If you picked up the magazine around this time last year, you might remember reading about Tavi Gevinson, the Chicago-area middle-schooler whose fashion blog, Style Rookie, won the attention of major designers (Miuccia Prada and the Mulleavy sisters, of Rodarte, are among its fans), and provoked the occasional annoyance of the established fashion press. Time for an update: Tavi is now fifteen—how time flies!—and while she still has the hearts of the fashion élite—in a recent column for V magazine, Lady Gaga wrote of Tavi, “I adore her, and her prodigious and well-written blog is the future of journalism”—she has been getting more attention lately for a new venture, Rookie, a self-described “website for teenage girls,” which launched this week. (Rookie was originally conceived as part of a Web project run by Jane Pratt, the editor of the nineties magazine Sassy, but that model was scrapped, Tavi said, so she could retain control.)
Reading Rookie: Is it like reading Tavi’s blog? A little bit. The posts, by a wide range of Internet-based writers and photographers, include a flip-book-like procession of images, essays, and personal musings seasoned with semi-nostalgic pop-culture references (“Empire Records”). But in place of the jumbled aesthetic of the blog, Rookie has a clean layout and a more professional tone—editors from the Times and “This American Life” are among the contributors. Topics, labeled in Tavi’s spindly handwriting, include many traditional ingredients of a Seventeen-style magazine—“movies + tv,” “you said it,” “sex + love.” And while fashion is present—there is a photo essay on “ideas for how to have more fun with your clothes”—the site’s purview seems to be the broader subject of teen-age girldom. Readers of Tavi’s blog will note that she has been drifting away from her fashion obsession. Back in March, she wrote:
I love fashion but it’s disappointing when you have to sift through a lot of junk before you get to, like, the clothes, and the whole point of it all. It’s more disappointing when the clothes aren’t very interesting … A year ago I got to go to Paris to interview John Galliano at Dior, and a couple weeks ago today he said he loved Hitler and got fired. Fashion photographs look more posed and the Rayanne Graffs I meet at school”—a character from “My So-Called life”—more inspiring. I only really miss being obsessed with fashion the way you miss any aspect of a former self, in a nostalgic way, not necessarily as part of a desire to go back.
Instead, Rookie relies on other cultural lenses, like entertainment, an area where Tavi proves no less adept at attracting her idols’ attention. An early post includes mini-essays by actors and comedians like Zooey Deschanel and Jack Black, as well as Joss Wheedon, the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Tavi has also gotten into feminism, which informs her second post, on the subject of “girl-hate.” The post includes a diagram called “Why Girls Compete With Other Girls”—a kind of flow-chart theory of gender norms that spills into a soulful self-help essay: “I’m not saying we all have to be sunshine, lollipops and rainbows all the time … I think a good dose of angst is healthy. But hating people is stressful. Negativity is tiring. Causing drama is dumb.” It’s not the first time people have wrestled with, or attempted to resolve, such issues through writing, but it is the first time for Tavi and many of her readers, and that’s part of her ongoing appeal.
See our slide show of images from Style Rookie.
Photograph: Josef Astor.
Spy novels embrace clichés—the double agent, the bomb-rigged briefcase—and “Assassin of Secrets,” published last fall, made a virtue of this tendency, piling one trope onto another to create a story that rang with wry knowingness. The book is set in the midst of the Cold War. The protagonist is Jonathan Chase, a suave secret agent with a background in martial arts—part James Bond, part Jason Bourne. In the first chapter, Chase meets Frankie Farmer, a sexy former field agent who presents him with “personalized matching luggage” loaded with surveillance gear. They head back to her place, where Chase eyes the water bed while Farmer slips into something more comfortable:
Then he saw her . . . a small light dim but growing to illuminate her as she stood naked but for a thin, translucent nightdress; her hair undone and falling to her waist—hair and the thin material moving and blowing as though caught in a silent zephyr. Chase caught hold of her, pulled her close. She slid her hands to his shoulders, gently pushing him away.
“What’s it like to kill somebody? They say you’ve had to kill a lot of people during your time in the Division.”
“Then they shouldn’t talk so much.”
The author of “Assassin of Secrets” was a thirty-five-year-old début novelist with the pen name Q. R. Markham. Just before the book’s publication, in November, there were signs that it would be a hit: it had blurbs from the spy novelists Duane Swierczynski and Jeremy Duns (“instant classic”) and glowing early reviews. Kirkus pronounced it “a dazzling, deftly controlled debut,” and Publishers Weekly wrote, “The obvious Ian Fleming influence just adds to the appeal.” On the James Bond fan site commanderbond.net, someone linked to an excerpt, which the publisher, Little, Brown, had posted online, and wrote, “Anyone read this novel? I’m ordering it next month . . . it’s very Bondian.”
But, as in a thriller, no sooner had the book’s trajectory been established than it was reversed. That day, another Bond fan wrote to the thread, “Why order a copy? Just read chapter 4 of ‘License Renewed’ ”—by John Gardner, who continued the Bond series after Ian Fleming’s death. “It’s all there, the ‘matched luggage’ . . . ‘What’s it like to kill a man?’ the son et lumiere at ‘Frankie’s’ flat—entire paragraphs copied verbatim from John Gardner’s text.”
Like a spy hiding in plain sight, “Assassin of Secrets” appeared to be a bizarre aberration: an homage to Bond that plagiarized Bond. Jeremy Duns, alerted by the Bond forum, began checking the text, plugging phrases into Google Books. He found a sentence from the American spy writer Charles McCarry, and another from Robert Ludlum, the author of the “Bourne” books. “I quickly realized that the whole novel was ‘written’ this way,” Duns wrote on his blog. He informed the book’s British publisher, and on November 8th, five days after the book’s publication, Little, Brown recalled all sixty-five hundred copies and issued a press release: “It is with deep regret that we have published a book that we can no longer stand behind.”
By then, Edward Champion, the editor of the culture Web site Reluctant Habits, had joined the hunt. Champion had exposed plagiarism before, and he told me that “generally people stick with one source, or two or three.” In “Assassin of Secrets,” he found thirty-four instances of plagiarism in the first thirty-five pages, taken from sources ranging from multiple Bond continuation novels to James Bamford’s 2001 nonfiction book about the National Security Agency to Geoffrey O’Brien’s 1988 account of the nineteen-sixties, “Dream Time.” The inquiry quickly turned to the writer. Someone wrote on the Bond forum, “So who is the author/plagiarist?” An author’s note described an eccentric literary prodigy:
Q. R. Markham has been a parks department employee, laundry-truck driver, door-to-door knife salesman, telemarketer, rock’n’roll bassist, literary scout, book-reviewer, small business owner, and consultant. At age 19, his first published poem appeared in The Best American Poetry of 1996 under the name “Quentin Rowan.” Two years later, he sold his first short story to The Paris Review. Since then, his writing has appeared in the Best American Poetry anthology, The Paris Review, Bomb Magazine, Witness, The New York Post, and more.
The Bond fans were skeptical. One wrote, “That’s more than a little suspect, wouldn’t you say?” On literary Web sites, readers banded into an ad-hoc intelligence bureau. They discovered that Quentin Rowan’s publication record was real, but they dug up a trail of plagiarism that stretched back more than a decade: the Bomb story contained text from Nicholas Mosley’s “Accident”; a Paris Review story, “Bethune Street,” even contained a bit from “Our Man in Havana,” by Graham Greene. Rowan, writing under his pseudonym, Q. R. Markham, turned up as the author of a blog post on the Huffington Post, in which he was identified as a co-owner of an independent bookstore in Brooklyn. The blog entry, “9 Ways That Spy Novels Made Me a Better Bookseller,” contained plagiarism, too.
Rowan’s author photograph showed a young man with puffy cheeks wearing a shearling coat, peering out from behind vintage sunglasses.
“Is it me or does he kinda look like Alfred Molina?” someone wrote.
“Yes—in a photo shoot circa ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’ ”
“I think he looks a lot like a guy who’s in serious trouble.”
Originality is a relative concept in literature. As writers from T. S. Eliot to Harold Bloom have pointed out, ideas are doomed to be rehashed. This wasn’t always regarded as a problem. Roman writers subscribed to the idea of imitatio: they viewed their role as emulating and reworking earlier masterpieces. It wasn’t until the Romantic era, which introduced the notion of the author as solitary genius, that originality came to be viewed as the paramount literary virtue. Plagiarism was and remains a murky offense, “best understood not as a sharply defined operation, like beheading, but as a whole range of activities, more like cooking,” the English professor James R. Kincaid wrote in this magazine in 1997. Imagine a scale on one end of which are authors who poach plot ideas (Shakespeare stealing from Plutarch) and on the other are those who copy passages word for word: Jacob Epstein, who cribbed parts of his novel “Wild Oats” from Martin Amis’s “The Rachel Papers”; the Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan, whose novel plagiarized chick lit.
Rowan’s method, though—constructing his work almost entirely from other people’s sentences and paragraphs—makes his book a singular literary artifact, a “literary mashup,” as one commenter put it, or spy fiction’s Piltdown Man. Thomas Mallon, the author of “Stolen Words,” a book about plagiarism, described “Assassin of Secrets” as “an off-the-charts case” both in the extent of the plagiarism and in the variety of Rowan’s sources. “It almost seems to be a kind of wikinovel, with so many other writers unwittingly forced to be contributors,” he noted. The book’s most obvious forerunner is Jonathan Lethem’s 2007 Harper’s essay, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” which was cobbled together from other texts (with a list of sources) as a meta-literary stunt. Other commenters compared Rowan to musical samplers such as Girl Talk and Danger Mouse, and to Kathy Acker, whose postmodern novels use plagiarism to make a statement about what Roland Barthes called “the death of the author.”
Some celebrated “Assassin of Secrets” with ironic tributes. “Mr. Markham/Rowan is now my hero,” someone wrote on Champion’s site. “What might have been just another disposable piece of banal commercial trash has now been lifted to the level of art.” Others, including this magazine’s Book Bench blog, wondered if it was just a clever trap—a misdirection, as a spy might put it—meant to expose the staleness of the genre. Even Rowan’s pen name turned out to be an allusion. Kingsley Amis used the pseudonym Robert Markham when he wrote a Bond continuation novel in 1968. Could the whole thing have been a hipster’s prank, or a viral marketing campaign? A blog post appeared with the title “Is the ‘Assassin of Secrets’ Scandal a Hoax?”
A week after the book was recalled, I went to a Williamsburg coffee shop to meet Quentin Rowan. I found him sitting at the front of the shop near two young men wearing patent-leather boots. Rowan had on khaki pants and a blue button-down shirt that was tight at the waist. (He describes his style as “seven parts preppy to three parts nineteen-seventies.”) His voice is somewhere between a whine and a whisper. While we spoke, he often trailed off, mid-sentence. “I can’t talk much about legal stuff,” he said.
By then, the mystery about whether Rowan was, so to speak, an authentic plagiarist had been solved. Two days earlier, he’d sent a series of apologetic e-mails to Jeremy Duns, who posted them on his blog. “I just wanted to make the best ’60s spy novel I could,” Rowan wrote, adding that he was not “playing a prank.” He signed off, “Gosh I wish I could do it all over.” He was picking up the odds and ends of his life. Little, Brown asked that he pay back his advance—fifteen thousand dollars, for two books—and reimburse the company for the book’s production costs. He was no longer welcome at the bookstore. He’d been about to move in with his girlfriend, a lawyer, but she broke up with him, and he was planning to move to Seattle. Rowan said that for the past fifteen years he had been dreading being discovered as a plagiarist—“Lots of waking up in the middle of the night and looking in the mirror.” Now he seemed dazed. “I couldn’t really envision it, to be honest,” he said. “I couldn’t envision what it would entail, except humiliation.”
Rowan grew up in Park Slope. His mother, Stephanie Rauschenbusch, a granddaughter of the Christian theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, started a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Columbia before becoming a painter and a poet. His father, Lou Rowan, was a writer who ran with a downtown arts crowd in the sixties and seventies. He helped found the Friendly Local Press, which published the poets George Oppen and Michael Palmer. For years, he worked as an English teacher at Friends Seminary, on Sixteenth Street, but in the late seventies he gave up teaching and writing to become an investment manager, at Bankers Trust. “I think it was really hard for him to stop writing,” Rowan told me. “He felt out of touch hanging out with businessmen, and they all saw him as an odd duck.”
Rowan, an only child, went to Friends, and his mother enrolled him in art classes. “He was fabulously talented as a young artist,” she told me. “He could draw a fully articulated hand and the entire body.” Rowan’s father got in the habit of giving him books above his reading level: at thirteen, he carried around DeLillo and Pynchon. “As a kid, I had this sense of expectation,” Rowan said. “It was one of those weird things where I thought my parents would be disappointed if I just went and became, like, a doctor or a lawyer.”
Rowan’s parents divorced when he was two. His father remarried twice, acquiring stepchildren, and moved to Bronxville, then to Tarrytown. His mother remarried, too, and Rowan drifted between the two homes. According to his mother, he had a lot of friends in school but was also “easily bullied.” In high school, he developed a drinking problem and, he told me, a habit of “getting really high and just letting everything go and then getting obsessed with jogging, and jogging thirteen miles a day.”
The making of a plagiarist can be hard to distinguish from the making of a writer. Joan Didion has described learning to write by typing Hemingway’s fiction; Hunter S. Thompson did the same with “The Great Gatsby.” Rowan reversed the process: he was a writer before he was a plagiarist. He wrote his first poem, “Prometheus at Coney Island,” when he was sixteen, in a poetry workshop at Eugene Lang College, at the New School. In free verse, it describes the Greek hero soaring over southern Brooklyn: “Up over the swell of hot sugar / up over the swell of rubber . . . over the Coney Island gray water that will / make your shins itch.” Prometheus ends up “an avatar / of polka dancers.” Rowan remembers writing the poem in half an hour. After he read it to the class, the teacher asked if he knew what the word “avatar” meant. A couple of years later, when he was a student at Oberlin College, Rowan got a surprising letter: “Prometheus at Coney Island” had been chosen for the 1996 edition of “Best American Poetry.” When he was still in high school, he says, his mother had submitted the poem to a local journal called Hanging Loose, which published it. It then caught the eye of “Best American Poetry” ’s editor, Adrienne Rich. Rowan recalled the experience in his e-mail to Duns:
Up until that time I was an indifferent writer, a dabbler really, at the best of times. I was in college and like everyone trying to figure out what I wanted to do with myself. (Mostly I just wanted to play Rock music.) I took this anthology business as a sign that I was meant to be a famous writer. However, unlike any normal person who works at something a long time and eventually gets good, I decided I had to be good then and there. Because I was already supposed to be the Best.
Rowan became a creative-writing major and enrolled in poetry workshops. One of his teachers, David Young, recalled that Rowan was “a very pleasant and affable young poet” who produced middling work, but, because of the anthology, “people were inclined to make a little bit of a fuss over him.” Rowan was anxious. Deciding that he needed a better vocabulary, he found an S.A.T.-prep book called “Word Smart,” and began substituting big words for small ones. Later, when writing a story for a creative-writing class, he tried the same method—but this time he lifted whole paragraphs of prose that he found in bound copies of old literary journals (Transition, The Transatlantic Review) in the Oberlin library. The process felt “easy,” he wrote recently, on the addiction Web site The Fix. “The lifted paragraph perfectly fit my narrative. And it temporarily assuaged the awful feeling I had in my head that I was no good as a writer.”
The oddball jobs on Rowan’s résumé—knife salesman, telemarketer—mostly took place during the summers. The summer before his senior year of college, in 1997, he worked as an intern at The Paris Review. James Linville, who was then the magazine’s editor, recalled Rowan as an “ephebe type, almost Truman Capote-like.” In August, Rowan submitted a tale about futuristic pirates called “Innocents Abroad.” The story, it turned out, was largely copied from a 1913 sea captain’s memoir, “The Venturesome Voyage of Captain Voss,” which Rowan had found on his mother’s bookshelf. The language struck him as “hilarious,” and he copied passages and embroidered them with words from his vocabulary books, plus a few he made up, to create “an almost ‘Finnegans Wake’-y kind of thing.” (A sample passage: “The Milkround’s Jason was well up in the years, the devoir deltas lamboidal, eclaircissement imperforate, but was still a strong vessel.”)
Linville was unimpressed. But the story made its way to George Plimpton, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, who loved it. According to Linville, Plimpton occasionally liked to “throw the staff a curveball” with a whimsical editorial choice: “If it had something of the bizarre, or was what he would call un amuse, he would bite.” Plimpton pronounced the pirate story full of “wonderful energy,” Linville recalled. “It was the boss’s prerogative.”
Rowan was back at Oberlin when he learned that The Paris Review was publishing his story. He panicked at first, but when the story came out no one noticed the theft. He told me that he began to think, Well, maybe no one really checks these things. Two years later, he submitted another story to The Paris Review, called “Bethune Street.” The bulk of it came from “Dancing in the Dark,” by Janet Hobhouse, and “Going Native,” by the surrealist writer Stephen Wright. Rowan had also used a line from Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana” (“Time gives poetry to a battlefield, and perhaps Milly resembled a little the flower on an old rampart where an attack had been repulsed with heavy loss many years ago”), and another from “Brideshead Revisited.” This time, when Plimpton accepted the story, he requested that Rowan come to his house on East Seventy-second Street to work on it. “He was an amazing editor,” Rowan told me. “He knew all the stuff to do to make it work.” The Greene line had been buried in a few pages of detail, but Plimpton moved it up to the beginning of the story. Again, when the story was published, no one recognized the stolen bits.
After college, Rowan held a series of jobs in publishing; at one point, he worked for a book-scouting agency for foreign publishers, where, to his boss’s dismay, he rejected Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies,” which eventually won a Pulitzer. He lived in Williamsburg and played bass in a band called the Eaves. Meanwhile, he was developing a reputation, in his circle, as an up-and-coming writer. It made him feel guilty, but over time, he said, “this kind of false self emerges. It’s kind of like, Say you’re an athlete when you’re young, and everyone goes, ‘Oh, he’s such a good athlete!’ You get known for being an athlete. But what if you hate being an athlete, secretly?”
The idea for Rowan’s next project came when a friend approached his mother in an exercise class and said, “Congratulations on your son’s novel!” The friend was confused—she meant the pirate story—but when Rowan’s mother told him about it he thought, That would really be impressive. He began work on a coming-of-age novel called “Appearance and the Park.” Writing it was tougher than he’d anticipated: “It was like I’d given myself the task of writing a novel without the ability.” He began to pad it with passages from other texts, taking extended trips to the library at Grand Army Plaza. When he found a section he liked, he’d copy it into a notebook.
In 1999, Rowan found an agent for “Appearance and the Park,” but the first editor she submitted it to, at Grove/Atlantic, said that its plot was too close to that of another of the house’s books, “My Idea of Fun,” by Will Self. Rowan had never read Will Self, but he decided that it was less risky to publish the novel himself, without an agent. Ultimately, he published through iUniverse, an online press that prints on demand. He put the novel together with “Bethune Street” and several previously unpublished stories. Last November, a commenter on Duns’s blog posted a list of sources for passages from the book, which include Scott Bradfield’s “The History of Luminous Motion,” Don DeLillo’s “Americana,” Robert Coover’s “John’s Wife,” Karl Ackerman’s “The Patron Saint of Unmarried Women,” Linsey Abrams’s “Double Vision,” Alan Shapiro’s essays, Pete Hamill’s liner notes to Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” and Orhan Pamuk’s “The New Life,” as well as reams of obscure poetry. (When the plagiarism scandal broke, Rowan pulled the book. Used copies are now selling on Amazon for sixty-three dollars.)
At the time, Rowan was working at Spoonbill & Sugartown, a small store on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn which sells new and used books. The shop was struggling, so he borrowed twenty-one thousand dollars from his mother and invested in the store, becoming a partner. The store’s two owners, Miles Bellamy and Jonas Kyle, recall Rowan as shy, funny, and well read. “You could mention anything in twentieth-century fiction, spy fiction, or music writing,” Bellamy said. “He had a mind where things stuck, so he could remember titles and authors.”
But he wasn’t the best businessman. According to Bellamy and Kyle, Rowan had a problem saying no when anyone—a pretty girl, a homeless person—came in to sell books. “He lost us a lot of money that way,” Kyle said. “You know what else he used to do? Someone would call on the phone and request a book that we definitely didn’t have. He knew we didn’t have it, but he’d put down the phone and pretend to look for it. Then he’d get back on and say, ‘Sorry, we don’t have that today.’ ”
An employee, Rachel Day, added, “It was like he was giving them hope.”
Rowan’s apartment, in a yellow brick building across from a parking lot and some housing projects, consisted of two rooms containing nothing except for duffelbags. His move to Seattle was imminent. “Imagine the whole place wall to wall books,” he told me. In the bedroom, a pallet had been made from two blankets. Next to it were “The Leopard,” by Jo Nesbo, and a big box of Nicorette. Rowan had quit smoking ten months earlier. “But I’m addicted to Nicorette,” he said. In the living room, he pointed out where a large table used to be. “That’s where I would write,” he said, and laughed, self-consciously. “ ’Cause I could spread out all the books and just . . .”
Rowan has been attending A.A. meetings every week for fifteen years, and he says that he tried to apply the program’s first step to plagiarism: “to admit I was powerless over it and it was making my life unmanageable.” In the end, though, he told me, “without constant vigil, it just kind of came back.”
Rowan didn’t have much luck with his original material. In 2009, after three years of work, he finished writing and illustrating a graphic novel called “Curious Clover,” based on his paternal grandparents, who had been horse breeders. He claims to have written it all himself. “The problem was, no one really liked it,” he said.
Spy fiction had recently become an obsession, because, he told me, “the idea of being someone else, having a code name, being able to step into a different life, was appealing.” He developed a fascination with a subgenre of mass-market Bond knockoffs by American authors of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, among them the Nick Carter “Killmaster” series, the “Destroyer” series, written by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, and Don Pendleton’s “The Executioner.” “Whatever artistry there was in Ian Fleming’s writing,” Rowan said, “these books were just taking all the sex and violence, and that’s it.” But they had a lurid appeal, and he decided to write a book called “Spy Safari,” a spoof of the Bond imitators. He wrote a draft that he now describes as a “cartoony” forerunner to “Assassin of Secrets.” In it, the smooth agent Chase does kung-fu fighting and catches a bullet in midair.
At first, Rowan described “Spy Safari” to me as “pretty much my own,” but after a minute he admitted that he “must have” lifted some passages from pulp novels, “just because it was such a deeply ingrained thing.” He sent the manuscript to an agent named David Vigliano—a former student of Rowan’s father, at Friends—who was known for representing memoirs by celebrities such as Jessica Simpson. Vigliano passed the book along to one of his employees, a twenty-six-year-old agent named David Peak.
In the academic world, technology has made plagiarism much easier to detect, and it’s now common for professors to screen student essays for plagiarism using a computer program called Turnitin. An equivalent program does not exist for mass-market publishing, nor does there appear to be much demand. One publishing executive told me that scanning every manuscript for plagiarism would be like “vaccinating the entire population because two people had come down with some nasty disease.” Instead, publishers hope that editors and agents are well read enough to detect plagiarism, and they rely on intuition about an author’s credibility.
Rowan attributes his success to the formulaic quality of the spy genre. “There are only so many plots in spy novels,” he has written. “There’s a certain interchangeability to them, complex as they are. And: new packages are often enough to re-contextualize everything for people.”
Peak had previously handled cookbooks and children’s fiction, but when he read the “Spy Safari” manuscript he said, “I’d seen enough spy movies, so I could see that he was playing with tropes.” Peak tore through the manuscript in a day and a half. He was “enthralled.” And Rowan’s résumé—The Paris Review, “Best American Poetry”—“screamed legitimacy.” Within seven months, Peak had sold “Spy Safari” to Mulholland Books, a suspense imprint at Little, Brown, run by a young editor named John Schoenfelder. Schoenfelder requested extensive changes: he wanted Rowan to take out what he called the “Bond-like” details—much of the glitz and the womanizing—and to give the book a grittier, “Bourne Supremacy” feel. (The publisher later changed the title to “Assassin of Secrets.”) The requests threw Rowan into a panic: “I thought, Oh, wow, they want it to be more than just a parody of these silly men’s paperbacks—they want it to be a real thriller.” He wrote, in an e-mail to Duns, “That’s when things really got out of hand for me. I just didn’t feel capable of writing the kinds of scenes and situations that were asked of me in the time allotted and rather than saying I couldn’t do it . . . I started stealing again.”
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.”)
For action scenes, Rowan borrowed from Robert Ludlum, and from the Bond continuation authors, often changing only names and technical details. For the book’s more meditative passages, he spliced denser prose from O’Brien’s “Dream Time” and from Charles McCarry. The original “Spy Safari” draft had featured a villainous organization called the Zero Directorate, which was killing spies. In his revision, Rowan wanted to raise the stakes, and he thought of a McCarry book, “Second Sight,” in which spies are given a drug that makes them confess their secrets. “I just took the whole theme from that book,” he said, including many of McCarry’s ruminations on espionage. Duns said that those elements were “what I fell in love with. Reading those passages, I felt sick with envy.”
Rowan worked on the revision for two months. “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.”
I asked Rowan what had been going through his head. “That’s the thing I just can’t properly explain,” he replied. At one point in our conversations, he brought up Mallon’s book “Stolen Words,” which compares plagiarism to kleptomania. Rowan has never shoplifted, but he used the metaphor to explain why someone with literary talents would feel the need to plagiarize. “People who do it tend to be people who don’t actually need to—women on the Upper East Side, or Winona Ryder,” he said.
Rowan has offered a number of self diagnoses. In an e-mail to Duns, he confessed to a weakness for “people pleasing.” He told me that “the driving pressure was this perception that I have to constantly impress people . . . to make them like me.” More recently, on The Fix, he wrote, “I struggled with plagiarism in the same way others struggle with smoking, sex addiction, food addiction, and gambling.”
Critics were unsympathetic, comparing Rowan to a scandal-besieged politician who checks himself into rehab. From The Fix’s comments section: “Good essay. Who wrote it?” “Did I just step on the world’s tiniest violin? Boo hoo.” Yet the essay also spoke to a poignancy in Rowan’s misdeed—its willful perversion of the addictive pleasure of reading.
Most psychiatrists I talked to suggested that chronic plagiarism falls under the rubric of pathological lying, not addiction. Michael Stone, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia, places it in the “impostor” category, which includes financial fraudsters, such as Bernard Madoff. “It’s somebody who pretends to be someone who he isn’t and pretends to have skills that he doesn’t have,” Stone said, adding that it’s not unusual for this type of person to be law-abiding in all other areas of life: “It’s someone who you would speculate is making up for feelings of inadequacy by being overtly generous and ingratiating.” Of the wild risk-taking, he added, “The expectation that they’ll get away with it is embedded in their characters.”
Despite the comparisons to con men, plagiarism is not a crime. If the plagiarist reprints a larger chunk of someone else’s work than a judge finds permissible under the vague doctrine of fair use, he may be violating copyright laws. But plagiarism itself is more an ethical offense than a legal one. Eben Moglen, a copyright expert at Columbia, compared it to a taboo, such as “a table-manners violation.” He said, “There are many people who commit white-collar crimes but would never commit a violation of table manners—would never spit half-eaten food onto their plates.”
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.” But Rowan told me that he’d never considered selling his novel as a mashup, even though, after news of the plagiarism broke, there was even more interest in reading it. (Its Amazon ranking jumped from 62,924 to 174.) “I honestly wanted people to think that I’d written it,” Rowan said.
When I asked Lethem about Rowan’s book, he said, “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.” But he pointed out that all art exists on a continuum of borrowing. “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.”In one passage that Rowan took from McCarry’s “Second Sight,” the hero, who is about to subject a captured enemy to a lie-detector test, reflects:
All spies are liars, it is their métier, and like ordinary liars they live in panic, knowing that the truth about themselves may be discovered at any moment—or worse, is already known by people who are too disgusted, or too clever, to confront them with it. A spy under questioning by the enemy is in a state surpassing dread because he knows that he must sooner or later tell the truth.
The violence at the perimeter of the scene is a reminder of the difference between the spy and the plagiarist: When a spy’s secret is exposed, his life is in danger. All the plagiarist risks is his reputation and a lawsuit.
Nevertheless, as the publication date of his book approached, Rowan recalled thinking that he “had a year, more or less,” to live. Then “either my life is over or my life changes—I will suddenly have this big secret that separates me from the rest of the world.” He told himself, “The book’s gonna come out and it’ll just sink.” But, in October, the Book-of-the-Month Club nominated “Assassin of Secrets” for its first-fiction award, alongside Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding.” The sensation, Rowan said, “was like a snowball getting packed tighter and tighter.”
Rowan began to do promotion for the book. Duns invited him to write an essay for his site, and the two authors did an online Q. & A. together. “His answers were pretty fucking good,” Duns recalled. It turned out that many of them were lifted from O’Brien’s “Dream Time.” Rowan also appeared on a panel at the Mysterious Bookshop called “New Faces of Suspense.” One attendee recalled that Rowan was stiff but confident, “sort of like a grownup version of McLovin’, from ‘Superbad.’ ” A day after the book was released, Rowan hosted a spy-themed costume party at Spoonbill & Sugartown. He and his girlfriend dressed up as characters from “The Avengers.” He told me, “It feels like a dream now, to be honest. I signed all these people’s books, and I don’t even know what I wrote.”
Four days later, Rowan got a call from Peak, his agent, who told him that he’d been accused of plagiarism, and that the two of them were expected on a conference call with the publisher in five minutes. Rowan said he never considered denying the charge, because it would be “pointless” and “I don’t actually like to lie to someone.” He spent the next five minutes looking out his window. “Basically, I had this choice—I could either jump out the window or make the call.”
When the news broke, Rowan was surprised that his friends and family appeared more concerned than angry. His father, who lives in Seattle, where he now runs a small literary magazine called The Golden Handcuffs Review, offered to come and stay with him. In an e-mail to me, Lou Rowan wrote, “I love my son dearly.”
“I’ve been incredibly upset,” Rowan’s mother told me. I asked her about Rowan’s desire to impress his parents. “It’s normally true that parents project onto their children their own wishes for themselves,” she said. “And I guess that Quentin’s father had always wanted to be a recognized writer, and I certainly wanted to be a published poet, which I am, anyway.” She was still trying to figure out what had happened and was worried about her son’s future. “I was very shocked by it,” she said. “It’s like finding out that a close friend is a pickpocket.” Since being discovered, Rowan has been writing letters of apology to the authors he stole from. Charles McCarry’s response came in an e-mail to his publicist, Jack Lamplough:
Poor guy—all that cutting and pasting and no joy.
Pretty good editor, obviously . . .
p.s. You may want to add: “He has done me no harm and I bear him no ill will.”
Rowan is staying at his father’s place in Seattle. He applied for jobs at three local bookstores with no success. “I’ve got time on my hands out here,” he told me over the phone. “Maybe it’ll be therapeutic really writing something.” So he started working on a memoir.
The manuscript, called “Never Say Goodbye,” is an homage to Tolstoy’s “A Confession” and St. Augustine’s “Confessions.” “The confessional form can be powerful,” Rowan told me. The book is datelined “Elba,” and it is written in highly stylized, often grandiose, language. The opening: “Birth canal, C-section, pink and fuzzy, rain over the East River, Winston Churchill, vermicelli, crying like an Irishman for his whiskey.” Of getting unmasked by the Internet: “Once I saw it as a sentinel. Then it caught me in its dark and human net, its raw and clutching inter-net, and destroyed me. I am neither the first nor the last it will destroy.”
Rowan worked on the book for twelve hours a day, and he said it felt great “to find that I actually do have a writing voice after all these years.” A small press, Yeti Publishing, agreed to publish it, and he recently delivered the manuscript. The book is expected to be released in September. “My hope is that it will clear some things up for people,” he said, “and maybe they’d see, at least, ‘Hey, the guy actually could write a book in a month.’ ” He doesn’t have a plan for what to do next, but he told me that he hoped someone will hire him again, perhaps in an administrative capacity. “I have a good head for details,” he said. ♦