Ben Schott: Absconding With Personal Experience?

All that apparent vetting and editing at the NYTBR wasn’t enough to stop L’Affaire Schott from sullying Tanenhaus’s pristine gates with redolent taints. The story is this: Ben Schott wrote an essay called “Confessions of a Book Abuser.” Readers, alarmed by the essay’s resemblance to a similar essay called “Never Do That to a Book” (contained within Anne Fadiman’s collection, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader) wrote in, troubled by Schott rather conveniently having an encounter with an Italian chambermaid in 1989, when Schott was fifteen — not unlike Fadiman’s own encounter with an Italian chambermaid in 1964.

benschott.jpgOf course, it’s very possible that Schott did have this experience. It’s very possible that an Italian chambermaid did take a fifteen year old’s hand and returned his copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. Of course, since Schott failed to mention his parents (did he really rent “a hotel room on the shores of Lake Como” and stay there without parental supervision?), suggesting that he returned to his hotel room of his own accord, as if a self-made man, I’m disinclined to believe Schott — unless he offers unimpeachable evidence that reveals this existential serendipity. After all, Fadiman’s original essay revealed similar childhood details, as well as a specific hotel name. Schott may be a dutiful compiler of facts for his almanacs, but he appears remiss in revealing some of the specifics that would exculpate him from plagiarism charges. (Well, that’s not entirely true. Schott’s all too happy to boast about reading Evelyn Waugh as a teenager.)

Editor & Publisher has more on the glaring similarities between Schott and Fadiman’s respective essays.

You know, we litbloggers may be “sub-literary,” but there’s one advantage to online writing that you won’t find in print. If any of us were to pull this kind of potential theft, we’d get called on it by our commenters. Perhaps the NYTBR might wish to initiate comments upon all of their articles to keep their content honest. It might even help make the editors “aware of Fadiman’s essay.” And who knows? Maybe a communicative conduit along these lines might even alleviate some of the continuing print vs. online fracas. It’s clear from this incident that Tanenhaus’s drawbridge is starting to look a bit rickety.

[UPDATE: Bill Peschel reminds me (and I should have referenced this in the post) that the similarities were observed the day after Schott’s article appeared in a Bookninja thread. Return of the Reluctant regrets the oversight, but we will go one more than the Times in wishing Mr. Murray a speedy recovery from his illness.]

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4 Comments

  1. Don’t forget that it was a commenter on Bookninja who spotted the swipe, the day after it was published. As another example of connectivity, she hadn’t read the essay, just the paragraph that BN typed in.

  2. But, Ed, what about the possibility that Ben Schott is completely innocent? Having looked at the evidence, do you really feel that this is a case of plagiarism beyond a reasonable doubt?

    The pieces don’t fit together for me. Schott’s sentences in question do not show the “fingerprint” of the original the way, say, Kaavya Viswanathan’s sentences did. It’s possible that this is a case of subconscious or remembered plagiarism, but (unlike the case of Viswanathan) the likelihood of intentional plagiarism seems very small.

    To me, the real shame here is that the editors of the Book Review are so quick to wipe their hands of any possible culpability, regardless of the effect on the writer’s career. I’d really like to know, Ed, if you feel absolutely sure that Schott is guilty of plagiarism based on the evidence we’ve seen.

  3. Those are all fair points, Levi. As I wrote above, I noted that I was “disinclined to believe” Schott, based on the fact that he has not been straightforward with the details of his 1989 hotel stay. But I am offering Schott some benefit of the doubt, as I do with anybody. Nevertheless, if Schott were entirely innocent, would he have not revealed (as Fadiman did), the specific hotel or why he was staying here without parental supervision? I would agree with you that it’s not an explicit case of text-based plagiarism, but anecdote-based plagiarism, if this is what this is, is in some ways even worse.

  4. Fair enough, Ed … I’m perfectly willing to accept that this scene might not have played out on the shores of Lame Como, or might not have played out at all. But the only critical question is: did Schott read Anne Fadiman’s essay? He says he didn’t, and since he is an accomplished writer with a (presumably) strong general reputation, I think it’s his editor’s job to believe him and stand behind him, unless stronger evidence against him appears. Do editors always run for cover this quickly?

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