … [T]he incident really stuck with me. Email was brand new on the scene, and like most people, I assumed email was private. I couldn’t figure out how the Secret Service knew what these students were saying in their email.” Brown has repeated this story many times; on his website, Brown describes “the true story” behind Digital Fortress thusly: “In the Spring of 1995, on the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy, the U.S. Secret Service made a bust…”
While researching a Vanity Fair article on the plagiarism accusations that have trailed Brown, I looked into this claim and couldn’t find any evidence that the Secret Service had ever visited Phillips Exeter. (In late 1996 and early 1997, there were several incidents in which New Hampshire high school students were accused of sending emails threatening Clinton; none of those involved Phillips Exeter.) But it took until last week before the Secret Service confirmed that they have no record of the incident Brown claims inspired him. In a letter dated September 20, Special Agent in Charge, Freedom of Information & Privacy Rights Officer Kathy Lyerly responded to a written request I had filed back in April. Lyerly wrote:
“Reference is made to your Freedom of Information/Privacy Act request originally received by the United States Secret Service on April 25, 2006, for information pertaining to the Secret Service visit to Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire.
“A review of the Secret Service’s systems of records indicates that there are no records or documents pertaining to your request in Secret Service files.”
Brownâ€šÃ„Ã´s seeming fabrication is one of several that checker his past; there’s also one unambiguous case of plagiarism involving an academic paper written by Leonardo expert and inventor Mark E. Rosheim. (For all the details, check out the VF article.) My original piece detailed what seems like a failed plagiarism case brought against Brown by author Lewis Perdue. The publishing world (and the public) has been, for the most part, apathetic about Perdue’s case, or in any of the accusations against Brown…so I’m just throwing this out there for anyone who’s interested.
September 21st, 2006 → 11:05 am @ Seth Mnookin
I know some of you think I’m Ahab to Murray Chass’s Dick. That’s not the first time I’ve been accused of white whaling a guy: former Times editor Howell Raines was convinced my coverage of the disastrous consequences of his nightmarish tenure stemmed from some made-up grudge. And there’s Dan Brown, the well-known composer of soft-rock paeans to phone sex operators: I’ve intermittently covered a case in which he’s been accused of plagiarism since 2003, first at Newsweek, more recently at Vanity Fair; Brown’s publisher, agent, and lawyer have all intimated I have it out for the guy. (If anything, I think there should be more songs about phone sex.)
The crux of that case is this: Lewis Perdue, author of Daughter of God and Da Vinci Legacy (among other thrillers), thought Brown had cribbed The Da Vinci Code from his work. When I read the two books, I thought Perdue had a point; unlike the laughably preposterous Holy Blood, Holy Grail case (which was brought to trial in London), Perdue’s book and Brown’s book were remarkably similar, at least to my eyes (which admittedly haven’t spent a lot of time reading religious-themed page-turners). It’s a weird, complicated case, which Perdue eventually lost — a pretty resounding defeat, actually — and to get the full rundown you’ll probably need to read the VF story.
There is some new news in the case, and, since I always find it weird when people make a big deal out of stories and then never follow up, here it is. After Perdue lost his case in Federal Court, Random House asked for approximately $300,000 in attorney’s fees, an amount which would more or less bankrupt Perdue (but wouldn’t add much to the hundreds of millions of dollars Brown and Random House have made off Da Vinci Code). On August 30, a court-appointed magistrate recommended against attorney’s fees being awarded; last week, the federal judge in the case — the same one that had ruled against Perdue — agreed. This is interesting for a couple of reasons:
1. It means that, while Perdue may have spent a couple of years of his life devoted to this, he won’t risk losing his house.
2. The federally appointed magistrate, in his carefully worded ruling, appeared to come close to disagreeing with the judge’s initial decision. (Without getting into specifics of summary and declaratory judgments, the initial decision essentially ruled that Perdue didn’t even have the right to have his claim heard before a jury because there was no way he’d win.) To wit: “Although it is true that, after a thorough review of each of the factors described above the court determined that an average lay observer would conclude that The Da Vinci Code ‘is simply a different story than that told by Daughter of God,’ Perdue proffered e-mail he received from ‘lay observers,’ who claimed Brown had ‘plagiarized’ Perdueâ€šÃ„Ã´s work. In addition, a forensic linguist also supported Perdueâ€šÃ„Ã´s claims. Moreover, the Court notes that, although the August 4 Opinion is a sweeping rejection of all Perdueâ€šÃ„Ã´s allegations of similarity, the court neither characterized Perdueâ€šÃ„Ã´s claims as frivolous nor stated that they were close to frivolous. Therefore, the Court finds that Perdueâ€šÃ„Ã´s counterclaims were objectively reasonable.” (Caveat emptor: I’m no lawyer, and often find the legal world through-the-looking-glass weird. For example, I thought it strange that the judge in the case borrowed huge sections, word-for-word, from the Random House/Brown brief in his ruling in favor of Random House/Brown; in journalism (or academia), that’s the kind of thing that would get you, you know, fired. But apparently this is not out of the ordinary in rulings. Go figure.)
3. It’s always amusing when a request for $300,000 gets knocked down to $256.13, which is what the judge eventually ruled for.
At this point, the case is pretty much over…although in August, Perdue did ask the Supreme Court to look at the case, which is the only way he can get it reexamined. All of those details — and many, many more — are available on one of the several sites Perdue maintains devoted to the case. (Speaking of white whales…)
September 14th, 2006 → 7:56 am @ Seth Mnookin
For two or three years now, I’ve found myself using the verb “freckled” to descibe a series of marks on someone’s body, or a landscape, or a building; just this week, I described a woman’s body as being “freckled with cigarette burns.” I had no recollection of where or why I first started using this construction…at least until this week, when I happened to be reading through “Jimmy’s World,” Janet Cooke’s made-up story about an eight-year-old heroin addict that won a Pulitzer in 1980. Cooke, a writer possessed of an occasional flair for imagery even if she was a bit deficient in the honesty department, used this exact construction to describe Jimmy’s arms as being “freckled” with track marks. I must have picked this up three years ago, when I was writing about Jayson Blair and other journalistic scandals.
My nod of the cap was accidental; many others are intentional. You could fill a library with the books that are run through with homages to Moby Dick. You practically need a reference book to appreciate fully “Ulysses” or Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” and that would have a whole section on the ways in which Pynchon specifically alluded to Joyce. Jonathan Coe’s “The Winshaw Legacy, or, What a Carve Up” draws explicitly from the 1962 movie of the same name, and the text of his book contains numerous in-jokes that 99% of readers will never get: sentences, phrases, descriptions drawn from other sources. (Coe has a term for this; unfortunately, my copy of “Winshaw” was borrowed and had not yet been returned; that’s why I hate lending out books.)
In today’s Times, Motoko Rich has an article on the front page of the Arts section titled, “Who’s This Guy Dylan Borrowing From Henry Timrod?” Dylan is, of course, Bob; Timrod is a 19th century Civil War poet. The nut graf: “It seems that many of the lyrics on that album [Dylan’s just-released “Modern Times”]…bear some strong echoes to the poems of Timrod.” To wit, Dylan’s “When the Deal Goes Down”: “More frailer than the flowers / These precious hours.” Nimrod’s “Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night”: “A round of precious hours / Oh! here, where in the summer noon I based / And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers.” There are a handful of other examples as well — in “Spirit On the Water” and “Workingman’s Blues” — but even in their totality, they don’t account for many of the lyrics on the album. (Rich doesn’t acknowledge the allusion to the Grateful Dead, a band with which Dylan toured, in the song’s title. “Deal,” in fact, has a line — “Don’t you let that deal go down” — that seems to be an allusion to the old folk song of the same name. I certainly wouldn’t put it past Dylan to refer to a song that referred to a song in order to comment ever-so-obliquely on a past brouhaha. But more about that in the next graf.)
This isnâ€šÃ„Ã´t the first time fans have found striking similarities between Mr. Dylanâ€šÃ„Ã´s lyrics and the words of other writers. (Oops: that’s actually Rich’s line.) Three years ago, the Wall Street Journal published a scolding article comparing passages from Dylan’s “Love and Theft” to Japanese writer Junichi Saga’s gangster novel, “Confessions of a Yakuza.” The “Yakusa” story became a mini-contretemps, with more than a few headline writers borrowing from Dylan’s oevre for inspiration (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “Well There Ain’t No Use to Sit and Wonder Why”).
There’s a small chance, at least in the Timrod case, that Timrod’s phrase simply lodged in Dylan’s mind, something that’s happened to both my mother and me. (My mom once realized a line from one of her poems came from a short story she’d read nearly twenty years earlier.) It’s more likely that Dylan was purposefully nodding to Timrod, a sly tip of the cap that only the select few — 19th century Civil War buffs and poetry junkies — would even have a chance of picking up on in. (The letters for “Nimrod” are contained within “Modern Times,” which, coincidentally, is the title of a Charlie Chaplin classic. From the Civil War poet to an ironic artist’s statement on modernization to perhaps the most important folk artist of the 20th century…) Rich, to her and the Times‘s credit, doesn’t overplay her story (although the article does bring up the talentless plagiarizer Kaavya Viswanathan); let’s hope the rest of the media world follows suit.
June 7th, 2006 → 3:14 pm @ Seth Mnookin
Wow. It only took about eight hours for the first plagiarism case arising from my Da Vinci Code story to erupt. The long and short of it: the Boston Herald lifted their item in today’s paper from yesterday’s Editor & Publisher report. The Huffington Post has the details…and the Herald has already taken the story off of its website.