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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

The Sham of Life: "A Plagiarist's Tale"

Blanc de blanc is the best kind of writer’s hangout. And like I told my friend, Wendy, it’s best for writers like us who write in the margins of our lives which are otherwise busy with children. Blanc de blanc is half café, half laundromat, situated on a corner just a block and a half from our house here in Montreal. I haven’t brought my laundry with me yet: those machines are more metaphor, reminding me that writers aren’t the cool breed we think we are. We have dirty socks, too. Actually, I am under no illusion of coolness. I drive a minivan, and spider veins canvas the back of my calves. My sunglasses straddle my head, revealing grey at the temples. I have the body and face of an almost forty-something (read: wrinkles and sags). And aging, as we know, precludes coolness.

And maybe it’s not coolness any of us is after. That’s the sham game of appearances; what any of us really wants is to matter. And I have a startling example of this in an article from The New Yorker given me months ago by a friend. “The Plagiarist’s Tale,” by Lizzie Widdicombe recounts how Quentin Rowan, author of a debut novel entitled, Assassin of Secrets, was discovered to be a complete fake¾phony, in the words of Holden Caulfield. Rowan, writing under the pen name, Q.R. Markham, used multiple sources to construct his spy novel (this wasn’t writing, this was piecing): in the first thirty-five pages alone, thirty-four instances of plagiarism were found.

The novel met with wild acclaim by critics before its publication. But five days after the book’s publication, when bloggers discovered and exposed Rowan’s literary treason, the book was recalled and a press release issued: “It is with deep regret that we have published a book that we can no longer stand behind.”

Widdicombe catches up with Rowan in his literary exile in Seattle (although it’s an exile soon to be ended when his memoir, Never Say Goodbye, is released in September).  And she asks what we all want to know: why did you do it?

It seems that plagiarism was his only real tour de force in his fifteen years of writing. The only original piece he published was a poem he wrote at sixteen. And by a stroke of unimaginable luck, the poem was picked up by Adrienne Rich for the 1996 edition of “Best American Poetry.” And that success led to a college internship at The Paris Review, where he submitted a piece (this time plagiarized), which was fatefully chosen for publication. From there, editors would read Rowan’s resumé-The Paris Review, “Best American Poetry”-and conclude it “screamed legitimacy.”

One chance success, followed by years of living into the legitimacy people expected of him. “Up until that time I was an indifferent writer, a dabbler really, at the best of times. I was in college and like everyone trying to figure out what I wanted to do with myself. (Mostly I just wanted to play Rock music.) I took this anthology business as a sign that I was meant to be a famous writer. However, unlike any normal person who works at something a long time and eventually gets good, I decided I had to be good then and there. Because I was already supposed to be the best.”

And quoted from a passage that Rowan plagiarized for his novel is the truth that haunts anyone who spends his life pretending: “All spies are liars, it is their métier, and like ordinary liars they live in panic, knowing that the truth about themselves may be discovered at any moment¾or worse, is already known by people who are too disgusted, or too clever, to confront them with it. A spy under questioning by the enemy is in a state surpassing dread because he knows that he must sooner or later tell the truth.”

And Rowan’s story is not unlike any of our own. We’re pressured by the expectations laid heavy upon us. There’s an appetite for being clever, spectacular. It often leads to pretending and to wearing shoes that just don’t fit. I feel the wolves of hunger howling when I set to work here, at the keyboard. Are you, reader, going to like what I have to say? Is it going to be good enough? Will I have met the phantom expectations, proved my own credibility?

And why does that have to matter so much to to me or to any of us?

Because we do matter. To the Someone who names stars and counts hairs. His mindfulness towards bedraggled humanity puzzles us. Dare we believe that He can care so much about the microscopic ants who’ve colonized this small planet in the most obscure of all galaxies?

And He does, the bending God who stoops low to live among the least, to touch the leper, to dignify the whore. And with Him, there can be no pretending. He, as Hagar has called Him, is the God of seeing. He sees muck, grime, the complicated motives of our waking and work. He sees frantic reaching, muscled games of the self, where we are always proving to someone (if only to ourselves) that it’s not the sham that in truth, it is.

The washer spins, and I’m still at work here, drinking iced coffee under the corrugated plastic roof of this patio. I am neither spectacular, nor clever. And I don’t have to be. I am loved.

Fully, finally, by a God who sees and does not turn away.