This morning, LitHub published an essay titled “I plagiarized parts of my first novel. Here’s why.” The first-person account came from fiction writer Jumi Bello and detailed how his first outing, departurewhich was due out on July 12, was canceled by its publisher Riverhead, after learning that sections had been plagiarized.
According to Publisher’s Lunch, which reported on the cancellation in February, the book about “a young black woman struggling with an unexpected pregnancy” had appeared on “several anticipated lists.” In her essay, Bello claimed she was clear about removing lines from other writers, losing the book deal in the process.
Bello’s essay explored the origins of plagiarism and her specific experience with it, which she indirectly linked to a history of mental illness. After a stint in a psychiatric ward and an allergic reaction to an antidepressant, Bello found herself pressured to deliver her manuscript: “I just want to get out of this, to a place where I can sleep again. Thinking back to that moment, I ignored my instincts. I ignored the voice inside that said softly, it’s bad bad bad.
By mid-morning Monday, however, the article had been deleted. It now loads to an error page.
LitHub did not immediately return Gawker’s request for comment, and neither Bello’s website nor his Twitter profile include contact information. But writer Kristen Arnett, another Riverhead author, noted on Twitter that parts of the text on the etymological origins of plagiarism seemed to closely resemble other articles on the history of plagiarism.
The deletion happened so soon after the article was first published that it wasn’t even archived by WaybackMachine. But in a PDF version of the piece, you can see the similarities. In Bello’s article, for example, she writes the following:
Plagiarism has been with us since the birth of language and art. Since there are words to read, there is someone who copies the passages. It dates back as far as 8 AD with the poet Martial overhearing another poet Fidentinus reciting his work. He called Fidentinus a plagiarismmeaning a “kidnapper”.
Compare that to this 2011 article in Plagiarism Today, titled “The world’s first case of ‘plagiarism'”.
Plagiarism, the act of taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own, has certainly been around since the dawn of art and written language. Since there have been art and artists, there have been people who have misnamed it.
But while the act of plagiarism is as old as time, the word “plagiarism” is not. The etymology of the word plagiarism is interesting and its history actually dates back to the first century CE and involves a Roman poet and his literary “kidnappers” who were the subject of a literary beating.
Or look at another version from the plagiarism detection site, Turnitin. Their 2019 blog, “5 Historic Moments That Shaped Plagiarism,” begins:
Plagiarism has almost certainly been with us since the dawn of language and art. As long as there were words to repeat and art to copy, it stands to reason that someone was doing it.
In one of these verses, Martial called Fidentinus a “plagiarist”, essentially calling him a kidnapper.
In fairness to Bello, the Turnitin lede looks a lot like plagiarism today, written eight years earlier. But I suppose plagiarism has been with us since the birth of language and art, and since there are words to read, there is someone who copies the passages.