Last night, while scrolling through Jezebel on my phone, I came across a story hot off the digital presses that immediately sparked my interest: a young poet named Ailey O’Toole, nominated for a Pushcart award (never heard of it, but it’s apparently quite an honor in small press poetry circles), was discovered to have plagiarized a good section of her work from several other poets, including an understandably pissed-off poet named Rachel McKibbens. Not only had O’Toole lifted lines nearly word-for-word from her work, she had the audacity to have one of those lines tattooed on her arm for a cool Instagrammable moment. Whoa! This takes it to a whole new level. It’s worth reading McKibbens’ Twitter response about the entire fiasco. O’Toole’s own Twitter page, alas, went poof overnight along with her other social media. Once the scandal broke, the one-star reviews and general vitriolic “reviews” of her work on GoodReads came down hard and swift. She lost her award nomination and the small press pulled her book.
This incident caused me to reflect on other great literary scandals. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Tomi Adeyemi and Nora Roberts
UPDATE: Looks like it’s a big week for lit scandals. A few days ago Tomi Adeyemi made a impulsive tweet that I’m sure she is regretting now (since deleted). In it, she accuses veteran bestselling romance writer, Nora Roberts, of stealing her title and cover art for Children of Blood and Bone. Nora Roberts’ dignified response to the accusation is worth reading.
JT LeRoy, was invented by a woman named Laura Albert, an artsy San Francisco housewife who couldn’t get a break. Albert was a talented writer, and a bit of a grifter. Between gigs as a sex chat phone operator, Laura wrote stories under her pseudonym and alter ego, JT LeRoy, a pretty blond teenage boy who was turned out by his truck stop prostitute mother and was now barely surviving on the streets of SF. Agents and critics were intrigued by his backstory as well as his gritty and sexually raw prose (a thing in the 90’s). LeRoy got a publishing deal and a legion of celebrity fans with whom Albert, using her sex chat skills, chatted regularly on the phone. She also recorded the conversations. To use as potential blackmail when the shit hit the fan? Albert kept the balls in the air for years by employing her sister-in-law to act as JT’s avatar, and even helped produce a film of the work, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. You ain’t kidding. Not even star and director of the film, Asia Argento (with whom the fake JT allegedly had an affair) knew the truth. This scandal comprises an enormous rabbit hole that rewards the deep dive.
How wonderful to have your book included in Oprah’s book club and get featured on her show! How horrifying to have it exposed as a work of plagiarism, then having to appear along with your pissed-off publisher on the same show for a public flogging. Thus was the fate of James Frey, whose 2003 “memoir” A Thousand Little Pieces about the author’s drug addiction, criminal past, and triumphant recovery, earned Frey the Oprah seal of approval. The glory was brief, however, when it was revealed that he exaggerated some of his “real life experiences.” He returned to the Oprah show with his publisher to offer an apology. The host and her mostly female audience fell on him like the Bacchae on Pentheus, tearing him to shreds. The beating was so severe that Frey ended up garnering some sympathy. Eventually he bounced back into literary obscurity. He still writes and probably continues to earn a decent living. One wonders if the scars have healed.
Romance novelist Faleena Hopkins was doing so well with her Cocky guy book series that she apparently bought the copyright to the word “cocky” and tried to sue other writers who picked up on the trend because Alpha sells. The entire thing blew up in Ms. Hopkins face and she was forced to retract her lawsuits and offer a sorry not sorry apology. I would post one of her many shirtless buff guy covers, but I’m afraid she sue me. Use your imagination.
Which reminds me…
I’ve been meaning to watch Can You Ever Forgive Me starring Melissa McCarthy about a literary forger. Girls gotta make a living.
The gal in the latest poetry scandal looks pretty young (dare I say millennial?). Hopefully she’ll take some time off, draft a few groveling apologies, find a good tattoo remover, and quietly work on her craft (or find something else to do) until it all blows over. Perhaps in her recovery journal she’ll write (in quotes!) the famous words of Stanislavski: Love art in yourself, and not yourself in art.