The tale of Quentin Rowan's literary career is a strange and a sad one.
It started with spectacular success. In 1996, aged nineteen, he had a poem included in that year's compilation of Best American Poetry--a remarkable achievement for someone so young. "I took this anthology business as a sign that I was meant to be a famous writer," he later wrote.
A few years later, he had fiction stories published in highly regarded literary magazines The Paris Review and BOMB. His literary star was rising fast. In 2003, he became a part-owner of cult Brooklyn bookstore Spoonbill & Sugartown, and played bass in a local band.
In 2007, Rowan self-published a collection of short stories. Using this presumably as his calling card, he signed a book deal with Little, Brown for a series of spy novels starring a James Bond-like hero, Jonathan Chase. He used the pseudonym QR Markham.
In retrospect, that was a warning - the name had been copied from the pseudonym used by Kingsley Amis for his own James Bond novel.
The first book in the series, The Assassin of Secrets, appeared at the beginning of November this year. It had a print run of 6,500, plus a deal to publish an edition in the UK. It was launched at a spy-themed party at Spoonbill & Sugartown.
The book received a starred review from Kirkus (a "dazzling, deftly controlled debut"), while Publishers Weekly said that while it "strays far enough into James Bond territory to border on parody," the book was praised for its "fine writing". "The obvious Ian Fleming influence just adds to the appeal," it concluded.
A week later, The Assassin of Secrets was dramatically pulled from bookstores after a James Bond forum spotted that passages in the book were copied word-for-word from prominent spy novels. The forum discussion was seen by the author Jeremy Duns, who was quoted praising the work on the back of the book. He immediately contacted the book's publishers.
The book's withdrawal led to a brief spike in sales, and an in-depth confirmation of the charges by Edward Champion on the website Reluctant Habits, who found copied passages in the text from several spy novels including The Tears of Autumn, and James Bond novels License Renewed and For Special Services.
Champion also discovered that Rowan's stories for BOMB, The Paris Review, and a piece he wrote for us all contained heavily plagiarized material.
In the aftermath of the discovery, Little, Brown, the book's publisher under the Mulholland Books imprint, steadfastly claimed to have "no comment" about the situation, while Rowan himself could not be tracked down. The New Yorker's Book Bench blog called it "one of the more puzzling plagiarism tales of recent memory."
Rowan was lambasted in the media, though his silence led to a variety of speculation. Was this perhaps an artistic comment on mashup culture? Or was it a rare example of crytomnesia by some kind of savant?
Today, Rowan himself spoke out - in an email to the man who revealed his plagiarism to his publisher, Jeremy Duns. He initially asked if they could speak off the record, but Duns asked for a fuller explanation, that he would publish on his blog.
In his extended reply, pasted by Duns into the comments of his own post about the affair, Rowan comes clean about his motivations--which, far from being a postmodern art piece, appear to have been driven by a desire to fulfill the expectation--or perhaps the curse--of having been published in the Best American Poetry anthology at such a young age.
"Unlike any normal person who works at something a long time and eventually gets good," he wrote, "I decided I had to be good then and there. Because I was already supposed to be the Best. I didn't really plagiarize poetry, it was when I switched to fiction (God knows why) at the age of twenty that I began to distrust my own voice and began swiping other people's words or phrases because I thought they sounded better or more clever than my own. Perhaps if there had been no pressure to keep publishing it might have been different, but in my mind my course was set."
Over the following ten years, Rowan wrote several pieces, some entirely his own, others containing material lifted from others.
He claims that the initial draft of The Assassin of Secrets, which was accepted by a literary agent, didn't contain any copied material, but once Little, Brown had bought it, and demanded major rewrites,
"There was a need to conceal my own voice with the armor of someone else's words... Somehow public scrutiny has always been the pressure point for me. Once I feel I'm doing the work for someone else's eyes, I begin stealing, because I want to impress."
"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, or wasn't capable, I started stealing again. I didn't want to be seen as anything other than a writing machine, I guess."
Rowan says that he worried constantly about being found out.
"I rarely slept and mostly felt like an actor on a stage in my day to day life. Signing books made me feel deathly ashamed, around so many good people, but I'd already thrown the dice so long ago by that point I felt there was nothing I could do but play the out the awful pantomime... I can only compare it to other kinds of obsession or addictive behavior like gambling or smoking: in that there was no need to do it initially, but once I'd started I couldn't stop and my mind kept finding ways to rationalize the behavior. Even though, somewhere deep in the chasms of my thick brain, I knew it would destroy me.
He ended his email to Duns with an apology and a simple desire: "Gosh I wish I could do it all over."
There may well be legal consequences to his actions (Little, Brown--who were embroiled in a separate plagiarism scandal five years ago--continue to offer no comment). He may find himself blackballed from the publishing community; certainly, any future work by him will be heavily scrutinized. And although he claims to have copied out the relevant passages by hand, the ease of copying and pasting electronic material coupled with the details of this case, may lead to major and minor publishers, as well as print-on-demand providers, signing up soon to some kind of literary version of academic plagiarism detector Turn It In.
Hopefully, at least, Rowan can now sleep easier. A copy of The Assassin of Secrets is currently available on ebay for $270.
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Jeremy Duns's name was misspelled. It has now been corrected.
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