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On Writing, Plagiarism, and Performance

Should there be compassion for someone who has confessed to plagiarism and suffers from mental health issues? Have you heard of other cases of plagiarism and how they were handled?

The writing life, as I say often, is not for sissies. I read this article in the Guardian today:

“An author’s online essay on why she used plagiarized material in a novel pulled earlier this year has itself been removed after editors found she had again lifted material.

Jumi Bello’s “I Plagiarized Parts of My Debut Novel. Here’s Why” appeared just briefly Monday on Lithub. Bello’s debut novel, “The Leaving,” had been scheduled to come out in July, but was canceled in February by Riverhead Books.

Earlier this morning Lit Hub published a very personal essay by Jumi Bello about her experience writing a debut novel, her struggles with severe mental illness, the self-imposed pressures a young writer can feel to publish, and her own acts of plagiarism,” the publication announced. “Because of inconsistencies in the story and, crucially, a further incident of plagiarism in the published piece, we decided to pull the essay.”

Astonishing as the whole situation is, it made me think of more nuances than appear at first glance. Yes, this is a clear-cut case of plagiarism, which is wrong. Bello’s methodology, where she copies portions of others’ work, planning to change the language later, is flawed, and bound to lead to inadvertent plagiarism at best.

It is worth noting, though, that the plagiarism of her novel was self-reported. That the author is marginalized, and has mental health issues. That other, non-marginalized, authors haven’t got the same flak for plagiarism.

The magazine is a fantastic outlet, but could they have done a plagiarism check before the article was published? Was there room for compassion for a writer who has already confessed to plagiarism, speaks of mental health issues, and had ended up also plagiarizing the account of her plagiarism? Depends on who you ask.

All I can say as an author who has written on deadline is that the pressure is immense. For marginalized writers, it multiplies. I have often told myself I have to be five times as good as the next person in order to access the same opportunities. May or may not be currently true, but that’s where my subconscious is at.

Plagiarism is never the solution, but incidents like this should open up discussions on how traditional publishing is run. About the entrenched inequities. About how not having a good advocate, or mentor, can let you down. About how a writer can flail on their own, and be forced to keep quiet in the face of injustice that can range from delayed or absent payments, all the way to lack of editorial and marketing support.

I’ve been in a position of relative privilege throughout, having not needed the money from writing (a husband able to support us both, and being child-free) in order to survive, but very few writers have that.

Absolutely, Bello’s actions of plagiarism deserve condemnation. Having had this blog scraped multiple times, I know how it feels to be at the other end of this. In fact, Bello herself started off that process of condemning herself. I would make a case for more shades of gray, more discussion of what ails the system, and for having an exchange on the current system rather a one-way flagellation of a writer who isn’t even defending herself.

What do you think of the pressures of the writing life? Should there be compassion for someone who has confessed to plagiarism and suffers from mental health issues? Have you heard of other cases of plagiarism and how they were handled?

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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

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  • DutchIl says:

    Thank you for sharing!!.. I believe understanding would go a long way, along with kindness, not everything is black and white though there are those who wish for that because it makes life simple for them…. 🙂

    Until we meet again..
    May your day be touched
    by a bit of Irish luck,
    Brightened by a song
    in your heart,
    And warmed by the smiles
    of people you love.
    (Irish Saying)

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Larry, thanks for your comment. Yes, kindness often involves going that extra mile.

  • Pam Lazos says:

    Plagiarism is wrong, obvi, but we all of us, every human being on earth, “plagiarizes” the thoughts and opinions of authors, scholars, laypersons, everyone we meet, really, in formulating our own opinions as to how we look at the world. The cliche that there is no such thing as an original idea is because — there is no such thing as an original idea! Our life’s work is build upon the life’s work of all who have come before us and sometimes it can be hard to separate the forest from the trees, as the saying go. See, I just used an old adage. Did I plagiarize? In some way, yes. I don’t condone plagiarism, but I do think we’re all way too hard on ourselves and each other — unless you are a member of the U.S. Congress and then you should probably start doing your job or go get another one. Have a good day, Damyanti. ;0)

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      “we’re all way too hard on ourselves and each other.” So true, Pam.

  • Jemima Pett says:

    Not knowing that anyone has plagiarised my work or not, leaves me in an odd position. What if someone, somewhere, is earning loads of money from rewriting Princelings clearly as human beings, or Viridian as a Western?

    But I think you hit the point, Damyanti. This is one person who has come out in the open, badly, as she seems addicted to copy/edit rather than type it from her thoughts.

    What about the systematic plagiarism of online sites and those who pirate whole works? That’s who all the anger should be aimed at, not one misguided person (who seems to have both done it well, and explained herself in some way).

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      “What about the systematic plagiarism of online sites and those who pirate whole works? That’s who all the anger should be aimed at, not one misguided person (who seems to have both done it well, and explained herself in some way).”

      I totally agree, Jemima.

  • Tia Owen says:

    If anything, I’m a bit concerned the novel got as far as it did in the publication process before being pulled for plagiarism. Surely it should be up for the same scrutiny as academic texts?

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      That was my concern, too. The plagiarism was self-reported, not caught.

  • It is common courtesy to recognize the work of an author when quoting and copyright provisions are there for a reason.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Totally agree, Ian. I’m not contesting she was wrong, but questioning the lack of nuance with which everyone reacted to her action. She’s clearly a writer with potential who went wrong. I wonder if the situation would have been the same if she came from privilege, instead of being a marginalized writer.

  • I was a writing teacher for many, many years, so plagiarism is a sore spot with me.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      It is sore for me, too, Liz, but in this particular case, a few things could be done differently.

  • I have no black and white answers. Except that kindness never goes astray.

  • Everyone could’ve done a better job checking her material in the first place. That she plagiarized the article as well shows she has a compulsive issue. But it’s still not an excuse for it.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Exactly what I said, Alex.

    • A says:

      BS, Alex. There are many reasons why Jumi would plagiarize her apology: It was coerced; She was exhausted; She noticed and resented the double-standard of industry response to plagiarism (her fiction is canceled, Susan Sontag’s fiction won a National Book Award); Her college didn’t teach anyone how to schedule their book-writing process or find a reputable publisher; Most of her book was not plagiarized, yet her publisher canceled all of it and wouldn’t give her a chance to revise it and resubmit it; Everyone appeared to have signaled to her that she’d have only one chance to “make it” as a writer, which forced her to attend school, write her book, and publish it, despite needing time away from everything in order to rest and figure out what to do about psychiatry, which, frankly, caused a LOT of her problems. Without question, her “treatment”, in addition to being punitive, inconsistent, and underfunded, had drained both her physical and mental energy for her book, her degree, and, crucially, the maintenance of space in her life for interests that don’t involve money, publicity, competition, deadlines, or judgments of and kind. Jumi was failed by absolutely everyone.

  • Good points but this person with mental health issues (which are not disclosed and can range fron depression to schizophrenia) had the ability to plagiarize, know it was wrong, and then rationalize it. Without knowing exactly what her mental health issues are, we can’t assume she’s incapable (of writing or knowing right from wrong). Plenty of people with emotional problems are high functioning. The point is she knew what she did was wrong and tried to excuse it away. Does she have a therapist? Anyone she can turn to when the stress of writing hits? This may sound harsh but ultimately we are responsible for who we are, warts and all. She needs to reach out, find support. I hope she does.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      You are right, Denise, but I’m not sure all writers are treated equal in similar situations. She would have fared much better if she had privilege, got good advice, and if she had the help she so clearly needs. I think she did reach out for support when she originally confessed to the plagiarism of her book. She either received none, or was unable to accept it. We will truly never know unless we know her circumstances.

  • hilarymb says:

    Hi Damyanti – it certainly seems she could have been handled more kindly … we, as people, have to check things out and be empathetic … I’m sure it was obvious she was ‘copying’ … and could have been dealt with differently. Then there are other cheaters who plagiarise whole books to benefit themselves … often with no regard to the original author – who has trouble getting redress. I hope people will help her … cheers Hilary

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Well said, Hilary. I get both sides of the story, but wish there was more compassion in this particular case.

  • Yes, I would have erred on the side of compassion if I’d been her editor. But also it’s a little strange that they wouldn’t have done a plagiarism scan of the article before pubbing it. If colleges have software that can scan term papers for it, maybe we editors need it, too. That said, editors are busy, and I know I haven’t always checked to see if parts were lifted from elsewhere before I’ve published the works of other writers. I have heard from writer friends who are frustrated that sometimes it seems that even those of us who are doing everything by the book can’t get an agent, can’t get a book deal. Certainly, I wouldn’t want to be in this writer’s shoes though. Heartbreaking.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Everything you said, Rebecca. most editors for magazines work for free, so it is hard to check everything–but in this particular case maybe there could be some sort of understanding. I don’t think an evil/ unethical person would plagiarize, confess to it themselves, and then plagiarize the account of her plagiarism. Something is not right in the picture here, and maybe we needed more discourse than condemnation.

  • Plagiarism is such a misunderstood issue here in America. People might understand the definition but not what it is. As a teacher, I often hear (from parents and students), “if I give credit, that’s all I need to do–right? Wrong. I wouldn’t doubt at all that this writer might not have known she was plagiarizing at first. That doesn’t excuse it, just makes me wish we’d teach about it better in schools.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      You’re right about the need of more awareness for plagiarism, but this writer was a student of the IOWA workshop, one of the most prestigious in the US. I think she knew what she was doing, felt bad about it, confessed to it, and did it again. Since she has spoken of having mental illness, my take is that the editor could have checked her work, and maybe refused to publish her, or asked her to remove sections that were plagiarized. There have been instances of this sort of solution for non-marginalized writers.

  • Nicole Pyles says:

    I know I recall a case of plagiarism between writers, recently, but can’t recall how it was handled. I thought it was cool LitHub let her speak out. I caught the article but didn’t really read it. I think we all make mistakes and it’s very brave of that author to be so forthright about it.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Nicole, Lithub has now removed that article since, only after a few hours of putting it up, because she apparently plagiarized the article, too. I think with mental health issues, maybe there could have been more compassion involved.