Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic
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If you've been following the current brouhaha on Twitter regarding alleged plagiarism and dishonesty of promoting one's own books and what is or isn't ethical, you'll maybe recognize the source for this.
One of the tweets this morning was about a perceived culture in which Romancelandia tends to overtly deplore dishonorable actions but maintains a telling silence when certain dishonorable actions are committed by certain untouchable writers. If the accusation is made by a lesser light (or an Unknown!) of a Big Name Author, the accuser is automatically dismissed. If the BNA is big in Romance Writers of America, the sweeping under the rug can be painfully obvious.
There is also a tendency for those who are the dismissed accusers to believe that they are alone, that no one ever comes to their defense. It's a horrible feeling, and I know because I've been there. More than once.
The big example, the one I point to frequently, pertains to the linked novel, The Hepburn, written by Jan Westcott. I happen to have two copies. I read it for the first time in the mid-1960s, not long after I read Leslie Turner White's Lord Johnnie.
The main character of The Hepburn is not Patrick Hepburn; it's Jane Gordon, who is given in marriage against her will to the eponymous hero. Jane is "fiesty," and independent and not afraid to speak her mind or even physically confront this man she sees as her mortal enemy. In a lot of ways, she's not much different from Leanna Somerset, the heroine of Lord Johnnie, or any of the other strong female characters in the historical romances written by men in the 1930s through 1960s. But Jane is the main character. Did Westcott's publisher require the book be titled after the male lead because of market expectations? I don't know. I just know that Jane is the main character; this is her story, not Patrick's.
This sidebar on The Hepburn is by way of explaining why it meant so much to me and therefore how I knew, that Sunday afternoon in 1990, something horrible had happened.
I was on my way to the airport after the 1990 RWA national conference in San Francisco. Sharing the taxi with me were authors Connie Flynn and Pat Potter. Connie was a friend from my local RWA chapter in Phoenix; I didn't know Pat at all. But it was Pat who asked if we had heard the rumors going around about a major instance of plagiarism. We hadn't, so she explained that apparently Zebra superstar author Sylvie Sommerfield had copied parts of some old book called . . . The Hepburn.
"The Hepburn?" I gasped. "By Jan Westcott? That's one of my favorite books of all time!"
I bought a copy of Sommerfield's Fires of Surrender when I landed at the airport in Phoenix. I recognized familiar passages immediately. Not just here and there but throughout the book. And that was before I got home and could compare it to the original.
When I did, I was horrified.
Samples are here on my external blog; I'll try to get some better scans later and post them here.
There was no question that the Sommerfield book was an infringement. The following Monday morning, I contacted Romantic Times magazine. They were skeptical. I mailed them photocopies of selected pages.
Eventually the stories came out from Sommerfield. First it was that she had been under extreme deadline pressure and had hired an assistant to help her with research. The assistant took notes and Sommerfield was so impressed that she incorporated those notes into her manuscript. Then the story changed to the manuscript was written by a hired ghostwriter, and it was all the ghostwriter's fault. None of that made any difference of course, because the infringement was just too obvious.
And Westcott was still alive.
Eventually a settlement was reached, though the details were never released to my knowledge. The speculation was that Zebra/Kensington, who had published Fires of Surrender, turned over all the royalties to Westcott.
Without digging into my personal archives, I'm not sure whether Sommerfield resigned from RWA at that time or not. RWA did not have any means to expel members who committed plagiarism or infringement, but the Sommerfield event did prompt the organization to write expulsion terms into the RWA by-laws.
That was 1990. I was a nobody. I had published one book with Leisure, one with Pageant, and had just sold my first title to Zebra shortly before that 1990 conference. No one knew who I was. No one cared.
That was 1990. I was a nobody. No one knew who I was. No one cared.
And pretty much for most of the past 28 years, that's what I believed. Until this morning.
This morning I remembered another instance when I had called out plagiarism/infringement. And suddenly, for the first time in decades, some things made a little more sense.
In 1982, before I had ever even heard of RWA, I came across an article in The Writer magazine that really hit home with me. It became my bible as a writer. I shared it with my penpals. When I did join RWA in 1984, I shared it with everyone I encountered. I never claimed it as my own. I gave the author full credit.
It's 2018 now. I still have that February 1982 issue of The Writer. I scanned these two pages (there are two more as well) this afternoon.
In March 1988, the following article appeared in the official RWA magazine, RWA Report. Yes, I still have the magazine. I scanned these two pages this afternoon.
For six years I had been promoting Shelly Lowenkopf's article, giving him 100% full credit for it. I distilled a dozen points from it, printed them on a card, and pinned that card over my desk, but even that carried the appropriate attribution.
I was stunned by Ginna Gray's article. Stunned, shocked, appalled. I ran out of words.
I reported it.
I have a fat folder in the top drawer of my big filing cabinet. That folder contains all the documentation of my attempts to get to the bottom of Ginna Gray's copying from Shelly Lowenkopf's excellent article. That fat folder contains the originals of the two magazines and the correspondence I undertook. Some of my reporting was done by telephone, and I don't have recordings of those calls. But I do still have the written correspondence, some of it printed on my first dot matrix printer.
A few days later, I got this reply:
Ms.Cresswell did call me regarding the official response to my communication, but I did not receive any further written notice from her. She reported in her call that Ms. Gray was shocked and shamed and offered the excuse that she had received the information as a hand-out at another conference and incorporated it into her article. Essentially, nothing was done. Nothing.
That was 1988. I was nobody.
In 1989, I brought the Ginna Gray episode up in a letter to another RWA official as part of longer letter on a variety of issues. Again, I received a phone call, but nothing was put in writing to me. According to my notes on this call, everything regarding Ginna Gray was discussed in secret RWA executive board session and special permission had been obtained to even give me what little bit of information I got. Ultimately, however, the RWA board of directors did nothing. No vague warnings were published in the RWR about not "borrowing" someone else's writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, without proper attribution.
So then came 1990 and the Sylvie Sommerfield mess, and I was right smack dab in the middle of that, too. And I felt guilty. I felt guilty about reporting Ginna Gray and I felt guilty about reporting Sylvie Sommerfield. But no one else was.
By the summer of 1991, the Sommerfield thing had blown over or been settled, and I assumed the Ginna Gray thing had been dealt with, too. I made plans to attend the national conference that summer, held in New Orleans. When I saw that Ginna Gray was scheduled to deliver one of the workshops and that it was titled "Great Beginnings," I had a bad feeling in my gut. I considered calling the conference chair about it, but I shrugged it off. I was already in enough trouble with RWA. So I said nothing.
But I did attend Ginna Gray's workshop.
This was 1991. I was nobody.
Ginna Gray used even more of Shelly Lowenkopf's article, verbatim, in her 1991 workshop than she had in the 1988 article. I purchased the official cassette recording of the workshop and transcribed it. There was no doubt in my mind that she had copied.
Against my better judgment, I reported it again. I included copies of previous correspondence as well as the transcript I had made of the tape. Once again, nothing happened, other than I was told to stop harassing everyone. I was told Ginna Gray had done nothing wrong. I was told I was the one in trouble.
It didn't take long for me to locate Shelly Lowenkopf. I took the drastic step of contacting him and giving him the details. We had a long phone conversation, and then I received the following letter from him.
Nothing happened. RWA did nothing. When Janet Dailey infringed on her friend Nora Roberts in 1995 or so, RWA did nothing. (Dailey was not a current member at the time, so there wasn't much they could do other than decline to continue to grant her "Janet Dailey" award.)
I have other documents in my fat file folder that take the issue into the late 1990s and my departure from RWA. Those documents aren't quite as relevant, but I have them.
Why did I keep all of it for well over 30 years? I'm not sure. I guess it's because I'm a mean person, maybe vindictive and vicious. I've never denied that I can be self-righteous, and I can certainly be stubborn.
But this latest bullshit with authors "lifting" from other authors and lying about it and shrugging it off as nothing, and then other authors coming along and shrugging it off because it's not really, technically, precisely plagiarism because it's just common tropes and blah, blah, blah, well, that just got to me. And it reminded me this morning that maybe my persistence over Ginna Gray -- who I believe is a charter member of RWA, one of the original group that met in the bank basement in Houston and formed the organization -- played a larger part in my being a kind of persona non grata in the organization. Because the vaunted sisterhood of romance writers is, after all, bullshit.
I offer no apologies. I offer only the evidence.