The Hunt for Blue October
I am not a plagiarist – and here’s why, by John
After Guardian Australia revealed parts of John
Hughes’ Birmingham’s latest novel, The Hunt for Blue October, had been plagiarised from Tom Clancy’s genre-defining techno-thriller, The Hunt for Red October, Birmingham said the error was unintentional. It was then revealed that other parts of The Hunt for Blue October were copied from other classic novels, including The Bourne Identity and Jurassic Park.
Here we publish
Hughes’ Birmingham’s response to these revelations:
Here is a famous sentence, the opening line to Franz Kafka’s The Trial: “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.”
And here, from Matthew Reilly’s 2007 novel Ice Station, this: “The hovercraft raced across the ice plain.”
Plagiarism? A few words changed here and there. A few added, a few taken away. Influence? The distinction is not as clear-cut as the words suggest, for both sentences are full of words, and each ends with a period. Not a question mark nor an ellipsis. And certainly not with an exclamation point, even though both sentences contain a subject, verb and predicate and begin with a capital letter, as the eagle-eyed reader will notice; an’ S’ in Kafka’s case and a’ T’ for Mister Reilly.
Some eighty-two years separate the publication of the two books, and yet Reilly chose to begin his novel with a capital letter which, while not the same letter as Franz Kafka’s, was not far removed from it in the alphabet. Indeed, Reilly’s capital’ T’ is as close to Kafka’s’ S’ as is possible to imagine unless he had chosen an ‘R’ which he most pointedly did not.
Plagiarism? Influence? Who is to say?
The recent ‘discovery’ that I had ‘appropriated’ passages from Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October (1984) in my novel The Hunt for Blue October disturbed me greatly. (There is nothing more disturbing than discovering your memory is not your own, unless it’s a call from the legal department at your soon-to-be-former publisher where they’ve suddenly found out ‘your book’ was originally ‘somebodyelse’s’.
It has made me reflect on my process as a writer. I’ve always used the words of other writers as my own because it saves a surprising amount of time. They’ve already been written and edited, after all. And frankly, everyone does it.
Mathew Reilly wants to retell the story of Ice Station Zebra but without the inconvenient (and frankly inexplicable) stripy horse content.
Some half a century after Nicholas Monsarrat penned The Cruel Sea, Tom Clancy set his novel at sea. He even set it under the sea as though to draw attention to the fact that he was writing under the influence of Monsarrat. They don’t call it SUB-text for nothing, you know.
It’s a question of degree. I’m probably closer to Clancy when it comes to the great zebra-free techno-thrillers of the twentieth century. Still, regardless of indebtedness, it’s a great simplification to call this plagiarism.
My whole writing life has been a dialogue with the books I love. I tell them what I want, and they give me entire paragraphs full of it, sometimes whole pages with just a word or two tweaked here and there.
For better or worse, I’ve lived my life in other people’s books, and honestly, it seems a bit much like hard work to start writing my own now. I’ve made no secret of this. It’s there for all to see, which was probably a mistake because they’re asking me to give back all the advances and royalties.
Every artist takes. What else do we do but endlessly recycle stories? All I have done is applied some much-needed rigour and focus to the process. I focus on the paragraph I want from someone else’s book and cut and paste it into my own.
With that said, I’ve never written a book like The Hunt for Blue October before that has taken so many different forms over so many years. My books are mostly short and written in a burst of copying and pasting. But each time I put The Hunt for Blue October aside, when it came to taking it up again, it had become in my mind something else. A hunt for Green October, Pink October, or my more recent Stripey October variation.
The original novel changed hugely, in other words. Not Clancy’s words. They mostly stayed the same. But I must have spent many, many minutes in the trusty old thesaurus looking for some new ones for my personal use.
For most of its life, The Hunt for Blue October was called Submarine because I wanted to write a book about submarines. If I thought this was plagiarism, I would have concealed it (no reasonable thief wants to be caught), but I am no thief. Thus Submarine had to become The Hunt for Blue October because who could believe I’d be that big an idiot to think I’d get away with it?
So, that’s that dealt with.
I hope none of this unpleasantness dissuades you from purchasing my subsequent novels Ice Station Llama and Cretaceous Park.