By Any Other Name
Plagiarism of a romance novel is still plagiarism.
When The Hustle’s John Havel plagiarised Australian romance author Anna Cleary, he differed from other plagiarists. For starters, he announced his intentions on a public forum, in an article designed to expose perceived flaws with Amazon’s Kindle Digital Publishing service. In his own words:
I set out to answer the question everyone was thinking: Is becoming a best-selling author really that easy?
So, because this was too good to pass up, I decided to see if I could go from having no idea to creating a #1 ranking Kindle book in one week, using (most of) the instructions outlined in the previous post.
And not just any type of book, but a full blown Fabio-on-the-cover romance novel.
On the surface, his goal sounds noble enough, if a tad misogynistic. And look, he says, I won’t be completely reprehensible. Any money we make we’ll donate to charity!
My goal was simple: follow the method outlined in our last post and publish a best-selling book on Amazon — meaning it’s the #1 most popular book in its category — in only 7 days. The only rule was any profits had to be donated to charity because, as you’ll see, we were pretty much ripping people off.
That charitable disclaimer, used to mitigate the otherwise sad truth that the entire post consisted of lying to people and ripping them off, no “pretty much” about it, rings a little false now that more has come out:
Rather than attempting to “game the system” with material of its own devising, Havel and The Hustle ripped off an entire book from an author who was unaware of their experiment.
Blogger and romance critic Kat at BookThingo has done an excellent job outlining the many problems with this in her response to Havel’s piece. She reached out to Anna Cleary, the author Havel plagiarised, and confirmed that Cleary had no involvement in the article whatsoever. She also detailed more about Untamed Billionaire, Undressed Virgin, the book that Havel ripped off.
I suggest anyone reading this take a moment to familiarise themselves with Kat’s piece. It’s a succinct rebuttal to an act of inexcusable, bald-faced plagiarism. The Hustle has edited their original article, disabled comments, and expressed some mild apology via Twitter, but as of now they haven’t formally apologised to Cleary. How could a publication that brands itself as “AMBITIOUS, ENTREPRENEURIAL, ARTISTIC, CLEVER, INTELLIGENT” on its own home page decide that copying another author’s book to prove a point that other people were ‘scammy’ didn’t reek of irony and bad taste?
There are hints scattered throughout Havel’s piece as to why:
Why a romance novel, you ask? Three reasons. First, romance is one of the most popular Kindle categories, so I knew the market size was big. Second, our insider told us it’s an easy category to game. Third, and most important, I thought it was funny.
It’s no great revelation that the subject matter of romance novels is considered hilarious by many. Those who enjoy them as a guilty pleasure or blog about them are counted among that number. There are whole blogs out there dedicated to showing off noteworthy romance titles, from the trashy to the thought-provoking to the side-splittingly hilarious.
But other things Havel touches on show that his view of romance novels and the women who write them goes beyond “funny.” There are times when he treats romance readers — as Kat at BookThingo aptly put it — with “disdain, bordering on contempt.”
To hit one more popular romance theme, I changed all the characters’ names and made the male protagonist black for a little jungle fever action. As soon as Connor O’Brien became Carter Voss we were in business. I was ready to move on to the title and cover image.
Jungle fever you say? I am unqualified to unpack the racism in that term to the full extent it’s due. Writers of colour have done the subject justice time and again. While it’s true that many romance novels feature interracial romances, there is a difference between an interracial romance and the term “jungle fever,” which plays up outdated, fetishized notions about women’s sexuality that remove the agency of both the women and the black men in question.
Havel goes out of his way to state that this was a tip from his “insider,” but the fact that it’s treated as gospel and left without comment is an implied judgement passed on the women who read these books. Pop culture’s encouragement of fetishism toward black men by white women is a legit problem that’s played up for haw haws.
Havel goes on to plagiarise author biographies, speculate about “middle-aged” women, the list goes on.
His article wanders past some perfectly valid points, but when we arrive at the conclusion, we instead get some moralising and a big final laugh at the expense of people who read those silly Fabio books:
Essentially, we pay authors to do research on a topic and write about their findings and there’s always the chance they’re wrong or wacko. Whose responsibility is it to enforce fact-finding and overall legitimacy? If someone wants to buy and believe these books, let them! Plus, don’t you remember seeing cheesy paperbacks with Fabio on the cover at the grocery store check out? How’s this different?
How is this different? Well, for one, the authors of those cheesy Fabio paperbacks wrote their own books for their own readers. I am loathe to drop the “what if,” but could you see a writer like Havel plagiarising an entire Richard Laymon book and then justifying it in the final paragraph by stating Stephen King and others like him have already written so many other cheesy interchangeable horror books, how is this any different?
The end result is that Havel plagiarised a book written by a woman for women, lied about it being public domain, and then asked “how is what I did any different from what other female writers have put into writing legitimate romance books?”
Look, John. And anyone else reading this who isn’t a fan of romance novels. You don’t have to like them. You don’t have to read them. But brushing aside an entire genre of books and their primarily female audience in the coda of an Amazon take-down piece is a refrain that women will find familiar. You don’t have to read Anna Cleary’s work, but the fact that she writes romance doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be afforded the same courtesy as a male author in a male-dominated genre.
Women who read and write romance have been belittled, pushed aside, chastised, prayed for, and condemned as long as the genre has existed. Maya Rodale covered the subject in her superb Dangerous Books For Girls:
Long before Fabio’s covers, romance novels had a bad reputation for poisoning the minds of young women, inflaming their passions and deluding them as to what she could reasonably expect from life. A conduct book from the eighteenth century warns against reading novels “which raise expectations of extraordinary adventures and cause readers to admire extravagant passions, and lead to unacceptable conduct.”
Give a girl a book, particularly one with an adventurous heroine, true love and a happy ending, and she’ll get Dangerous Ideas.
But dangerous to whom?
When the novel came into being in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries women seized on the form to write stories for other female readers. These novels by ladies, for ladies, about ladies conveyed messages that contradict many of western societies expectations of women. They were supposed to be seen but not heard, obedient to their husbands, wives and mothers but still sexless and pure. But a romance novel declares a woman by herself is interesting, valuable and deserving of love and respect. They encourage adventure and exploration. Later, the “bodice rippers” of the 1970’s would show that women had sexual desires and were capable of sexual pleasure and that it was okay. All romance novels invariably ended happily, suggesting to reader that perhaps she might try this at home.
She even touched on Fabio! In fact, this excerpt is expanded upon in the essay What we talk about when we talk about Fabio, which should be required reading for anyone stepping up to the plate to pooh-pooh romance as a genre.
The message pieces like Havel’s send to women writers, from those just starting out to established names like Cleary, is that their work can be manipulated and plagiarised by men for the sake of gendered mockery and making a point.
A lengthy explanation of why romance books aren’t the irredeemable trash pile they’re made out to be would make this far too long. Instead, I turn to one final excerpt from Dangerous Books for Girls, which is available funnily enough on Amazon’s Kindle store.
Romances tackle divisive issues like class, love, women’s sexuality and pleasure, rape, virginity, money, feminism, masculinity and equality — and ultimately how they’re all tangled up with each other. These books promote a woman’s right to make choices about her own life (and body). They take longstanding notions of masculinity and turn them around. They promote a different image of what it means to be a happy, desirable woman — one that doesn’t rely on the right shade of lipstick, but internal qualities instead. These books celebrate women who get out of the house and do all the things that, traditionally, young ladies and good girls don’t do.
Rather than suggesting a woman needs a man, or that the sexes are at war, romance novels demonstrate again and again that true happiness happens when two people find and prioritize love.
Most scandalous of all, these are books by women, for women, about women in a culture that doesn’t place much value on women.
There are plenty of romance authors who have a bone to pick with Amazon for various reasons. If Havel was so dedicated to the cause of rooting out those who’d “game the system” without getting side laughs at women, why not ask his insider to find him a partner in crime? Why not seek out a romance author himself? Some of Havel’s questionable ethics would have transferred to that author, of course, since they would still be plagiarising themselves, but at least they’d be in on the joke. They’d be a willing participant.
Instead, Havel operated under the assumption that romance was fair game for plagiarism, because those silly books for girls are all the same.
I’ve worked as an editor and cover designer in the romance genre before, and you know what? Romance authors work hard. They plot, they outline, they write hundreds of thousands of words, they market tirelessly, they engage with fans and critics via social media and blogs. That is to say: romance writers do all the same writer shit that every other writer does. They are due the same basic respect as other writers.
Boiled down, Havel says in his own piece that his wordcount goal was
“20,000 words (insider’s suggestion) and my brain doesn’t work anywhere near that level.”
Whether you love it or hate the subject matter, at least Anna Cleary had it in her to write a 192-page novel. But Havel wouldn’t even give her credit for that.