Friday, December 16, 2011

Lawrence Block on Lenore Hart

It is increasingly clear to me that St Martin's Press believes that if they simply ignore anyone who informs them that Lenore Hart is a plagiarist, the issue will gradually fade away. This is incredibly arrogant, highly irresponsible - and extremely frustrating. As explained elsewhere, this is not a borderline case or a grey area. The Raven's Bride blatantly plagiarizes an earlier novel, The Very Young Mrs Poe by Cothburn O'Neal. Hart followed many passages in O'Neal's novel sentence by sentence, sometimes tweaking a few words or changing the order around, but at other times repeating his sentences word for word. Please see my last two posts for many examples, including in the comments and at other blogs. This is brazen and extensive plagiarism.

And yet, despite this having being covered by the Associated Press, The Guardian, and The New York Times, St Martin's have continued to insist that black is white, and claimed that Lenore Hart is not a plagiarist. With a straight face. The idea that dozens of scenes are identical in theme, precise incidents and language is because Hart was working from 'the same limited historical record' is blown apart by the fact she copied many phrases and even sentences word for word from O'Neal's novel, with no quote marks or citations, and that O'Neal made several very specific historical errors, which Hart repeated verbatim. It is also obvious that St Martin's only made their weaselly statement at all because this was written about in the press. They were informed of this by others before me, once in April and again in May by someone else, and they ignored both of them. Now they are ignoring me, and anyone else who points this out.

So who couldn't they ignore, I wondered to myself earlier today. And then it hit me. Lawrence Block.

At 73, Block is a legendary figure, one of the great crime novelists of our age. And last month, he was the moderator of a panel at the Mysterious Bookshop in New York titled 'The New Faces Of Suspense'. One of these new faces was Q.R. Markham - Quentin Rowan. When it was revealed soon after that Rowan had plagiarized his novel, Assassin of Secrets, Block took the unusual step of writing an Amazon review for it, in which he made his feelings clear:
'There are plenty of good sentences in this book, but they're all the work of other writers. The author must be seriously disturbed; he quite deliberately stole everything in the book. And no, it's not an homage, not a tribute album. It's theft, and quite transparent; it should be off-sale by now, but it may take Amazon a while to take it down. The author, it turns out, has made a habit of this sort of thing throughout his "career." Let us not encourage him.'
Remembering this a few hours ago, I contacted Lawrence Block and informed him of Lenore Hart and The Raven's Bride, providing him with some links and asking him to make a statement about it in the hope that it would make a difference and help resolve this. 'Lawrence Block condemns Lenore Hart' is, I think, news that would be impossible for St Martin's Press to ignore.

And here's his reply to me, which I have just received:
'Jeremy, thanks for this. I had indeed followed your blog in connection with the Quentin Rowan debacle. I can't say I was taken in by him, as I just had a quick glance at his book before the panel on which we both appeared, read enough to know it wasn't anything I wanted to read more of, and at the event itself found him sort of an odd duck; we didn't really connect. When it all went pear-shaped a couple of days later, I was surprised and dismayed, but heartened by our mutual publisher's quick withdrawal of the book.

I can't imagine why St. Martin's doesn't do the same. What this woman has done, clearly, is sit down with a book and rewrite it. That's marginally acceptable when you're writing a term paper for a high school history class, but rather less so when you're foisting a novel upon the public.'
Thank you, Mr Block. And, indeed, that is precisely what Lenore Hart has done. Can some enterprising journalist or 16 now run an article on this, and hopefully bring this affair, finally, to an end? Because I don't have Lady Gaga's email address, and I have a book I need to finish.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Accidental Mountweazels: Lenore Hart is a proven plagiarist

If you've read my last post, and are following me on Facebook or Twitter, you will know by now that St Martin's Press has finally issued a statement about Lenore Hart, claiming that she is not guilty of plagiarism:
'In April 2011, when these allegations first came to our attention, Ms. Hart supplied a detailed response, which cited her research into biographical and historical sources, and explained why her novel and Cothburn O’Neal’s “The Very Young Mrs. Poe” contain certain details of place, description and incident. As Ms. Hart explained in her response, of course two novels about the same historical figure necessarily reliant on the same limited historical record will have similarities. We have reviewed that response and remain satisfied with Ms. Hart’s explanation.'
I have a copy of Lenore Hart's defence, and while it is extremely long (around 18,000 words), it does not explain any such thing. Saying something doesn't make it so. The Raven's Bride is not just plagiarized from Cothburn O'Neal's novel The Very Young Mrs Poe, but blatantly so. It's not a borderline case, or in any way debatable. As indicated already by The World of Edgar Allan Poe and revealed in greater detail by Archie Valparaiso on his blog, it's not that Hart worked from the same sources as Cothburn O'Neal, using the same historical facts. The historical record for many of the events in both novels is very limited indeed, and O'Neal therefore had to surmise a great deal. In doing so, he got several extremely specific facts wrong. And Lenore Hart repeated them.

From The Very Young Mrs Poe:
'The train crossed the Appomattox after sunset but pulled into the Petersburg depot before dark. Their host, Mr. Hiram Haines, publisher of the Petersburg American Constellation, was waiting with his wife. He was a cheerful, balding man...'
From The Raven's Bride:
'We crossed the Appomattox after sunset and rolled into the Petersburg depot before full dark. As we descended from the car Eddy spotted our host, Hiram Haines, the cheerful, balding publisher of the American Constellation...'
This is obviously plagiarism simply from the extraordinary number of similarities between the sentences. Of the 37 words in O'Neal's two sentences, Hart repeats 21 of them: crossed, the, Appomattox, after, sunset, into, the, Petersburg, depot, before, dark, host, Hiram, Haines, publisher, of, the, American, Constellation, cheerful, balding... If you plug the phrase "crossed the Appomattox after sunset" into Google Books - and note that the phrase is not about Edgar Allan Poe or his wife - of the 15 million books scanned by Google it only comes up with one result: The Very Young Mrs Poe.

But even more damningly, and totally contradicting Lenore Hart and St Martin's Press's defences, Cothburn O'Neal invented several details of this scene. Very little is known about Edgar and Virginia Poe's honeymoon other than that it took place in 1836 in Petersburg and that they stayed with Hiram Haines. O'Neal invented his account of their journey there.

In April, Lenore Hart defended the similarities between these scenes thus:
'I'd like to point out first that Eddie and Virginia have no choice but to "take a train" to Petersburg because that - aside from riding horseback - was how you GOT from Richmond to Petersburg in 1835.'
Actually, no it wasn't. St Martin's Press has taken Hart's word on this, and much else. But they should have looked closer. Because unfortunately for Lenore Hart, Cothburn O'Neal got this wrong - he took the detail that they went by train from Mary Phillips' 1926 biography of Poe and invented an account of the journey from whole cloth. But it was in fact impossible to take a train from Richmond to Petersburg then, because the line wasn't completed until 1838.

Cothburn O'Neal also speculated in his novel that Hiram Haines was cheerful and balding, neither of which can be found in any historical source.

Once we get onto this train, which did not exist historically, there's a near-identical scene in which the conductor recognizes that the couple are newlyweds and takes them to the ladies' coach, where they can sit together. Here's the scene in O'Neal's novel:
'He asked permission of the half-dozen lady passengers to bring them aboard. "If you ladies don't object," he said, "I will close my eyes to company rules and allow the groom to sit in the ladies' coach with his lovely bride." 
"We would be delighted to have them with us," a self-appointed spokesman assured him. All the others agreed and subjected Sissy to as thorough a scrutiny as she had ever stood before. She felt that she passed inspection. At least there were no audible tongue-cluckings or obvious stares of disapproval. It was difficult to determine the age of a young lady, especially if she were reasonably well filled out and modestly veiled. 
"I must ask you not to smoke, Mr. Poe" the conductor warned in parting. "Smoking is restricted to the gentlemen's car on the rear."
"Thank you," Eddie said. "I seldom smoke."'
And here it is in Hart's novel:
'"Going to flout company rules, folks, and seat you all in the second coach." He grinned at Eddie. "Already cleared it with the ladies aboard."  
When we climbed up no one looked askance or asked how old I was. Of course, if a female is veiled and reasonably well filled out it's hard to tell her exact age anyhow. The conductor left after admonishing the groom, "Smoking is restricted to the gentlemens' car at the rear, sir." 
And Eddie, who had just been withdrawing one from the fistful of huge Cuban segars Tom Cleland had presented him with after the ceremony, sheepishly slid it back into his coat pocket. "Thank you for the information," he said. "In any case, I seldom smoke."'
This is very obvious plagiarism, but the real smoking gun is Virginia Poe's clothing. That she's veiled might be expected. But Hart also used precisely the same unusual phrase as Cothburn O'Neal to describe her: 'reasonably well filled out'. Not well filled out, or reasonably filled out, or quite well filled out, or even some entirely other choice of words: had some flesh on her bones, was fully grown, was reasonably mature-looking for her 13 years, or any of hundreds of possibilities. No, it's word for word the same as in O'Neal's wholly invented scene, 'reasonably well filled out'. 

Here's how Lenore Hart explained this remarkable set of coincidences in her defence in April:
'It’s clear here both O’Neal and I did the same research into rules and customs of southern railroad travel circa 1839.   The “second coach” was usually designated the “Ladies’ Car”, and the conductor, to comport himself as a gentleman, would have to ask the ladies’ permission to invade their space. But also this was often the First Class car.  The “rule” my conductor is talking about is that the young married couple only had second-class tickets, not first class -- very expensive.  But he will let it slide. Smoking cars had just been introduced (via Europe) so it’s unlikely Poe would know this – a minor embarrassment to him before his new bride.  The custom of giving wedding cigars to new grooms should not require citation, I think -- and like any guy, he just wanted to smoke them.  Again, we have a passage of commonplace social interaction in a 19th-century mode of transportation, where you can almost predict in any book, film, or TV series, what the characters will talk about.  A honeymoon trip on a train with people joshing the newlyweds.  The usual.  Take out what’s different about the two passages, and what’s left is clich├ęs.'
Well, no. The scenes are both taking place in 1836, not 1839, on a train line that did not exist then, with a very precise set of events happening in the same order, using many of the same words. In some cases, the exact same words:
'reasonably well filled out'
'reasonably well filled out' 
'"Smoking is restricted to the gentlemen's car on the rear."'
'"Smoking is restricted to the gentlemens' car at the rear, sir."'
'"In any case, I seldom smoke."'
'"Thank you," Eddie said. "I seldom smoke."'
There are many other examples of such undeniable and precise similarities in Hart's novel. In The Very Young Mrs Poe, O'Neal describes the following scene on this impossible train journey to Petersburg:
'As the train pulled out of the depot and onto the bridge across the James River, Eddy pointed out Gamble’s Hill rising to the right above the State Armory and the ironworks situated on the banks of the canal.  He shouted the names into her ear.  But when the train stopped for a few minutes outside Manchester, just across the river, they were both mute again.'
And in The Raven's Bride, again on this same impossible journey on a non-existent train, Lenore Hart has the following: 
'As we chugged away from the confines of Richmond, Eddie leaned over and shouted the names of landmarks into my ear: “Gamble’s Hill.  The State Armory, there.  Oh – and the Tredegar Iron Works.”  By the time we stopped briefly at Manchester, on the opposite side of the James River, he’d fallen silent again, either out of names or out of breath.'
There's no debate here. These aren't coincidences, and it's not about working from 'the same limited historical record'. That's just bluff from a liar who has been caught, accepted by a publisher neglecting its duty. This is open and shut plagiarism, and it is shameless, blatant, extensive and proven. By insisting that black is white, Lenore Hart is compounding what she has done: the decent thing now would be to admit frankly that she plagiarized this novel, admit to whatever other plagiarism she is guilty of if that is the case, apologize whole-heartedly, and resign from her creative writing teaching role at Wilkes University.

St Martin's Press is in no way to blame for the fact that Lenore Hart is a plagiarist, but by denying what is clear to anyone who can read they are behaving irresponsibly and arrogantly and doing their brand untold damage. It's time to stop supporting Lenore Hart, who is a liar and a fraud, and to do the right thing by their readers and the estate of the writer she stole from: withdraw The Raven's Bride and issue a statement condemning Lenore Hart's plagiarism. The longer this goes on, the worse it gets.