Folly and its imitators

Witi Ihimaera.  Photo by David Rowland/NZPA.
Witi Ihimaera. Photo by David Rowland/NZPA.
Theft involves the calculated attempt to deceive, writes Lawrence Jones, while probably the most Witi Ihimaera can be accused of is carelessness about sources, excessive haste, and maybe taking a few shortcuts.

"Unattributed borrowings from other authors in Witi Ihimaera's new novel The Trowenna Sea have become the literary news story of the decade in New Zealand": so says Scott Hamilton in the online Scoop Review of Books last week. Certainly a lot of words have flown: a Google search turned up 12,600 items, 7720 of them from New Zealand.

Now is a good time to step back from the fray and try to put the matter in perspective, at least provisionally.

The story broke in the Listener last month, which gave it dramatic cover treatment.

Reviewer Jolisa Gracewood, a Dunedin-born writer, teacher and reviewer working in the United States, had submitted to the magazine along with her review of the novel 16 examples of plagiarism that she had discovered, and Arts and Books Editor Guy Somerset had used them in writing the lead story to accompany the review, with the accusatory headline, "We confronted him with the evidence".

The New Zealand Herald in its story about the story on November 7 accentuated the tone with the headline "How Witi was Found Out".

Soon throughout the media, including the blogosphere, judgements on Ihimaera flourished, some to defend him, more to attack.

Ihimaera is a tall poppy, and this was emphasised when the same week as the story broke, the Arts Foundation announced that he was one of the five artists to receive a 2009 Laureate Award, a grant of $50,000 given to the recipients "in recognition of their artistic achievement and as a challenge for them to continue working at high levels".

As a Maori, a gay man, an award-winning writer and a professor at the University of Auckland, he is a target for a variety of prejudices, and one has only to sample some of the comments in, for example, the RadioLive website to see some of them at work.

Harsh but more considered criticism has also come from the journalistic, academic and literary worlds.

Karl du Fresne, in his column in the Nelson Mail, said "a cloud of suspicion now hangs over" Ihimaera's "whole body of work", while Paul Holmes' column on Ihimaera in the Herald on Sunday was headlined "An author's greatest sin".

Margaret Soltan, a professor of English at George Washington University, in her blog "University Diary", pronounced Ihimaera a "career plagiarist" whose "reputation has been trashed, along with the reputation of the university that continues to defend him".

Writer Vincent O'Sullivan was reluctant to comment directly on what Ihimaera had done, but said to the Herald that plagiarism by a writer was analogous to drug cheating by an athlete: "It's a performance-enhancing technique that works at someone else's expense" and "gives an unfair advantage over contemporaries and colleagues".

Another writer, C. K. Stead, told Radio New Zealand that Ihimaera's defence that the 16 passages in question were less than two pages in a 528 page novel was "really like saying 'well yes, I did steal from 16 people, but I only took a dollar from each'."

These immediate negative responses fail to take into account the range of relevant contexts and issues involved, but they are right to emphasise that genuine plagiarism is involved.

The Listener in its original article and the follow-up two weeks later, printed 11 of the passages Gracewood had discovered side by side with their alleged sources.

There were at least nine repeat clauses or complete sentences and in one case, an entire paragraph verbatim from the sources.

These passages give the sense that they must have been written in with the original or a copy of it in front of the writer.

By most definitions they are plagiarism, and of course this is a serious matter for a university professor when students are repeatedly warned against it.

But, as anyone who has supervised theses and marked student essays knows, there are different kinds and degrees of plagiarism.

The matter is complicated by questions of extent and intent and also must be seen in the contexts of the writer's career and of genre and the changing literary practices and conventions of the time.

The extent of the plagiarism is not great, although there may yet be more than Gracewood was able to find.

The plagiarised materials are mostly bits and pieces, semi-digested research about historical background.

The novel is told in the first person by three major and two minor characters, so the borrowed passages are attributed to them, two as reported dialogue, the rest as descriptions or explanations or comments.

None are entirely out of keeping with the characters to whom they are attributed, but they usually feel stilted.

Most are there primarily to provide information.

Certainly our sense of the two most successfully conceived and fully imagined characters in the book, Ismay and Gower McKissock, does not depend on the borrowed passages, although those taken from Victorian sources help to fill in their Wolverhampton and Scottish backgrounds.

The history of the composition of the novel implies much about Ihimaera's intent, a more complex matter.

The idea for the book came in 2005 when he was Distinguished Visitor to the University of Tasmania and learned the story of the five Maori "rebels" who had been transported to the prison settlement in Van Diemen's Land in 1846 by George Grey's colonial government in New Zealand.

He decided he must write this story, which he discovered "had been virtually erased from New Zealand history", but teaching and literary commitments kept him from getting to the book until December 2008.

Ihimaera has always written in rapid bursts, but he outdid himself with this book, completing the first draft in March 2009 - a full draft of a 528-page book in about four months, a book requiring considerable research into Tasmanian prison settlements of the 1840s, Maori-Pakeha relations in the Hutt Valley in the 1840s (not Ihimaera's territory and not his iwi) and Wolverhampton in the 1840s.

Ihimaera probably did not give himself adequate time to absorb and digest his research materials. He may have worked from notes that did not properly identify sources or distinguish paraphrase from direct quotation.

Possibly he typed in some direct quotations with the intention of reworking them in the next draft and then failed to do so.

Ihimaera clearly set out to write an historical novel that calls attention to a little-known but significant injustice in the past, not to make a book out of somebody else's work and call it his own.

Theft involves the calculated attempt to deceive, while probably the most Ihimaera can be accused of is carelessness about sources, excessive haste, and maybe taking a few shortcuts.

A writer who lists in an author's note almost two pages of "texts consulted" (including two of the books from which passages were taken) is not one who is trying to palm off as his own somebody else's work.

Maybe in the promised second edition he can properly both list and more adequately absorb and transform all his sources.

Ihimaera's intent relates to his track record, his career.

It is true that he did rather naively use quotations from an encyclopedia article in a didactic part of The Matriarch in 1986 and it could justly be said that he did not learn enough from that experience.

But that does not make him a "career plagiarist". His career does not show him as a writer determined to cheat in order to get "an unfair advantage over contemporaries and colleagues".

After the outstanding success of his first three books, published 1972-74, he received the 1975 Burns Fellowship.

He spent the year working on his fourth book, The New Net Goes Fishing, which went in rather a new direction.

At the end of that year he decided he would publish no more fiction for the next 10 years because he felt that his "pastoral" books were "a serious mismatch to the reality of the times", expressing a vision that was "out of date, and, tragically, so encompassing and so established that it wasn't leaving enough room for the new reality to punch through".

His literary efforts for the next 10 years were devoted primarily to editing Into the World of Light (1982), an anthology of Maori writing by others expressing that more urban and politicised "new reality", and working on Te Ao Marama: Contemporary Maori Writing (1992-96), a five-volume bilingual anthology.

Instead of trying to gain unfair advantage over his contemporaries, he was stepping out of their way and helping to push them on to the stage that he had vacated.

This is not the kind of writer to engage in theft for personal gain.

The question of intent relates to questions of genre and the changing literary environment.

Ihimaera has written to the website that in The Trowenna Sea he was attempting "something that is just a little different in the genre of historic fiction", something that instead of treating history as fiction attempts "to create fiction as history".

It is thus a "hybrid book in which [you have] the problematics of acknowledgement of historical material and historical inspirations".

Instead of using footnotes as a non-fiction writer would, he has been attempting to find "a very, very exciting new approach to creating a framework to those new fictions".

In this somewhat confusing statement he seems to be pointing towards the blurring that is taking place in postmodern fiction between fact and fiction and between appropriated and original materials.

Stead, for example, in his novel Mansfield in 2004 has, as he says in his opening note, used "brief quotations from, and paraphrases of letters from and to, Katherine Mansfield, and journal entries", but where there is no historical record he has invented events, conversations and letters, but included nothing that is contradicted by historical evidence.

In the process he has presented his own view of Mansfield's development and of the effect of World War 1 on her.

If not "fiction as history" it is "fiction as biography".

Stead's novel has no fictional characters; Ihimaera, in contrast, has invented Ismay and Gower McKissock, but says he has based the large "narrative arc" of their story on the actual story of the historical figures John and Etty Bailey (who appear as minor figures in the novel).

The third major character, Hohepa te Umuroa, one of the transported Maori, is historical, but the historical record concerning him seems to have been thin, so Ihimaera says in his opening note that he "imagined a life" for him "as an eyewitness and participant in history, both in New Zealand and Tasmania".

Perhaps Ihimaera's way of "creating fiction as history" was to use materials from historical sources to anchor in historical reality the imagined lives both of his historical character and his fictional ones.

In such a story as "Meeting Elizabeth Costello" Ihimaera has shown that he can blur the lines between fact and fiction and between the original and the appropriated to play postmodern games, putting Elizabeth Costello, J. M. Coetzee's novelist character, on a literary cruise ship with another Coetzee character and a Maori novelist named Wicked Ihimaera for an ironic romp.

In The Trowenna Sea he blurs those lines for a more serious purpose, mixing history and fiction to "reconstruct" a lost piece of history from which we, he hopes, can learn something important about our colonial past.

However, he seems not to have found an entirely successful "new approach" for situating his fiction in detailed historical reality that could both absorb the historical materials and at the same time acknowledge his sources.

Instead of casting aspersions on Ihimaera's integrity, we thus can find possible reasons for the undoubted plagiarism in the novel, especially in the history of its composition and in its difficult hybrid genre.

But such an argument can be only provisional.

In a second, corrected edition Ihimaera may or may not find his "framework" for his "new fictions", but perhaps he can explain more clearly what he was trying to do and what he actually did and put to rest the more extreme charges made against him.

I certainly hope so.

• Lawrence Jones is an emeritus professor of English.


Add a Comment