LiteratEye #12: Is That a Ferret in Your Pocket, Or Are You Just Glad to See Me?

Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Literary Hoaxes

Here’s the twelth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #12: Is That a Ferret in Your Pocket, Or Are You Just Glad to See Me?
By W.J. Elvin III
May 1, 2009

beyondheavingbosomsYou’ve probably already ordered the new book, Beyond Heaving Bosoms, so I won’t go into a lot of spoiler detail. But, then again, maybe you’re new to the lusty, earth-quaking realm where the “heroine’s irresistible Magic Hoo Hoo and the hero’s untamable Wang of Mighty Lovin” collide in pulsating passion. Welcome.

This week we are looking into how the feisty Bosoms authors blew popular romance novelist Cassie Edwards out of the water. Edwards has over ten million books in print. Her unraveling involves ferrets.

Bosoms’ subtitle is: “The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels.” It’s by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, the bright and clever brains behind the Smart Bitches/Trashy Books blog.

Their beat is the fattest fiction genre with the biggest profits in book publishing. Critically, sometimes hilariously, sometimes academically, they review romance novels and the unique and often enough weird world of romance writers and readers. It’s a world where you’ll encounter Cassie Edwards and the ferrets.

feat3_badlands_sum2005A few years back, wildlife writer Paul Tolme did a studious, on-the-scene report on the plight of the endangered black-footed ferret, a carnivorous weasel inhabiting the Badlands of South Dakota. Crawling around at night in the barren hills, where prairie dogs and ferrets hang out, may be someone’s idea of a good time but it’s not exactly romantic. In the article you learn that our friendly federal government has been poisoning prairie dogs, which means no dinner for the ferrets. The article, published in Defenders of Wildlife magazine, sat around in library reading rooms and dentists’ offices for three years.

And then, out of the blue, Tolme got a peculiar email message: Two romance novel reviewers, the aforementioned Sarah and Candy, had found exact passages from his ferret article in Cassie Edwards’ steamy tale of cross-cultural frontier-days throbbing and pulsating, titled in the name of the hero, “Shadow Bear.”

Edwards, a very successful practitioner of her craft, must have figured readers would just skip over the chit-chatty parts. So, as the passion builds toward prairie thunder, Shadow Bear and his pioneer honey, Shiona Bramley, get into this thing about ferrets.

“They are so named because of their dark legs,” Shadow Bear reveals.

“They are so small,” responds Shiona, “surely weighing only about two pounds and measuring two feet from tip to tail.”

Pass that peace pipe over this way one more time. But could be Edwards was craftier than is suspected. There are probably a million pet ferrets in this country. Maybe it’s a previously untapped niche market.

Thing is, those stilted lines and quite a few more came right out of Tolme’s article. “I can imagine frustrated and horny readers cursing the ferrets and skipping ahead in search of the next nipple,” Tolme said later in a Newsweek essay.

Tolme told a Colorado newspaper, The Daily Camera: “To see my textbook descriptions of ferrets in a bodice-ripper, as dialogue between a hunky American Indian and a lustful pioneer woman who several pages later have sex on a mossy riverbank, is the height of absurdity.”

Well, the deeper Sarah, Candy and cohorts dug into Edwards’ books – she’s written one hundred or so – the more serious the situation appeared. The bloggers found dozens of instances of “borrowed” material, simply by doing comparisons via Google.

In some passages the cribbed material was no longer under copyright, making it a moral issue rather than a potential court case. In all, they wound up with over 50 pages demonstrating plagiarized material, stuff pillaged from works as lofty as Oliver La Farge’s 1929 classic “Laughing Boy.” It’s still protected by copyright.

And that was the harvest from only a few of Edwards’ titles. If you want to try a little detection work at home, here are but a few of her forays into wigwam whoopee: Savage Abandon, Savage Heat, Savage Lies, Savage Nights, Savage Passion, Savage Torment, Savage Touch, Desire’s Blossom, Elusive Ecstasy, Silken Rapture, and Wild Bliss. Mostly, the story lines involve a noble savage (her term, not mine) hunk lusting after an innocent white virgin, and between the acts there’s some filler about ferrets, herbs, dreams and various other stimulating subjects.

Once exposed, Edwards allegedly wrote to a MySpace fan: “I have done nothing wrong. My publisher is standing behind me 100 percent, for they know my work better than anyone, and they know that all romance authors who use research for historicals have to use reference books to do this.” I say “allegedly” because her response, if it was hers, has been scrubbed from the site.

Edwards (caution calls for another “allegedly” here) called the writers of Smart Bitches “spiteful women who have found a way to bring attention to themselves, by getting in the media in this horrible way.” As I said, she is a wildly popular writer; a number of readers and other writers took her side. But ultimately the loyal publisher, Signet, dropped her and the Cassie Edwards web site went dark.

Two other publishers have kept her titles in print, so Edwards apparently hasn’t suffered a great deal. To conclude on a high note, several good things came of the investigation and exposure:

First, best-selling romance novelist Nora Roberts, herself a victim of plagiarism, set up a “Save the Ferret” fund. She offered to match contributions up to $5,000. Readers of the Smart Bitches blog reached and exceeded the goal within just two days, and the money went to the Wildlife Defense Fund. Ferrets continue to benefit from sale of “Ferrets Against Plagiarism!” tee shirts and coffee mugs, as offered at artist and writer Clara Stewart’s site.

Secondly, the plagiarized writer, Paul Tolme, much to his surprise and, based on his comments, delight, became a hot celebrity among the romance novel crowd, receiving requests for autographed pix, preferably shirtless, as well as various other proposals and propositions. I believe I saw where he’s working on a book about the experience.

Lastly, in addition to the good deed of likely scaring off a few potential plagiarists, the whole thing was an enormous publicity coup for Smart Bitches. I must have found 250 or so blogs that came up as mentioning the investigation, with links to the Smart Bitches site, plus they got lots of Big Media coverage. Surely all that helped convince a publisher to go with their Bosoms book.

I admit to being a little intimidated about making contact with an outfit called Smart Bitches. But, dedicated crusader that I am, I made the plunge. And guess what? Smart Bitches don’t bite. While you ponder that one, I’ll be writing up my interview about exactly how they caught Cassie Edwards, and the impact of their exposé.

(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact

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