Here’s the thirteenth 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 #13: The ‘Heaving Bosoms’ Interview
By W.J. Elvin III
May 8, 2009
Last week we were wallowing around in the recent uproar in romance novel blogdom over prolific and popular author Cassie Edwards. Seems there’s something fishy about her writing, as in, some of it belongs to other writers.
Edwards has sold over ten million books. Each book, we could guess, has been read a dozen times or more as it passes along to girlfriends, sisters, cousins, used bookshops, hospitals, on and on down the line. So, conservatively, maybe a hundred million readers had a whack at noticing Edwards’ serial plagiarism, across a couple of decades of her writing career. But there was nary a peep until Smart Bitches and their posse got on the case.
And here to tell us about that discovery and its repercussions is Sarah Wendell, co-author of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog and the new book, Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels.
From Pittsburgh and now working in Manhattan, Sarah began the blog four years ago with long-distance co-author Candy Tan, a law school student in Oregon. While their kick-ass reviews are a big draw, the blog is also an on-going opinion forum, catfight, funfest and defender of the genre.
That genre includes the erotic and the website is accommodatingly ruttish and uninhibited. The Smart Bitches reveal an excellent grasp of alternative tags for various anatomical parts. They have even, apparently, contributed one increasingly popular term to the romance vocabulary, that being “man-titty.”
Man-titty describes a vital ornament of almost any book cover in the genre, a smooth-muscled, shirtless stud. The genre is inclusive but lesbian covers viewed in our recent survey feature more delicate creatures. In the early days the blog counted four regular readers for their posts; it now attracts 4,000 unique hits per day.
LiteratEye: After you were tipped to the ferret fiasco (see last week’s column for details), how did the investigation proceed?
Sarah: After the initial posts in January 2008, readers of our site, of the Dear Author site, and others, found Cassie Edwards novels and used them for online research, using Google Books. Some students used them as research training, looking in out-of-print books and in archives in their libraries.
LiteratEye: There’s now a 98-page PDF showing instances of plagiarism, and that merely samples a few of Edwards’ 100 or so novels.
How long did the project take, and how did it go down with what I’ve seen called the romance novel readers and writers community?
Sarah: It took a month or two for the current PDF document to arrive at its present state. The response was immediate, international, and unanticipated, but very welcome. There were many, many people who were angry, appalled, and outraged by what we and other readers found. And there were people who called us mean, horrible, nasty and evil, who said we had no honor, who said we were just seeking attention for ourselves when we posted what we’d found.
LiteratEye: I’ve spent the last week cruising the romance novel blogs that mention the Cassie Edwards dust-up, and, for all the serious and intelligent comments, there seems no shortage of jealousy, nastiness, and good old-fashioned stupidity. I was ready for a Thorazine cocktail when I finally hung it up.
Sarah: When we kept discussing the topic as it spread to other sites, and when we had more evidence sent to us for inclusion, the response was mostly supportive, but vitriol moves people to the keyboard very quickly. So we experienced a lot of castigation for being whistleblowers.
LiteratEye: I’ve been an investigative reporter so I’ve always had a high regard for whistleblowers. But you weren’t viewed as, let’s say, the Woodward and Bernstein of romance novels?
Sarah: Whistleblowers do not fare well in our culture, whether it’s exposing plagiarism, hollering about sexual harassment, speaking up about accountancy malfeasance, or merely saying, “That’s enough.” As Jane from DearAuthor.com said in a panel presentation, the attitude needs to change before plagiarism disappears. [Editor’s Note: Dear Author was scene of a fairly intense discussion of the Edwards issue.]
LiteratEye: So what’s been the impact? A few publishers broke with Edwards, and certainly the topic of plagiarism has heated up”¦
Sarah: She is still published and in print, with releases from both Kensington and Dorchester. As far as the publishing industry, I’m not in publishing so I don’t know all that much about it. As far as the romance community online and off, there are still some who prefer that such nasty allegations be handled privately and not at all in public. And there are others, and more of them, I think, who are appalled by any and all instances of plagiarism because it cheapens the value of the written word we produce, and the integrity of the writing and publishing industry.
LiteratEye: So what’s next? Where does all this lead?
Sarah: I and other authors and writers are still talking about it. Next month I’m presenting a panel at the Washington Romance Writers chapter of the Romance Writers of America with Nora Roberts, herself a victim of plagiarism, about the issue and how the reactions to her experience in 1997 were almost identical to our own experience in 2008. The title of the session says it all: “Plagiarism: If We Don’t Talk About It, It Won’t Go Away.”
Well, that’s it. Except to say that in the week spent looking at comments about the Cassie Edwards fuss on the various romance novel blogs, I was amazed at how many people really don’t get it.
Plagiarism is theft. When done cleverly it may viewed as an ethical defect, sometimes with academic or professional consequences; when done stupidly, as in direct copying, it can be a legal issue involving damages.
And Edwards’ defenders say, okay, but it’s not like she was stealing money. Is that a fact? Maybe if you think of a writer’s words as tomatoes “¦ So you’re a tomato farmer, looking to this crop to pay off a loan, buy shoes for the kids and all that, and Cassie Edwards pulls in with a truck and starts loading up your tomatoes like they’re free for all “¦ Where I live, there wouldn’t be a lot of “yes, but” and “she didn’t know any better” and all those lame excuses. Where I live, somebody pulling a stunt like that would more than likely find themselves dancing to the tune of double-ought buckshot.
(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact Literateye@gmail.com)