Vice Squad

Both Michelle Richmond and Dan Wickett have the scoop on a plagiarism case involving Brad Vice. Vice’s book The Bear Bryant Funeral Train won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. What was not known, until librarian Margaret Butler pointed it out, is that one of Vice’s stories, the title tale in Vice’s short story collection Tuscaloosa Knights, plagiarized one part of Carl Carmer’s Stars Fell on Alabama. The University of Georgia Press revoked the award, recalled all the copies of the book that had been issued and pulped the remainders.

Now here’s the interesting thing: Michelle’s compared the stories and says Vice’s story pays homage to Carmer. And at StorySouth, Jason Sanford has wrtten a passionate defense, claiming that Vice’s slip was “an honest mistake.”

But I think the comparative passages reveal the real story:

Carmer: “Beneath the tall elms on Queen City Avenue rode three horsemen robed in white.”
Vice: “Underneath the towering elms, three horsemen robed in white down the middle of Queen City Avenue”

Carmer: “One of them raised a bugle and again the minor four-note call sounded. Behind the mounted trio stretched a long column of marching white figures, two and two, like an army of coupled ghosts, their shapeless flopping garments tossing up and down in the still night air.”
Vice: “One of the horsemen raised his hood and blasted the same four mighty notes on the bugle. Behind the troika stretched a long watery line of white figures marching side by side like an army of ghosts, their shapeless garments shimmering in the night.”

Carmer: “Look,” he said, “can you see their shoes? They tell a lot.”
Vice: “Look.” Pinion pointed at the Klansmen. “You see their shoes? Invisible empire, my ass. I know everyone of them sum’bitches. Every one.”

Carmer: “Moving under the edges of the white robes were pants-leg ends and shoes, hundreds of them. A pair that buttoned and had cloth tops, a heavy laced pair splashed with mud, canvas sneakers, congress gaiters — a yellow pair with knobby toes swung past. At the very end a long figure in sturdy grained oxfords, his sheet twisted awry, stepped gingerly — a little uncertainly. Knox laughed.”
Vice: “Moving at the hem of the white robes were pant legs and shoes, dozens and dozens of shoes. One pair of button-ups with terrycloth tops, another heavy-laced pair splashed with mud, brown work boots, canvas sneakers, congress gaiters—even a green pair with knobby toes swung past. Pinion chortled. Only the thick holly hedge separated us from the street and the long line of marching shoes.”

I’m not certain if pulping Vice’s book fits the crime, but, with all due respect to Michelle, this is undisputedly plagiarism, with Vice almost reproducing the passages in their entirety. And Vice should have known better. Homage is when T.C. Boyle names his short story collection Tooth & Claw after Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” or when Star Trek VI takes Hamlet‘s “The Undiscovered Country” as its subtitle. Certainly the history of referencing other works and characters goes all the way back to the Iliad, where Homer referenced endless gods and figures steeped in Greek mythology.

Brad Vice may be a good guy, but when a writer takes entire sentences from another’s work and draws attention to himself by naming his short story collection after the story in which he has done this, he is setting himself up for inevitable discovery and the consequences that come from it.

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  1. I definitely understand where you’re coming from, Ed, but note that Jake Adam York, co-editor of the online litzine that published Tuscaloosa Knights, published Carmer’s piece right along with it–this is where I found the two texts and was able to read them side by side. York says:
    Vice has, in interviews, explicitly acknowledged his debt to Carmer. And in allowing us to reprint “Tuscaloosa Knights” at Thicket alongside a selection from Carmer’s own “Flaming Cross,” Vice implicitly acknowledges the relationship, allows the evidence to be made public, and is interested in his readers entering the intertextual space in which he has worked.

    If Vice were trying not to be discovered, he probably wouldn’t have “explicitly acknowledged his debt to Carmer” in interviews and provided the original Carmer text to the editors of Thicket. Yes, he should have acknowledged Carmer, but I do believe that Vice thought Carmer’s words would be recognizable in his story. After all, Carmer wasn’t an unknown. He published 36 books, some of which were bestsellers. Stars Fell on Alabama happens to be one of the most, if not THE most, well-known books about Alabama.

    I think this raises interesting issues about copyright in general and art in particular. DJs routinely “sample” the work of various recording artists in their mixes. Visual artists reproduce the work of other artists in the form of collage. Directors blatantly imitate scenes from the movies they admire.

  2. Ed, your examples of “homage” are solid, and I was all for your view until I got to the comments. I do disagree with M about visual artists’ and DJs’ methods of reproduction. Film and music and art (paintings/pictures) render homage to original works much differently than print, and (I believe) are not very comparable in this matter. However, Vice (despite his name) doesn’t seem to be stealing, here. Or rather, he seems to be publicly owning up to stealing, which is alright, yes? As M rightly points out, V may not have named Carmer in the text or referenced him in the title, say, but he does freely and publicly declare familiarity with Carmer’s texts. V is not trying to pull a fast one, is what I’m trying to say. V would have been wiser to go the T.S. Eliot route, perhaps, and include some footnotes, but, barring that, he is not a thief, because he is saying, “Look, this is where I got this story, these words have been my great influence.” And if that’s not homage, what, exactly, is?

  3. Plagarism is plagarism is …. Stop being so politically correct. People shouldn’t be allowed to get off with just an apology or former students rushing to their defense. Whatever happened to ethics?

  4. Ron: Damn damn and so sorry. Completely overlooked your post. But do you know how many blogs I’m trying to keep track of here? 🙂 Will get you on the next story.

    To Michelle and Je Suis: The issue here is that he’s only owing up to stealing in the interviews, particularly since the shameful arc light has been thrown in his direction. While you and I might be obsessed enough to read just about every profile of an author we love, the average reading public won’t. They will assume that Carmer’s words originated with Vice. Thus, we have a case of Vice (perhaps unintentionally) misleading his readers.

    If we are talking about the text itself, if this is a case of homage, why then is there no acknowledgment to the original source before the table of contents? If Vice had done that, obtaining permission from the appropriate source, then he’d be on solid ground. But the fact remains that he didn’t acknowledge the “homage” in his book, where it was most important and most necessary to acknowledge.

    Now Carmer may not be alive, but I would imagine that he would be pretty upset knowing that that the hours he put into his work had been absconded with, without credit. But he probably would have smiled had Vice done the decent thing and cited the source.

  5. Geez, spent most of the first half of my life in Alabama and took numerous courses on Alabama history and literature, and I can’t remember ever hearing of Cramer until now. I do know that “Stars Fell on Alabama” is now the state slogan, replacing “Heart of Dixie” a few years ago.

    As for Vice, to me the fact that he makes no mention of the source material makes it suspect. Do I, as a reader, need to track down every piece of literature written by an Alabamian to find out that this guy is paying homage where a simple acknowledgement would have alerted me to this fact? Maybe it was a mistake or an oversight–and I hope it was–but it is one that probably should be punished in the manner in which it has been.

    By the way, Ed, I’m going to post a link to this tomorrow. I will give you credit.

  6. The same can be said of fiction writers. Writers are notorious thieves, constantly lurking in the shadows, pen in hand, looking for a quick score — a quirky bit of dialogue to pinch or a news story to appropriate. Fagin would have made a great writing teacher.

    Of course, it’s not enough to be a thief. What separates the writers from the typists is the talent and the tenacity to fashion a raw mass of material, lifted or otherwise, into a dynamic whole. That’s what Brad Vice did.

    And of course I stole most of the above from another writer.

  7. Richard: The real question is was who said that first: Picasso or Eliot? 🙂

    Regardless of what folks here think of Vice’s inventive abilities (and it would seem to vary, strangely enough based on one’s personal ethics), I still believe that given the propinquity of the sentences and the considerable block of text, he had an obligation to attribute his original source.

    And, Jeff, if it makes you feel any better, I hadn’t heard of Cramer before this either.

    As to the question of whether plagiarism is a crime, I’ll say this. If you spent months creating a tapestry and went down to the pub for a few drinks with friends, came home and found that tapestry gone, learned months later that the tapestry had been sold for $80,000 and credited to your roommate, then you’d be feeling pretty damned punitive, wouldn’t you say?

  8. Ed, I’ll admit my personal ethics may be lousy. I have appropriated stuff all the time. Example: in my story “Mysteries of Ranch Management” , I stole material published by the University of Nebraska .

    I think a court, looking at the material in Vice’s case, would find it fair use under the rationale of Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, 510 U.S. 569 (1994), which found 2 Live Crew’s parody of Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” to be a transformative use, and thus fair use, regardless of its commercial nature and the amount of material that Luke Campbell copied from the original song.

  9. Richard: I think we’re more of ageement than you think about fair use in music. As Je Suis mentioned above, different mediums have different rules. Music, for example, deals with a more limited set of factors (twelve tones, 4/4 beat), so there are only so many combinations. Sampling and other interesting sounds (such as the “Hey!” that originates from an Art of Noise track and can be found later on Prodigy, Felix da Housecat, and other songs) broadens the palette without compromising an artist’s original intent quite as closely as simply restructuring sentences. (Another funny homage that comes to mind in film is that moment in “Rushmore” that evokes the famous shot from “Barry Lyndon” of two lovers looking into the moonlight. Only die-hard Kubrick fans would notice it, but it is fair and it works because it recontextualizes a classical romantic moment into the present time.)

  10. Fair enough.

    Ed, assuming you and others are right, where should Brad have acknowledged the appropriation? Doing it within the story itself works very nicely in metafiction or something experimental (and a number of us have done this) but not for a story like the one here. Should the author acknowledge this when s/he sends the story to a magazine? In the cover letter? Where should the magazine, assuming it publishes it, acknowledge it? Granted, it’s easy to do it in the acknowledgements of one’s own book-length collection, but eventually, I think, if the story proves powerful enough to get known well — say, appear in anthologies — won’t it eventually get dislodged from the acknowledgement?

    I think one of the things that would make a fiction writer less likely to do this is the absence of a clear practical way to do this? I’ve checked the Official American Fiction Writer Association’s guidelines, and they fail to give me guidance on this matter.

    Not to be obnoxious, but who says writers are supposed to be ethical anyway? I may have taken the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam with the regular state bar exam, but I’ve never heard of any requirement that writers be ethical.

    Most of the ones I know aren’t.

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