first published in the Brisbane Courier-Mail 2 February 2008
The romance world has been in turmoil over the last couple of weeks with one of the genre’s biggest names embroiled in a plagiarism scandal.
Cassie Edwards, author of more than one hundred American historical novels, has allegedly lifted passages of her novels from a number of sources, both fiction and non fiction and, most notably, a conservation article about the fate of the black-footed ferret.
Edwards’ novels notably feature Native American heroes and white heroines, and often include long sections that explain aspects of Native American culture, including history, mythology, and more practical information like diet, family life, and their close relationship to nature. It is these passages that seem to be taken from other sources.
The website Smart Bitches who Read Trashy Books broke the story, and has since put together a document of 51 pages listing passages from Edwards’ novels side-by-side with passages from external sources.
The similarities are undeniable.
Plagiarism and copyright infringement are touchy subjects in fiction. When it comes to non-fiction and academic writing, the rules are much more solid, and have been held firmly in place for years. All references are attributed to their sources, either in footnotes or quotations, and there are often extensive bibliographies and works cited pages. Those who work within a non-fiction sector have stated that writers will almost always err on the side of too much citation than too little.
But footnotes and quotations marks don’t work in a fiction setting. It’s hard to imagine anything more jarring than footnotes during dialogue. But many fiction writers use extensive research to build their worlds – both in romance and out.
Diana Gabaldon, author of the award winning Outlander series, has stated that her publisher actively discouraged her from adding her notes to the ends of her novels, which led to the release of Through the Stones, a non-fiction companion to the series.
Romance authors have come forward to point out that acknowledgment pages are really the only avenue for fiction authors to reference their sources. Others have used this scandal to push for more rigid citation practices within fiction, while still others are worried about where the line will be drawn: when is it premise or plagiarism? When does an homage become hurtful?
While Edwards’ publishers have been noticeably silent on the subject, there are some that are finding humour in the situation. Paul Tolme wrote the article about black footed ferrets. In an open letter to the Smart Bitches website, he writes: ‘After several days of answering reporters’ calls, a constantly blushing editor, and fits of giggling breaking out all over the office thanks to the witty banter of a certain group of Smart Bitches, we feel this scandal has had quite a positive outcome. Awareness has been raised for the plight of the endangered black-footed ferret, and we have made some wonderful allies in unexpected places.’