x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Assassin of Secrets is a great novel built from other great novels

Quentin Rowan has gone to ground after his hit spy thriller was found to consist largely of passages lifted from other authors. But the episode has reignited the debate about plagiarism in art.

The reviews were, quite simply, stupendous. Kirkus, America's high-profile literary magazine, called it a "dazzling, deftly controlled debut". Publishers Weekly purred over the "fine writing" and the crime novelist Duane Swierczynski was impressed enough by an early manuscript to enthuse about an "ambitious and audacious" work.

QR Markham's spy thriller Assassin of Secrets was certainly audacious. Little, Brown, its publisher, admitted last week that whole chunks of the text had been lifted in their entirety from a number of other books, including works by Robert Ludlum, Geoffrey O'Brien and, except for the character names, a six-page stretch from John Gardner's 1981 Bond novel, Licence Renewed. When the literary blog Reluctant Habits started to compile all the instances of plagiarism found thus far, it took its researcher a week to get to page 35. Unsurprisingly, the novel was swiftly removed from bookstores.

It seems incredible that no reviewer, publisher, proofreader or editor had spotted that the story of Jonathan Chase and his battle to protect and serve his country was rather too familiar. With hindsight, it should perhaps have been obvious: even the author's name (his real one is Quentin Rowan) was borrowed from another literary great. Markham was Kingsley Amis's pen-name when he wrote his James Bond novel in the 1960s.

Since then, Rowan has gone to ground in the manner of one of his spies - not least because close inspection of his other writing revealed he'd been appropriating Graham Greene's Our Man In Havana for a story in Paris Review, and Geoffrey O'Brien's Dreamtime for the Huffington Post. Rowan's only comment has been on a blog by another spy novelist - Jeremy Duns - who had the misfortune to call the book an "instant classic". Rowan admitted on Monday that "the inside of my head is not a pretty place right now", apologised, and explained that he began "stealing" because he wanted to impress the editors at Little, Brown. He knew, he said, that by using some of the best-known authors in the thriller genre, he was grappling with a "built-in death wish". "It became like a strange schizophrenic form of gambling."

Or was it? Such an excoriating mea culpa is just a little too dramatically perfect as a story. Earlier this year, The National spoke to David Shields, whose book Reality Hunger is a wonderfully provocative manifesto on the usefulness of the novel - and celebrates plagiarism as a vital cog in creativity. He thinks Rowan shouldn't worry about coming clean with his real motives.

"Surely he was aware of what he was doing, and he wanted us to be involved in the spy game of 'catching' him at it, or recognising the passages," he says. "Surely he was commenting on the nature of who owns the words, who owns the story, who is the author, who is the authority. I've found the entire discussion about him utterly wrongheaded."

So perhaps we should actually be praising Rowan for, somehow, managing to mash up so many sources but still create a coherent narrative. What's been forgotten in the furore is that Assassin of Secrets is, apparently, a great read. The methods are controversial, true, but the work, as Duns said, "takes on the greatest spy thrillers of the Cold War and doesn't just hold its own, but wins".

In Reality Hunger, there is an entire section devoted to hip-hop. And how different, in the end, is Rowan's technique from the use of sampling in music? Some of the most exciting records of recent years have been made up entirely from other people's tunes: Danger Mouse's mash-up of the Beatles' White Album and Jay-Z's Black Album to create the delightfully-named Grey Album, for example. The very first song to popularise hip-hop, Rapper's Delight by the Sugarhill Gang, used sections of Chic's Good Times. Pop music constantly reinvents itself by borrowing from its past - and not always with permission. Although, granted, most of the time, a hip-hop star is appropriating popular songs heard millions of times. There's not so much room for deception.

"But there's no such thing as originality," says Shields, echoing Picasso's "all art is theft" quote which is also Reality Hunger's epigraph. "All life on earth - and by extension, technology - is built upon appropriation and reuse of the pre-existing; in Reality Hunger, I pulled out every trick in the book to try to get people to see this. Some did."

Rowan's mistake may have been to try to conceal what he'd done. Such brazen antics are almost impossible in the digital age, where every hunch can immediately be checked via search engines. The book would still have been interesting as a work of art that wore its influences on its sleeve - even if publishers might have been more reticent about it.

Still, copies of Assassin of Secrets that were sold are now going for hundreds of dollars. Who was it that said talent imitates, genius steals?