Friday, November 27, 2009

All Ihimaera's work is now under suspicion

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 25.)

The Wellington writer and academic Vincent O’Sullivan was right on the nail last week when he compared literary plagiarists with drug cheats in sport.

He was talking, of course, about the scandal surrounding acclaimed author Witi Ihimaera’s latest novel The Trowenna Sea, which an alert reviewer in The Listener exposed as being littered with passages pinched from other writers (16 at first count, though more have since been discovered).

In a clever analogy with sport, O’Sullivan described plagiarism as a performance-enhancing technique that provided an unfair advantage over contemporaries and colleagues.

More to the point, it’s also an unforgiveable breach of faith with Ihimaera’s loyal readers, who will be left wondering whether other passages in the books they have so admired were not the writer’s own.

O’Sullivan was one of only two writers, to my knowledge, who spoke out unequivocally about Ihimaera’s conduct. The other was C K Stead, who was sharply critical of Auckland University, Ihimaera’s employer, for playing down the gravity of the author’s ethical breach. Otherwise the literary world observed a deafening silence.

Retired historian Keith Sorrenson waded into the debate too, disclosing that he had been plagiarised in Ihimaera’s novel The Matriarch back in 1986. So Maoridom’s most accomplished literary figure – the man who also gave us The Whale Rider – has previous form, to coin a phrase.

I loved Sorrenson’s answer to a question put to him by Kathryn Ryan of Radio New Zealand. Asked if plagiarism could be committed accidentally, the retired professor conceded that it could, but then added pointedly that Ihimaera seemed to be accident-prone.

Inevitably there has been an element of the tall poppy syndrome in the public outcry over Ihimaera’s deceit. Writers have a reputation for preciousness and a lot of people will have quietly enjoyed the spectacle of one being publicly skewered.

Nonetheless, plagiarism is a very serious charge and the affair has heaped shame not only on Ihimaera himself but also on the university, which employs him as a professor of English and “Distinguished Creative Fellow in Maori Literature” (don’t they love grandiloquent titles?), and on Ihimaera’s publishers, Penguin.

The Arts Foundation has egg on its face too, having honoured Ihimaera with a $50,000 grant only days after the Listener’s exposé appeared. The Dominion Post carried a photo of a beaming Ihimaera proudly posing with his fellow grant recipients as if nothing had happened.

The foundation’s error of judgment reflected what seemed to be a complacent misconception, shared by all those in Ihimaera’s camp – and perhaps by Ihimaera himself – that his illustrious reputation would protect him from lasting harm.

All those in a position to act decisively when the controversy erupted chose instead to tread water in the apparent belief that it would soon blow over. An anonymous commenter on David Farrar’s popular Kiwiblog speculated mischievously that Ihimaera may have been considered bulletproof because he was Maori and gay.

The foundation subsequently defended itself by saying the $50,000 award recognised Ihimaera’s whole body of work. Problem is, a cloud of suspicion now hangs over that body of work. Credibility can take a lifetime to achieve but only a moment to destroy.

Once caught out, Ihimaera seemed to hope that an apology would put the affair to rest, just as it apparently did all those years ago when Sorrenson confronted him over The Matriarch. But it very quickly became clear that people struggled to accept the writer’s assurance that the plagiarism in The Trowenna Sea was nothing more than an inadvertent oversight.

An incredulous Paul Holmes, writing in the Herald on Sunday, challenged Auckland University’s Dean of Arts, Jan Crosthwaite, over her bland statement that the university was satisfied there was no deliberate wrongdoing on Ihimaera’s part.

“Excuse me?” wrote Holmes. “How do you plagiarise in a way that is not deliberate? How do you plagiarise by accident?”

Like Holmes, I fail to see how Ihimaera could have lifted whole chunks of text from other people’s books and then somehow forgotten to acknowledge them.

Ihimaera says in his defence that the plagiarised passages made up only 0.4 percent of The Trowenna Sea. This is like a thief pleading in mitigation that he stole only one flat-screen TV when he could have done a ram raid and stripped the entire store.

But here’s the real puzzle: why on earth would a writer of Ihimaera’s reputation risk everything for 0.4 percent of his novel? Why would he jeopardise his credibility for the sake of such a tiny fragment?

In a long career in journalism I have known several people who were exposed as plagiarists and whose careers suffered as a result. Most of them, like Ihimaera, were good writers who didn’t need to rip off other people’s material, and I wondered why they would take the chance.

I suppose they did it because they thought they could get away with it. But the risk of being found out was higher than one might think.

It seemed that no matter how obscure the source material, someone had read it before and recognised it when it turned up in another guise. Google’s Internet search engine, which is how Ihimaera was caught out by The Listener, makes it even more likely than ever that plagiarists will be exposed. But of course we can never know how many cases have gone undetected.

At the time of writing, I get the impression this affair still has some way to run. Those in a position to have done something meaningful to atone for Ihimaera’s misconduct ducked for cover in the hope that the whole nasty business would go away, but it hasn’t, and it won’t.