January 19, 2005


Here's an e-mail I got the other day: "As a check on whether I'm being unfair to Tom Bissell, I've posted examples of his alleged plagiarism on my blog...  I'm asking leading bloggers, editors, and other literary folk for comments (public) about what I've posted. I'd like them to tell me if I'm off base. Thank you in advance for your input. —Karl "King" Wenclas, Underground Literary Alliance."

You can imagine my reaction: Tom Bissell, a plagiarist‽ Who the fuck is Tom Bissell‽

Anyway, I looked over the evidence, and gave this response:

Is this plagiarism?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer:

I could say that more confidently if I had some more context. Obviously Bissell used Feshbach as a source. Does he cite him in the essay? If so, he's completely off the hook. Of the nine parallels you cite, only the first one tiptoes right up to the line of uncomfortable. The wording is a little too similar. In every other case, however, Bissell is simply using information from Feshbach's book or citing the same quotes or jokes, which of course will have identical or near-identical wording. Take for example the factoid about using razors in surgery from Feshbach 222. If you wanted to use that information in an essay -- which you'd certainly be allowed to do -- but you think Bissell's version is plagiarism, how would you word it so that it wasn't? Bissell went so far in changing the language that he actually fucks up the fact, substituting "safety razor" for "straight-edge razor." I'd like to see someone perform surgery with a safety razor!

Even if Bissell doesn't cite Feshbach in the article, that's forgivable. For style and space reasons, magazine features often don't mention secondary sources. An equally important question is how much OTHER material is in Bissell's essay. If the majority of it is simply rehashing Feshbach without credit, that's ugly. But if he's merely using Feshbach's research to supplement susbstantially original work of his own, that's fine. Also, I note that this essay was either excerpted from or expanded into a book. Is Feshbach cited there? By the way, have you asked Feshbach what he thinks?

Supplement to answer: I've answered your question because your email suggests that you're merely seeking my opinion as a person with some experience in journalism. Looking at your site, however, it's clear that you've got this other agenda of trying to prove that certain people you've identified as the literary elite are circling the wagons around Bissell and won't dare answer your charges. If I'm supposed to be included in that group, I'm afraid you've got the wrong guy. I'd never heard of Bissell until I got your e-mail. I used to be a stringer for Harper's readings section, but I haven't read the magazine in years. And I've only read bits and pieces of the authors you seem to be obsessesed with, liking some and not liking others. As long as I'm in full disclosure mode, I did used to be friendly acquaintances with Dave Eggers, but I haven't seen him since he got famous. I've never met any of the other folks you go after.

Anyway, my point is that you asked a fair question and I gave you my honest opinion, so I hope I'm not being drawn into a literary feud in which I don't have a proverbial dog. I happen to find your crusade a little on the wacky side, but I whole-heartedly agree with your sentiments about how people ought to be able to fight about literature the same way they fight about sports (something else I don't quite understand).

I look forward to seeing the results of your poll.

Update: Glenn Kenny (who I quite like despite our disagreement over The Know-It-All), explains the sitch to Gawker:

While "Ecocide" is cited in both hardcover and paperback editions of "Chasing the Sea," Bissell added a note in the paperback edition of "Chasing the Sea" specifically stating "much of the information of pages 313-316 [of 'Chasing the Sea'} is drawn from this book ['Ecocide']." It's up to you if you want to deem that too little, too late, but given that the paperback was prepared in Spring of '04 and hit stores in October of '04, one can't help but wonder if the King himself isn't a bit slow on the uptake.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


The like is mutual, and as for the disagreement, these things happen. (In fact, I now believe I was somewhat overemphatic in my outrage.) It's interesting that in all the blogosphere instances wherein the King is debunked, he responds on his own blog w/ selective name-calling bile—you got some, Maud got some, Chicha got some—but never comes after yours truly. I'm not sure if I should be insulted or flattered—could it be that I frighten that lame-brained, thuggish, non-writing punk?

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