I tried to explain Australia’s latest literary scandal to my family. It all seemed so simple before I opened my mouth. But in moments I had tied myself in knots and my family were smiling politely and edging away from me as though I had lost my mind. So, if I am going to try to explain the scandal now, it's probably best if I start from a place of ignorance, which is easy for me as I live there.
This is a story about an author called John Hughes. (Not to be confused with the director of The Breakfast Club.) Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of him. I hadn’t either and I probably should have, especially since Hughes is an award winning Australian writer whose latest novel, The Dogs, was recently longlisted for The Miles Franklin Literary Award.
The Dogs was published by a very small independent publisher, Upswell Publishing. One of those publishers who pride themselves on taking risks on books they know have little commercial appeal but great literary merit. Having one of their books longlisted for the Miles Franklin would have been validating, and possibly lucrative.
Over the years The Miles Franklin Literary Award, in its longlists and shortlists, has championed the work of writers published by small and micro publishers and even a few writers who couldn’t find a publisher for their work and chose to self-publish. Some have gone on to win. The judges of the award, to the despair of some booksellers who would prefer more commercially viable winners, have a reputation for lifting very literary writers out of obscurity and onto the podium. Confirming a prejudice among some literary types that only small publishers are brave enough to publish real literature and the big guys only publish literary sell-outs.
This is where I got into trouble when trying to explain all this to my family. And I still feel tempted to go on a lengthy digression into the literary/commercial divide within the Australian literary world, but will not give into temptation, except to say there are deep and long lived resentments on both sides (and I once wrote a book about them).
So The Dogs has been longlisted and we were creeping ever closer to the date they announce the shortlist and then the winner. Still with me? Then an article by Anna Verney appeared in The Guardian Australia claiming that sections of The Dogs had been lifted from the Nobel Prize winning author Svetlana Alexievich’s non-fiction book The Unwomanly Face of War. (Just nod along as though you know who Alexievich is and murmur, love her work.)
Hughes responded quickly to these accusations and explained that the book took over ten years to write and somehow his original notes got mixed with his research notes and unbeknownst to him, some of Alexievich’s work made its way into his. Hughes' publisher, the highly respected Terri-ann White, stood by him and they both apologised. White then asks the Miles Franklin Literary Award to remove the novel from the longlist, which they promptly did. On Twitter a number of Australian writers expressed horror at such a mistake happening and mumbled ‘but for the grace of god go I’ and that was that.
But Anna Verney was not done; in subsequent articles, aided by literary sleuths and academics, more examples of literary theft were revealed. Not only has Hughes accidentally ‘borrowed’ from Alexievich, but there are slightly altered passages from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in the text, too.
Now Hughes comes out with a very different explanation in an op-ed. It is all part of his process, writers have long stood on the shoulders of giants, borrowing bits from here and there isn’t as uncommon as it would appear, if T.S. Eliot can do it, so can he. That sort of thing. His publisher distances herself from him. And I learned a new word, bricolage. Look it up, I had to.
On Twitter, the gloves come off and he is openly declared a plagiarist. There is a great deal of anger and resentment. Some claim that only a privileged old white male would ever think he could get away with such a thing. Others are angry that his publisher hadn’t spotted the stolen passages, that the Miles Franklin judges hadn’t, that well-known reviewers missed it. Some readers expressed embarrassment for championing the novel. Others said the fact no one picked up on the plagiarised passages was proof that literary types didn’t even read the boring literary books they were always making others feel stupid for not having read. And that the whole literary world was an emperor with no clothes, etc.
But we’re still not done. For a while now I have been following the Lecturer in Literary Cultures at the University of Tasmania, Emmett Stinson on Twitter. He always has fascinating and complex things to say about literature. Well, he and other academics have been reading The Dogs closely and discovering more and more examples of Hughes’ light-fingered approach to literature. (But Stinson probably wouldn’t appreciate my use of the phrase light-fingered. Too emotive.)
And if you thought things were complicated before, hold onto your hat.
Stinson and other academics swerve away from accusations of plagiarism. They are interested in the text and Hughes as an artist. As more and more examples are discovered, and the number of writers involved grows, it becomes clear that Hughes was up to something and working out what that was becomes interesting in itself.
Which makes me and others wonder if plagiarism on this scale is art. If a novel made up of passages from dozens of other people’s writing works as a novel and, as it was longlisted for The Miles Franklin Literary Prize, it would appear it does, is that something new and innovative? Or just something deeply cynical? The key element in all of this is attribution. If Hughes had a page at the back of the novel listing all of the authors he had borrowed from, would he still be on the longlist? Does a novelist, a writer of self-evident untruths, need to list sources? What if Hughes had only used passages from books long out of copyright? I don’t think Jane Austen gave anyone permission to insert zombies into Pride and Prejudice.
Other interpretations question whether Hughes expected readers to recognise the sometimes quite famous passages immediately and when none did, found himself in a tight spot. Wandering down this path we could even speculate that it was Hughes himself who tipped off the journalist who broke the story. Unlikely as that sounds.
If we set aside these more generous attempts at explanation and see it as so many see it, as a clear case of plagiarism, then we must look at the question of motive. If you’re writing literary fiction in Australia you learn very early on that there is no money in it. Grants, residencies, writers retreats are your reward (but only if you’ve learned how to fill out those interminable forms), and if you’re extremely lucky you win a prize or two. Stealing the work of other literary writers and passing it off as your own, is not a fast track to financial security. You’d be better off trying to write a crime novel set in the outback, like everyone else. So let’s cross financial reward off the list of motives.
There are other possible motives. He did it to win The Miles Franklin Award. But why would a plagiarist head towards greater scrutiny? Besides, winning the Miles is a one in a billion shot whether you’ve borrowed from Proust or not.
Maybe Hughes is thumbing his nose at the pretentious literary snobs who salivate over this sort of thing if they're let in on the joke. The adolescent in me favours this motive.
As Hughes has shown himself willing to lie about his work, first stating that his borrowing was an accident, then saying it was intentional, could we trust him if he came clean about his motives? Nup. So we may never know.
One benefit of all this is that The Miles Franklin Literary Award is being talked about again. Probably not in the way it had hoped for. In recent years, longlist and shortlist announcements have barely registered in the media. Even the announcement of the winner can be overlooked. (Name the last five winners without Googling them.)
Slightly salty writers like myself tend to believe that for the most part you can have integrity or you can be popular, but it’s nearly impossible to enjoy both. The Miles reconfirmed its path when it resisted the urge to give the award to Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows the Universe which would have been a very popular and newsworthy choice. And a few years later its principles are rewarded with a literary scandal. Beggars can’t be choosers.
Just with my attempt to explain this sorry saga to my family, I have ended up only scratching the surface. But you get the gist. Needless to say, all of Hughes’ other work is now being placed under the microscope. This is far from over. Oh goodie.
John Purcell is the author of the novels, The Girl on the Page and The Lessons.