Arts & Culture

New Plagiarism Accusations Against Bestselling Author Jill Bialosky

An exclusive look at allegations against the executive editor and vice-president of New York publishing firm W.W. Norton

Photo by Marion Ettlinger/Corbis via Getty Images
Marion Ettlinger/Corbis via Getty Images

The psychology of plagiarism is more twisted than the house of the Minotaur. Plagiarists rarely confess their sin, the worst a writer can commit. Almost all, when caught, make excuses. The most common are: (1) everyone does it, (2) it’s not really plagiarism, (3) any similarities are slight or irrelevant, (4) I forgot to cite the sources, (5) quotation marks and citations were accidentally removed, (6) the passages are only a small part of the book, (7) I unconsciously memorized the original, (8) my researcher is to blame, (9) drinking, drugs, or mental illness is to blame, and (10) the critic who caught me is to blame.

In my early October review of Jill Bialosky’s memoir Poetry Will Save Your Life for the magazine Tourniquet Review, I accused her of having plagiarized numerous passages from Wikipedia, the websites of the Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets, and a book by the critic Helen Vendler. I printed eight extracts in which Bialosky routinely copied phrase and sentence with only minor changes. (Five other significant passages were not included.) Bialosky is an executive editor and vice-president at W. W. Norton, one of the champagne firms of New York publishing, where she has, for many years, been in charge of one of the most important poetry lists in the United States. Having published four books of poems and a previous memoir, she is no novice writer.

Responding to an article about the accusation in the New York Times on October 8, Bialosky insisted that the plagiarism amounted to a “few ancillary and limited phrases from my 222-page memoir that inadvertently include fragments of prior common biographical sources and tropes after a multiyear writing process.” (Excuses three and six, with number four perhaps implied.)

By a “few . . . phrases,” she apparently meant the fifty or sixty phrases duplicated in the damning excerpts. Whole sentences showed minor variations, or none at all. It’s not clear what she meant by “prior,” except that the prose she copied preceded her own. “Ancillary,” “limited,” “fragments,” and “common” attempt to minimize the plagiarism by suggesting that the things she borrowed were plain facts, piecemeal and isolated; but any examination of the parallel passages will reveal how often she appropriated the work of other writers.

A student who copies web sources for a term paper can expect strict punishment. In Bialosky’s case, seventy-two writers calling themselves “Friends of Literature” signed a letter to the Times, protesting the publication of a story that, they claimed, “tainted the reputation of this accomplished editor, poet and memoirist.” Bialosky’s borrowings are not, as the Friends of Literature declared, a “handful of commonly known biographical facts gleaned from outside sources.” Terming the plagiarism a “mishandling,” the Friends further asserted that this was merely a “small offense” and that the “inadvertent repetition of biographical boilerplate was not an egregious theft intentionally performed.” This soft-pedaled the persistent feature of her memoir, the uncontrollable kleptomania practiced on other writers, not just for the brief biographies of poets, but for her interpretation of poems and her notes on poetic technique. The Friends referred to her response as a “statement of apology,” though there was not a hint of apology to it. That is not the worst of it.

Five years ago, Bialosky published a bestselling memoir, History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life. The book suffers from sloppy citation (referring to editions that do not exist) and numerous errors: the title of The Waste Land is misspelled throughout (and T. S. Eliot never wrote a poem titled “East Cocker”), John Donne’s Biathanatos is not a “religious defense of poetry,” and the adjuration in Leviticus 18:21 against sacrificing children to strange gods is not the 613th commandment of the Hebrew Bible. In addition, she seems to have plagiarized numerous passages, just as she did later in Poetry Will Save Your Life.

Plagiarism is rarely the simple cutting and pasting of another author’s work. Most often the later author tries to conceal the source with trivial changes, cloaking the identity of the original with a synonym or two, collapsing phrases from long paragraphs into a new whole. The language and structure of the original can be very difficult, however, to keep secret. In the parallel passages that follow, the wholesale copying of previous sources is so plain they must be characterized as outright theft. Mere shifts in tense or number have been marked as verbatim.

Wikipedia on Charon [Wikipedia version of March 24, 2011]:

In Greek mythology, Charon . . . is the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead. A coin to pay Charon for passage . . . was sometimes placed in or on the mouth of a dead person. . . . [T]hose who could not pay the fee, or those whose bodies were left unburied, had to wander the shores for one hundred years.

Bialosky on Charon:

In Greek mythology Charon is the ferryman who carries the souls of the dead across the River Styx, which divides the world of the living from that of the dead. As fee for passage, the survivors must place a coin in or on the mouth of the dead person. Those who cannot pay the fee, or those whose bodies are left unburied, have to wander the shores for one hundred years.

Alfred Bates, ed., The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization (London, 1903), I, 192–194, on Medea:

The Medea tells the story of the jealousy and revenge of a woman betrayed by her husband. She has left home and father for Jason’s sake, and he, after she has borne him children, forsakes her, and betroths himself to Glauce, the daughter of Creon, ruler of Corinth. . . . Jason arrives and reproaches Medea with having provoked her sentence by her own violent temper. . . . In reply she reminds her husband of what she had once done for him; how for him she had betrayed her father and her people. . . . “I have brought you from a barbarous land to Greece [says Jason], and in Greece you are esteemed for your wisdom. . . . [I]t is not for love that I have promised to marry the princess, but to win wealth and power for myself and my sons.” . . . She leads her two children to the house, and that no other may slay them in revenge, murders them herself.

Bialosky on Medea:

Medea tells the story of the jealousy and revenge of Medea after she is betrayed by her husband, Jason. . . . Medea leaves her home and her father for Jason. After she has borne him children, Jason betrays her and betroths himself to Glauce, the daughter of Creon, ruler of Corinth. . . . Jason arrives and blames Medea for having provoked her exile through her own rage. In reply she reminds Jason of what she has done for him: how she betrayed her father and her people for him. . . . Jason replies that it is he who saved her, having brought her to Greece where she is esteemed for her wisdom. He tells her it was not for love that he promised to marry the princess, but to win wealth and power for himself and their sons. . . . Medea fears retaliation on her sons and, so that no others may slay them, she murders them herself.

Several websites on Zeus (these repeat the same information almost word for word, sometimes with the same typos—and all may derive from some unknown print source):

Zeus was the sixth child born to Cronus and Rhea. . . . But, unlike many gods in other religions he was neither omnipotent nor omniscient. He could be, and in fact was, opposed, deceived and tricked by gods and men alike. His power, although great, was not boundless[.] Zeus had no control over The Fates and Destiny. Like all Greek divinities, Zeus was subject to pleasure, pain, grief, and anger, but he was most susceptible to the power of Eros—love, which often got the objects of his desire in a lot of trouble with his wife, Hera.

Bialosky on Zeus:

Zeus was the sixth child born to Cronus and Rhea. But, unlike many gods in other religions, Zeus was neither omnipotent nor omniscient. He was often tricked, deceived, and threatened by gods and men alike. . . . His power, although great, was not unlimited. Zeus had no control over the Fates or Destiny. Like all Greek divinities, Zeus was not inured to pleasure, pain, grief, and anger, but he was most vulnerable to the power of Eros, love, which often got his lovers into terrible entanglements with his wife, Hera.

The citation she gives for the passages on Medea and Zeus, Edith Hamilton’s old warhorse, Mythology (1942), is either a wholesale error or knowing misdirection. Bialosky cannot herself be the source of the websites on Zeus, because they go on at greater length in the same style.

Wikipedia on Mrs. Dalloway [Wikipedia version of January 6, 2011]:

Septimus Warren Smith, a veteran of World War I suffering from deferred traumatic stress. . . . is visited by frequent . . . hallucinations. . . . Later . . . he commits suicide by jumping out of a window.

Bialosky on Mrs. Dalloway:

Septimus Smith, a veteran of World War I, suffers from recurring hallucinations and eventually commits suicide by jumping out of a window.

Even where she cites a source, in at least one instance Bialosky borrows liberally without putting her thefts in quotation marks.

Stanton Peele on Romeo (“Romeo and Juliet’s Death Trip: Addictive Love and Teen Suicide,” psychologytoday.com, November 1, 2008):

[T]wo unformed-maladjusted youths meet at vulnerable points in their lives. . . .  [D]isconsolate over his lost paramour, Rosaline. . . . Romeo . . . expects to “expire the term of a despised life.” . . . Juliet is a 13-year-old virgin . . . who has just been told that she is to marry an older man she is to meet . . . at the party. Instead, she and Romeo . . . kiss passionately. Juliet doesn’t yet know if Romeo is married, and if he is, “My grave is like to be my wedding bed.”

Bialosky on Romeo and Juliet:

Two young people meet when they are both in maladjusted and vulnerable states. . . . [M]ourning the loss of his previous lover, Rosaline. . . . [Romeo] hopes to “expire the term of a despised life.” . . . [T]hirteen-year-old Juliet has been told that she is to marry an older man she will meet at the party. . . . [S]he meets Romeo and they kiss passionately. Not knowing if Romeo is married, she says if he is, “my grave is like to be my wedding bed.”

Though Bialosky credits Peele in her notes, she uses his prose willy-nilly, just touching it up here and there. The reader has no idea what’s Peele and what’s Bialosky’s. The additional passages below were found by the poet Ira Lightman, whose discoveries provoked my further investigation.

David Lester, “Understanding Suicide Through Studies of Diaries: The Case of Cesare Pavese,” Archives of Suicide Research 10, no. 3 (2006) [abstract]:

The diary left by Cesare Pavese covering the 15 years prior to his suicide is examined. . . . [M]ention of failure with women was immediately followed in his diary by denigration of his literary work. Other features of his life, such as the loss of his father when he was six, are also discussed.

Bialosky on the diaries:

Pavese’s diaries examine fifteen years of the Italian poet’s life prior to his suicide and document his failure with women, the denigration of his literary works, and the loss of his father when he was six.

New Columbia Encyclopedia (Columbia University Press, 1975) on tragedy:

Tragedy, form of drama . . . in which a person of superior intelligence and character . . . is overcome by the very obstacles he is struggling to remove. . . . Aristotle points out its ritual function: The spectators . . . are purged of their own emotions of pity and fear through their vicarious participation in the drama.

Bialosky on tragedy:

[T]ragedy is defined as a form of drama in which a person of superior intelligence . . . and character is overcome by the very struggles he is trying to remove. . . . Aristotle pointed out tragedy’s ritual function: the spectators are purged of their own emotions of pity and fear through their vicarious participation in the drama.

The plagiarism is not limited to Bialosky’s memoirs. Lightman discovered a further theft in her essay “The Unreasoning Mask: The Shared Interior Architecture of Poetry and Memoir,” published in Kenyon Review’s online journal.

Richard Gilbert, review of Sven Birkerts, The Art of Time in Memoir (posted online July 26, 2010):

[A] memoir is of course made of memory shaped and dramatized. . . . The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts posits that memoir is defined and distinguished by its dual perspective: the writer now looking back, trying to understand a past version of herself or himself. The glory of the genre, Birkerts says, is in the writer’s search for patterns and connections; in using the “vantage point of the present to gain access to what might be called the hidden narrative of the past.”

Bialosky on Birkerts (“The Unreasoning Mask: The Shared Interior Architecture of Poetry and Memoir,” KROnline [Spring 2013]):

Sven Birkerts in his book The Art of Time in Memoir writes, “memoir is of course made of memory shaped and dramatized.” He posits that memoir is defined and distinguished by its dual perspective: the writer now looking back, trying to understand a past version of herself or himself. The glory of the genre, Birkerts says, is in the writer’s search for patterns and connections; in using the “vantage point of the present to gain access to what might be called the hidden narrative of the past.”

Bialosky has muddled Birkerts’ ideas with those of the critic from whom she stole: Gilbert, not Birkerts, wrote that “memoir is of course made of memory shaped and dramatized.” She has copied even Gilbert’s italicized “now” and his erroneous semicolon. Rather than labouring to put research into her own words or to cite her sources honestly, Bialosky has habitually drawn nearly verbatim from the very places students are warned against: websites, encyclopedias, and even the work of writers not anonymous. It will be difficult for anyone to pretend that her trivial and occasionally clumsy rewriting is inadvertent duplication, rather than conscious theft.

Cases of plagiarism do not depend on an author copying everything in sight. The disturbing thing about Bialosky’s memoirs, largely composed of personal anecdotes, is how often she plagiarizes the little that is not. Though in rare cases critics are obliged to write about this sad and sorry business, no one can do so without feeling tainted or without sympathy for a writer who has violated the cardinal rule of the trade. As an editor for a major New York publisher, Bialosky knows how serious this transgression is. History of a Suicide formed the template for the literary piracy in her later essay and memoir. Her defense of the wholesale copying in Poetry Will Save Your Life as “inadvertent” can no longer be sustained.

When The Walrus approached Bialosky with these latest discoveries, she declined to provide comment.

William Logan is an American poet and critic. His most recent book of poetry is Rift of Light (Penguin).

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