A terrific New Yorker profile by Lizzie Widdicombe of Quentin Rowan and his plagiarisms—the poster boy for how to not steal like an artist. (Rowan plagiarized dozens and dozens of spy novels for his own spy novel.) There was a certain odd “there but for the grace of God” feeling I got when I read this piece, something Jonathan Lethem talked about when asked about the book:
From the standpoint of defending appropriation as an art gesture, it’s sort of a disaster area. It’s the most awkward possible specimen for people interested, as I am, in the aesthetics of intertextuality and borrowing in art… The reason that Quentin’s book makes everyone so nervous and aggrieved is that it reminds us of the vast gray area that we all occupy.”
And to the question, “Wouldn’t it just have been easier to actually write the book?”
Of Rowan’s method of cutting and pasting from numerous books, one commenter wrote, “Sounds far more arduous than just writing the damn thing himself.” Jonathan Lethem, who knew Rowan from the bookstore, told me that making a text from other texts “is not a lazy man’s game. As someone who sort of did this, it’s an immense amount of work.” Over fifteen years, Rowan had become adept at it. “All I did was read. I knew what felt right,” he told me. “I could kind of picture the set of books that I had been using”—he corrected himself—“stealing from. And I’d think, What about that scene? I’d see the text on the page. I don’t know what you’d call that.” (The medical term is “eidetic memory.”) … “There was almost a sense of it being a creative process,” he told me. He wrote to Duns, “It felt very much like putting an elaborate puzzle together. Every new passage added has its own peculiar set of edges that had to find a way in.”
And to think: all he had to do was call it a mashup!
The peculiar thing about Rowan’s case is that he could have obtained a degree of social permission simply by being honest about borrowing from other writers—by doing what Jonathan Lethem did, or by claiming that he was producing a “meta” work. We live in an age of sampling, from “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” to Skrillex remixes. “We love remakes. We love makeovers,” the literary theorist Avital Ronell said, when I asked her about the case. She suggested that Rowan “could have used a dream team of literary theorists to get him out of trouble.”
The best line in the piece goes to Charles McCarry, one of the authors Rowan plagiarized: “Poor guy—all that cutting and pasting and no joy.”