There’s a storm in Australian literary waters over a book that’s been longlisted for one of our most prestigious prizes, The Miles Franklin. John Hughes’s novel, The Dogs, a book that deals with post war history and has taken him fifteen years to research and write, is under attack. As part of his research, Hughes read Svetlana Alexievich’s English translation of The Unwomanly Face of War, a 1985 non-fiction text, which came out in 2017.
After The Guardian discovered 58 similarities and instances of identical text in The Dogs, Hughes has apologised and tried to explain. He had taken notes as he read Alexievich’s book. And these somehow morphed with notes from the transcripts of his Ukrainian grandmother’s answers to his questions many years earlier. The words became his own. He’s now accused of plagiarism and The Dogs has been withdrawn from the Miles Franklin longlist. John Hughes has apologised but the social media mob on twitter and Facebook is out to get him. People can be unforgiving when someone is accused of stealing another’s words.
When I first read John Hughes previous non-fiction book, The idea of home: autobiographical essays, I was struck by the similarities in his experience of his Ukrainian grandparents, the way their words and ideas blended with his own, and my own. Hughes writes about his childhood as a second generation Australian, the business of living in two worlds, and the importance of avoiding actual knowledge, ‘that by knowing just a little, not only was he able to establish his own sense of self, he could also make himself however he wanted’.
When we write, like magpies we collect bits and pieces of information and words from others that we weave together to form narrative tapestries to enthral our readers. In doing so we can lean too heavily on someone else’s words and confuse them with our own. As we might do with memories.
Literature professor, Marianne Hirsch talks of ‘post memory’. The way in which people can sometimes have the clearest memory of something they never experienced. The memory of something that happened to parents or grandparents that gets relayed unconsciously down the line. She argues, ‘the past is …not actually mediated by recall but by imaginative investment. To grow up with such overwhelming inherited memories, to be dominated by narratives that preceded one’s birth or one’s consciousness, is to risk having one’s own stories and experiences displaced, even evacuated, by those of a previous generation’.
More confusion, more forgetting. It’s not a process of stealing so much as a type of absorption into our DNA of words and experience that blend into our identities as if they are our own memory.
Plagiarism is never okay but to accuse Hughes whose work is valuable and then compare him, with a determined plagiarist or for instance with another writer who also wrote about Ukraine, Australia’s Helen Demidenko who won the Miles Franklin in 1995 for The Hand that Signed the Paper, (not so much for plagiarising, though there were accusations of such, but more for her impersonation as a Ukrainian, even to the point she dressed up in Vyshvanka, traditional Ukrainian embroidered blouses, and chose the name Demidenko over her actual British name of Darville) is a stretch too far.
Demidenko’s identity theft brought her into ill repute, and she has not moved far beyond, a pariah in some writing circles. She has since changed her name yet again and assumed another identity as lawyer and writer. But John Hughes who teaches English and writes books, a plagiarist? Where’s the nuance. As much as some of my women friends accuse him of being a typical man who steals the ideas of a woman writer without attributing his sources. Is his behaviour not something else again?
When I was in Year Ten and studying European history, it felt nothing like the history I carried in my blood and bones with my Dutch parents who came to Australia after the Second World War for a better life. The nun who took our history class talked about wars and events and gave us dates to rote learn. Boring stuff. I took to handing in essays in which I lifted chunks of material from the history books she set. CEW Bean and others on the history of Europe. I found it easy to cobble together a great man’s impressions of what went on and why.
The nun in charge of my essays never cottoned on, or if she did, she did not down grade my marks from an A. Perhaps she did not notice. I was good at writing but not so good I could have aligned the sentences as did these polished historians.
I could not plagiarise during exams that were not open book. In exams I needed to use my own words and when my year level lined up behind single rickety desks in the Exhibition Buildings in Melbourne ready to sit our European history test in the December of that year, my mind went blank.
I had crammed all the facts, but I could not repeat whole tracts from the books I once plagiarised, and I panicked. My life flashed before me. Ten minutes in and memories came tumbling back to me. I passed the exam, only just, but have never forgotten the pitfalls of plagiarism. The way it robs you of your own voice and stops you from having any confidence in your own ability to put down words.
This is not John Hughes, a person who can write beautifully, but perhaps something of the legacy of his own story and world events and Ukraine history stir us up again. This country invaded once more by a superpower which seeks to steal swathes of land rather like plagiarists who steal other people’s words. Could this have added to his confusion?
John Berger writes, ‘No story is like a wheeled vehicle whose contact with the road is continuous. Stories walk like animals or men. And their steps are not only narrated events but between each sentence, sometimes each word, every step is a stride over something not said.’ And which one of us cannot own up to similar bursts of confusion? To gaps in our understanding. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
‘It’s impossible to write about the living without thinking of them as already dead’—so begins The Dogs. And now this writer is ‘dead’ to the literary community because he has fallen. An unforgivable sin, or so it seems, though most of us might breathe a sigh of relief, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ Let’s not condemn Hughes for his unwitting sins or throw the broom out with the dust. There’s much more mess remaining in the muddle between who owns what words.
Elisabeth Hanscombe, who blogs at sixthinline.com, is a psychologist and author of several essays, short stories and book chapters, including a childhood memoir, The Art of Disappearing (2017).