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.