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Academia and teaching Culture

Plagiarism #3

Having spent the past few hours re-reading all the correspondence generated by Watson’s article, and the article itself, I still found myself mostly underwhelmed and unconvinced by Watson’s bile (except for the Hughes connections, which Krog hasn’t explained satisfactorily). Cogent argumentation, rather than rhetoric, should win arguments. So let’s look at the argument…

I’m referencing the article as it appeared in New Contrast, and highlighting only those sections that contain allegations of plagiarism. As anyone who has read the piece knows, it also has plenty to say regarding what a crap poet Krog is (6 of 14 pages, in fact), but that’s not relevant here. I’m not claiming this to be an exhaustive analysis, but I don’t think I’ve left out any key charges against Krog – let me know if I have.

  1. The books of both writers contain verse adaptations of “some three-dozen” extracts from the Bleek and Lloyd collection, as well as introductions explaining cultural references. Roughly a third of Watson’s selection appears in Krog’s book. (Pages 48 and 49).

The most apppropriate response to this is surely “so what?”. Even though (according to Watson) there are 13 000 pages of narratives from which to select, it’s plausibly the case that only some of it would be attractive to both Watson and Krog. That subset consists of only a third of Watson’s selection – Krog seems to have, in the main, used different material to Watson.

  1. Nowhere in Krog’s book does she acknowledge that “she has lifted the entire conception of her book” from Watson (page 49).

As many authors have pointed out (see the links in post titled “Plagiarism”), there is a tradition of drawing on the Bleek and Lloyd collections in South African letters. Nowhere in Watson’s book does he acknowledge his predecessors in this sort of enterprise, and it’s only by absolving himself of possible guilt in this regard that his accusations against Krog can become viable. Secondly, while she credits the original authors, Watson never does, which seems to be a striking departure from Watson’s “conception”…

  1. Krog allegedly repeats errors made by Watson, thus proving that she lifted these errors directly from his text (page 49).

Eve Gray:  “The ‘five-thousand year culture and way of life’ is a commonplace, going back to Theal in the early part of the century; In referring to this five-thousand year way of life, Krog’s wording is quite different to Watson’s.”

  1. “to find endings for pieces which either did not end or ended in a way…” (Watson) vs. “narratives have no usable beginning or end…” (Krog).

(The quotes above are incomplete). The evidence Watson presents here seems little more than desperate. The sentiments expressed by these two quotes are commonplace, and I must have come across them dozens of times in interviews and biographies of writers. The possibility that Watson believes his formulations to be privileged does not make it so.

  • 6 pages of ad hominem attacks on Krog follow –

  • 2 pages of more general reflections on intellectual property follow –

  1. Then, the real issue, at least as far as I’m concerned: the similarities between a Ted Hughes essay and Krog’s “Country of my skull” (pages 59-60).

These are strikingly similar, even though Watson has presented the similarity dishonestly (as Eve Gray points out, the Hughes’ extract is spread over 2-3 pages in the original). Krog claims she has never read the Hughes piece. Yet what she writes is, I feel, very reliant on the Hughes essay. It may be true that Krog has never read it, but I am skeptical. It’s possible, for example, that Krog heard or read someone else quoting Hughes, and certain phrases stuck in her mind. Normally I’d not want to give her the benefit of the doubt, but Watson has been so uncharitable in the rest of his essay that I’m tempted to believe Krog. But that would not be fair to the evidence, which does suggest that Krog plagiarised from Hughes.

But we should not make the error of allowing the Hughes issue to distract from the worth of Watson’s central claims. An essay dealing with Krog’s plagiarism of Hughes may generate a very different set of responses, given that it could be written with a backbone of solid evidence rather than character assassination and similarities that begin and end with the commonplace, or borrowings that Watson is as guilty of as Krog.

Watson closes his essay by saying that Krog’s latest book is a “blatant act of appropriation and a no less obvious case of personal opportunism. It dishonours a legacy, that of the Bushman cultures, which should be honoured above all”. To conclude this post, I’d argue that this quote reveals a degree of irrationality on Watson’s part. If one wants to make accusations as strong as Watson’s, one should make sure that your revolver is pointed away from your feet, and that your petard is safely packed away in a cupboard, etc.

The “appropriation” involved in Watson’s book (not mentioning the previous Bleek and Lloyd adaptations/translations, which may well have given him the idea for his book) seems worthy of the same attention as he directs at Krog. The “opportunism” of Watson’s (poorly substantiated, except insofar as Hughes is concerned) attack on Krog is at least as notable as any opportunism on Krog’s part. Finally, given that Watson never highlights the names of the Bushman poets as prominently as Krog does, the dishonouring of their legacy appears to be a concern he doesn’t take quite as seriously as he would like us to believe.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

25 replies on “Plagiarism #3”

Cynic: If I confess when I’m being un-objective, and also say “I don’t like her or her books”, then objectivity and literary criticism seem the last things I’m aiming for! This issue is polarising opinion, and before I am assumed to be on side x or y, I wanted to be clear on my dislike of y, regardless of my dislike of x’s arguments.

I’m puzzled You say ” while she credits the original authors, Watson never does…” In my reading Watson identifies the original narrator of each poem on page 74 of his book and writes in detail about them in his introduction (see page 8 in particular (“All my version in this book are based on their testimony.”) Are we talking about the same book?

My mistake, and an embarrassing one to make in a post that attempts to be cogent. I meant to refer to the covers of the books, and to the “translation” vs. “adaptation” issue that’s discussed in Krog’s response (I think) on Litnet. The point was more that Krog seems to make more of an effort to minimise her role than Watson does.

Some mildly interesting information concerning the whole affair:

1. The magazine which published Watson’s accusations was published by the same firm which published his book Return of the Moon (Carrefour Press).
2. The editor of that magazine (Tom Eaton), who has no substantial academic qualifications, is a former creative writing student at the University of Cape Town, where Watson runs the creative writing programme (formerly, along with J M Coetzee).
3. The newspaper which has been making most of the fuss about the controversy, the Mail and Guardian, employs Tom Eaton as sportswriter and freelance humourist.
4. The Mail and Guardian has been running articles on the affair, written by Colin Bower, who is most famous for writing a scurrilous article accusing J M Coetzee of being a “literary fraud and poseur” on somewhat flimsy evidence (not that I much like Coetzee, I must add).
5. Bower first claimed that the members of the University of Cape Town English Department wouldn’t talk to him, then claimed that clandestine e-mails circulating at that English Department were condemning Krog (how did he know, if they wouldn’t talk to him?).
6. The Mail and Guardian convened a panel to discuss the affair in their arts section. The panel consisted of Eaton, a conservative Cape Town editor who condemned Krog’s editors for defending her when she was attacked, and the Mail and Guardian’s movie editor. No supporters of Krog were invited.

Am I paranoid, or is there a peculiar pattern emerging up there?

Tom Eaton writes a weekly column for the Mail & Guardian, in which he appears to be a Robert Kirby wannabe.

An admission of an error is pointless surely unless it is corrected! I notice you have left the incorrect statement as it stands in the text. People who do not read the responses will therefore be led to believe falsely that Watson does not credit his sources. Also I am puzzled that you think it important for an author to minimize their role. I would have thought it important for an author to state their role – whatever it is – precisely and accurately. Why minimize it?

Precision: “Also I am puzzled that you think it important for an author to minimize their role. I would have thought it important for an author to state their role – whatever it is – precisely and accurately. Why minimize it?”

I imagine that in the case of Bleek and Lloyd’s translations/transcriptions of the Bushman stories, neither Watson nor Krog are the author’s proper; thus it is a valid point of comparison – in this particular case – to note how Krog downplays her role in contrast to Watson. The point becomes more important in the context of Watson’s accusations regarding this material: he has made claims about, implicitly, the originality of his work. But there is a long tradition of poets, now including Krog, using the Bleek records and marking their debt to Bleek et al. and to the original storytellers. Some do so less conspicuously (Watson); others more so (Krog). In some important senses both Watson and Krog are compilers or editors of this material; one has, in fact, downplayed his role in this regard (Watson) in favour of raising his writer’s profile, while the other (Krog) has downplayed her writer’s role in favour of her editing/compiling role. The fact remains that Watson’s compiling, rewriting, poeticising material from the Bleek records is not in itself an original concept (Eugene Marais and Jack Cope’s respective uses of the records come to mind) and in this sense it is indeed ironic that he credits the originals in a less conspicuous way than the person he is accusing of copying his own work.

There are other ironies involved (see Rosalind Morris’s piece: http://www.litnet.co.za/seminarroom/krog_morris.asp), particularly around notions of cultural patrimony, which become absurd and laughable in the context of claims and accusations based around ideas of originality.

Precision: the error is corrected in my comments. You want me to edit the post, but that would constitute erasing an utterance that I am accountable for, and would also render your response, and my response to your response, redundant. I’m assuming that readers can read the post in a context which includes revisions, as expressed in the comments – we may disagree on this as a stylistic device, but it would not be true or fair to claim that the error has not been corrected. On your other point, I never claim that it’s important for an author to minimise their role. Instead, I’m agreeing with your point that it’s important for an author to state their role – and pointing out that Watson makes less of an effort to do so than Krog does (role, of course, being read as inaction rather than action in this case).

What wording on the cover of Return of the Moon would in your opinion properly and accurately describe Watson’s role?

The simple point I’m making is that Krog’s cover gives the Bushman authors near-equal prominence as Krog herself enjoys, and Return of the Moon only has Watson’s name on the cover. I have little to say about Watson’s cover in isolation from this point, which is about the two books/approaches in comparison.

And the point I am making is that Krog does not, as far as i can tell, minimise her role on the cover as you claim. She states it in the proper manner and credits the authors of the work. There is a difference, believe it or not.

Of course there’s a difference, but I have no idea why you are telling me that, given that (to repeat myself) I never claimed that Krog was minimising her role. I claim that she gives credit to other people’s roles alongside hers, and Watson does so less than she does.

Regarding MFB’s (only very) mildly interesting list posted on the 6th:
1. New Contrast is not published by Carrefour Press. It is published by a body called ‘The South African Literary Journal’, which publishes nothing else.
2. Tom Eaton has a Masters in Creative Writing, awarded with distinction by JM Coetzee. I know because I was in his class, and if you’re calling his qualification unsubstantial, then you’re also insulting me. Watson runs the English section of the degree, while Etienne van Heerden and Joan Hambidge – both ardently pro-Krog – run the Afrikaans section.
3. It was the Sunday Times, not the Mail&Guardian, who broke the story and pushed it into the public eye.
4. By ‘has been running articles’, I assume you mean, ‘published three articles a fortnight ago, only one of which was openly critical of Krog’.
5. The English department wouldn’t speak to him: the e-mail circulating was from a former Professor in the History department. A friend of Bower told me that he contacted the historian directly.
6. I see nothing wrong with a panel comprising the person who published the offending piece, a critical “outsider”, and one of the better book reviewers in the media, who tells me he that he fiends movie people a relief after dealing with literary lights. I know for a fact that one leading Afrikaans academic was invited to defend Krog, but he declined. If you’re looking for Krog support, try Litnet: not one critical article appears there. Responses are invited, but not posted: my own letter, suggesting that they try to be more objective, has disappeared without a ripple.

The only pattern emerging here is one that indicates Eaton was right. Krog is a holy cow in our particularly desperate pasture.

# SlackCollective Says:
March 6th, 2006 at 10:26 am
” …Krog seems to make more of an effort to minimise her role than Watson does…”

The context of our respective comments indicate that we are speaking past each other on what “minimising of roles” means. I did use those words, but when confronted with them in your comments I didn’t recognise them, as they were being used in a way I didn’t recognise as corresponding to any point of view I hold. Apologies for not spotting this contributor to the confusion earlier. She gives credit to many people, which (in a relative sense) means minimising her own role. You may prefer the point to be made in an active formulation, as in “She states it in the proper manner and credits the authors of the work”. The facts aren’t in dispute, but I read those facts as a downplaying of her role, and you may not. I could have said “Krog makes more of an effort to acknowledge that she is drawing on the work of others”, and this correspondence would not have ensued.

I don’t want to belabour the point but your amnesia about the use of the word suggests to me that it is worth persuing a little further. I doubt very much that you would call on an selector/editor of western poets to minimise or downplay their role on the cover – or even to compare them using this criterion. It would surely be regarded as patronising. The standard protocol appears to be that the name of the selector/translator/editor is printed smaller than the poet’s or it may even be entirely absent from the cover. This is the case in every book on my shelf apart from Krog’s book. If we are speaking past each other it is because I am more interested in the way each selector/translator/editor deals with indigenous voices than in comparing them to each other.

Some points not raised:
* the /Xam testimonies were/are not ‘poetry’ as we understand the term;
* none of them, or their descendants, are around to collect the money, repute, critical acclaim etc that the poetic publications generate – so what does it matter if they are accredited – the poet and publisher will pick up the spoils;
* archaeologists (Lewis-Williams, Deacon, even Pippa Skotnes) have been careful not to appropriate cash along with their apropriation of the materials – unlike Krog or Watson – profits go to Rock-art foundation, Bushman centre etc;
* the Hughes estate is still around. Has there been any comment from them?

Could anyone inform me which, if any, of these cruticisms of Watson’s work (apart from that of Anne Gagiano) have been published during the 15 years prior to his review of Krog?

Prtecision: My point is that since Krog describes them as poets, she must treat them as poets which generally means to ensure that one’s name is significantly smaller than theirs on the cover and extreme caution not to impose oneself onto the original. And I agree, citing freedom from copyright at a colonised people while one uses their material is crass .

In his introduction to SLOW LEARNER Pynchon writes:

Fascinating topic, literary theft. As in the penal code,
there are degrees. These range from plagiarism down to
only being derivative, but all are forms of wrong procedure.

If, on the other hand, you believe that nothing is
original and that all writers “borrow” from “sources,”
there still remains the question of credit lines or acknowledgements.
It wasn’t till “Under the Rose” (1959) that
I could bring myself, even indirectly, to credit guidebook
eponym Karl Baedeker, whose guide to Egypt for 1899
was the major “source” for the story.

Could I, even as I laid down cash for it at the cash register,
have been subconsciously planning to loot this faded red
volume for the contents of a story?
Could Willy Sutton rob a safe? Loot the Baedeker I
did, all the details of a time and place I had never been
to, right down to the names of the diplomatic corps.
Who’d make up a name like Khevenhüller-Metsch? Lest
others become as enchanted as I was and have continued
to be with this technique, let me point out that it is a
lousy way to go about writing a story.

MFB said on March 6 that the Mail & Guardian is the paper making the most fuss of the Krog plagiarism business. “Janus” has responded, but I’d like to point out that our coverage has been an attempt to discuss the issue in depth, and is in part a response to the Sunday Times’s rather sensationalist and superficial coverage. Also, he/she/it refers to me as the M&G’s “movie editor”, which I am (though perhaps “film critic” is more accurate), but I was also its literary editor for 15 years.

My answer to MFB ‘s last question is yes (paranoid) but when Shaun de Waal claims that Watson unlike Krog does not clearly credit the original Bushmen storytellers and in the pages of his book gives no information on them., one is forced to wonder about the ‘in depth’ coverage – or are the critics now plagiuarising each other and unfortunately someone forgot to read the book?

I have read with interest and sympathy Ingrid de Kok’s article in the Mail & Guardian (In Antjie Krog’s Corner, Mail & Guardian 17 March) and agree with almost every sentence she sets down. But where I disagree is in her assertion, following others, that the evidence of unacknowledged lifting from Hughes hinges on the phrase: “unit of the imagination”. Consider the following:

“It reconciles the contradictions of these two worlds in a workable fashion and holds the way open between them.”
Krog

“it reconciles their contradictions in a workable fashion and holds the way open between them”
Hughes

Krog said that the suggestion of plagiarism was absurd. She had not seen or read Hughes’s piece before writing Country of My Skull, she said.

I am concerned that Krog’s strategy may in the face of the purported evidence may not be the best one.

IT’S A TURF WAR, AFTER ALL

Trying to reconcile the two articles on Krog in the M&G this week, I was forced to the following conclusion: The issue of plagiarism is a red herring – it looks like a turf war, and English-language SA poets are fighting to keep Krog from fishing in their pond.

As de Kok suggests, there is a “perhaps-understandable […] battle for scarce resources” – “a lamentable attitude” that will lead to an “impoverishment of the culture.”

If we are to understand the issue in terms of the “turf war” metaphor, then let’s start by looking at the stakes – what IN FACT are they fighting over? Never mind issues of poetics or literary borrowing – these are the hand-guns and zip-knives of the war – the real, material stakes are:
* publication;
* money;
* repute (fame);
* literary prizes and awards;
* invitations to address local and overseas conferences and symposia;
* residencies in universities, or soft-job honorary professorships;
* the respect that the above generate;
and, finally (and perhaps not least important)
* immortality.

Krog, in the world of Afrikaans poetry, has garnered her fair share, some would say more than her fair share, of all of the above. While she has certainly deserved much of it, it would be naïve to say that the scant resources available are dished out purely in terms of merit. Krog is arguably the most astute mover in the world of SA poetic politics, and the logic of the thing is the logic of fame – the more you get, the more you get. But there is a ceiling for any truly ambitious local working in Afrikaans. Like Wal-Mart or the dealer on the corner, to make it really big you have to move beyond the ‘hood. Krog’s shift into the international world, at first in prose, was met with harsh criticism from the Afrikaner establishment, who felt, it seems, that she was abandoning and betraying them. Now, with the publication of “The Stars Say Tsau” and, more recently, “Body Bereft”, she has expanded her operation into the territory of poets writing in English.

Those defending their turf (Stephen Watson, Chris Mann, Sarah Rudin, Stephen Grey) are all reputable, prize-winning poets. Wars are always lamentable, and there are always casualties. In this case it is reputation and the above list at stake, as they (perhaps unconsciously) see it. Perhaps they are fighting their own potential impoverishment, should the attractor that is Krog gain momentum in the limited world of South African poetry,

It’s a simple accusation: ‘Krog is a plagiarist’. You can discuss the wiles and bile of Watson, culture wars, editorial shenanigans and so forth ad nauseum, without contributing an answer to this charge. In fact, at the risk of getting sidetracked in the way I’m about to describe, Watson contributed to her defence by couching his accusation in just the kind of blunderbuss attack that dilutes his accusation in the same way that her selective responses and your extensive discussions have.

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