Now That Dave Eggers Has Been Accused of Plagiarism, We Finally Have Something in Common
(Essay, originally published at VICE)
Dave Eggers doesn’t give a shit about Kate Losse, the author who recently accused Eggers of plagiarizing her book, The Boy Kings, for his new novel, The Circle—nor should he. Authors accusing and being accused of plagiarism is nothing new, and to the world outside of publishing, it’s a minor scandal. There’s nothing Miley about a white nerd calling out another white nerd. Still, Losse’s claim is somehow damaging to Eggers, even though it is a weak one. She writes, “From all appearances, it is an unnervingly similar book, and I wrote it first,” later admitting that she hasn’t even read the book—The Circle comes out today—and basing her accusations on an excerpt only. Losse’s claim, her name, and her book, will no doubt fall from public eye quickly, while Eggers zips around the country on his book tour and collects both cash and accolades, which all now come with the specter of Losse, if only because both Dave Eggers the guy and Dave Eggers the brand had to publicly refute the charges, going so far as to say he had no idea Losse’s book existed:
“I’ve just heard about the claims of Kate Losse that my novel, The Circle, was somehow based on a work of nonfiction she wrote. I want to make it clear that I have never read and have never heard of her book before today. I did not, in fact, read any books about any internet companies, or about the experiences of anyone working at any of these companies, either before or while writing The Circle. I avoided all such books, and did not even visit any tech campuses, expressly because I didn’t want The Circle to seem to be based on any extant companies or upon the experiences of any employees of any extant companies. Because The Circle has not been released, it’s my understanding that Kate Losse has not read my novel yet, so I trust that when she does read it she’ll understand that I have not read, and certainly never lifted anything from, her book.”
Translation: go fuck yourself.
Plagiarism in literature is difficult to prove. Unless passages are lifted word for word, no judge will side with the plaintiff. If an author is proven to have plagiarized, usually it’s so obvious and embarrassing that the publisher has no choice but to pull it from the shelves, well before a case could go to court (Q. R. Markham’s Assassin of Secrets got this treatment from Little, Brown in 2011). There are several cases lawyers consistently refer to when battling plagiarism claims—Feist Publications v. Rural Tel.Serv.Co., Kregos v. Associated Press, MyWebGrocer, LLC v. Hometown Info, Inc.—that basically say ideas, images, tone, style, characters, and structure are all fair game. The mic-drop principal in most, if not all, of these cases states that ideas are not copyright. For example, Michael Crichton was sued in 1994 for supposedly ripping off a series of children’s books called Dinosaur World when he wrote Jurassic Park. The verdict? The concept of a dinosaur zoo is totally unprotectable, no matter how many similarities there seems to be. Losse claims that Eggers rewrote her memoir about working at Facebook during its early days and turned it into fiction, something more modern and sleek. She says not only are the ideas the same, but the characters and certain passages are similar:
The Boy Kings:“You’ll basically be answering emails from users,” he said, “Jake will teach you to do everything,” passing us off to another Stanford guy, just hired weeks before, who would teach us how to manage Facebook’s fledgling universe.
The Circle: “Jared will be doing your training, and he’ll be your main contact here at Customer Experience.”
Losse further notes [sic], “Eggers’ ‘Mae Holland’ is hired from university to work as one of the first employees in ‘Customer Experience’ (where I was hired as one of the first employees in Customer Support). Her name eerily echoes mine in its phonetic structure: Katherine Penney Losse/Maebelline Renner Holland & in short form as well: ‘Kate Losse/Mae Holland.’”
Even if Losse’s accusations have merit, it doesn’t legally matter, which doesn’t mean that she can’t cause major headaches behind the scenes for Eggers. All she has to do is have her agent send a plagiarism claim to his publisher, get all the agents involved, get lawyers scrambling, scare off film producers, and cause thousands of dollars in damages. Knopf will have to deal with the mess, and Eggers can’t simply brush it off. Losse’s seems to me desperate and far reaching, a reaction from an author who, yeah, saw that a big name author wrote about a similar topic, and it hurt her—or she may have even seen the potential to bring attention to herself.
In 2009 my novel, Light Boxes, was accused of plagiarism by Salvador Plascencia; his novel, The People of Paper, was published by Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s in 2005. It’s been the most difficult thing I’ve ever gone through in my career not because I was guilty of plagiarism—I was cleared of the accusations by my agency William Morris Endeavor, my publishers Penguin, here in the US, and Hamish Hamilton in the UK, and a slew of independent lawyers brought in by Penguin, and the book was published on schedule even though the accusation damaged my reputation and played a part in my moving on to another publisher—but because the accusation came from Salvador Plascencia, an author I admired. It tainted what should have been a personal milestone. In many ways, the scandal poisoned my outlook on not just the publishing industry, but authors trying to get ahead at any price, authors going after other authors… And for what? Being an author accused of plagiarism is like being a school teacher accused of inappropriately touching a student. It doesn’t really matter if there’s any truth to the claim. It’s going to follow you. It’s going to bother the fuck out of you. I’m guessing Eggers won’t be financially or critically hurt by Losse’s claims, but he won’t forget it. It will get inside him.
I’m sympathetic to Eggers, an author I respect and a publishing icon I admire, even though it was a McSweeney’s author who accused me. I also understand Kate Losse by way of remembering the toxic emails I received from Salvador Plascenica. It’s a visceral and emotional reaction when you see a book similar to yours getting buzz and attention when yours isn’t being talked about. Having to write a statement defending himself, as Eggers did, is something no author wants to do. I received several emails from my agent and publishers asking me to write a similar statement. It physically hurt to type, and I remember the relief I felt when I received the following response from my UK publisher:
“Thank you so much for this. Our legal director has done what she needed to do too and I have just written… refuting the allegations and telling him that we are continuing to proceed in good faith with our publication of Light Boxes. Painful as all this must have been for you, Shane, it was important that we all addressed… allegations as powerfully and comprehensively as we could, given the strong way in which he expressed himself. Let us hope it is now an end to the matter.”
That wasn’t the end. There were more lawyers for the American edition (by my count, five different lawyers looked at the two books and it cost more than $10,000, which indirectly affected my advance for my next book—my agent expressed their disappointment to me over the phone, not only about the sales but the legal troubles). I wasn’t allowed to correspond with my editor and work on edits for more than a month. I had to wait and see if my writing career was essentially over. The stress distracted me from what should have been another happy celebration: my wedding. The next novel I was working on had to be put aside. Spike Jonze, who had optioned Light Boxes, had his director of development call me and ask about the claims. The director of development was extremely worried. Again, I defended myself. Two months later she called again and said the film option was dropped, blaming the script, which wasn’t developing on time.
Eggers will exit the accusation unscathed, the dude has weathered all sorts of criticism in the past and he continues to achieve at both a high artistic and mainstream level. The Circle is already being praised by critics, which is probably driving Losse nuts. I don’t believe her claims, but I do believe that she believes her claims are right. On the day of publication, Amazon’s sales ranking for books has The Circle at number 34. Number 20 for the Literary Fiction category. Not bad. But he must be troubled by a plagiarism charge. Every writer has some version of this fear. Perhaps a larger fear for writers is Kate Losse’s: that a book with a similar idea is written by a bigger author with a bigger publisher and it’s that book which gets all the praise—or that the other guy’s book is better and yours is just forgotten. The charge of plagiarism goes straight to the heart not matter if there’s truth to it or not. Dave, I’ve wanted to talk to you about this for a long time.
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