After Guardian Australia revealed that parts of John Hughes’ latest novel The Dogs had been plagiarized from the work of a Nobel laureate, it said the error was unintentional. It was later revealed that other parts of the book were copied from classic novels, including The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina.
Here we publish Hughes’ response to these two revelations:
Here is a famous phrase, the first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father had taken to discover the ice cream.” And here, from Juan Rulfo’s 1955 novel Pedro Paramo, a favorite of Marquez, this: “Years later, Father Renteria would remember the night his hard bed had kept him awake and pushed him outside. ” Plagiarism? A few words have changed here and there. A few added, a few removed. Radiation? The distinction is not as clear as the words suggest.
The recent discovery that I had appropriated passages from Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War (2017) into my novel The Dogs without realizing it (believing them to be mine), and now these recent discoveries, no only disturbed me greatly (there is nothing more disturbing than finding out that your memory is not yours), but made me reflect on my journey as a writer. I’ve always used other writers’ work in mine.
He’s a rare writer who doesn’t. Borges’ Pierre Ménard, three hundred years after the original, wants to rewrite Don Quixote, word for word. Jean Rhys wants to tell the story of Jane Eyre. Peter Carey wants to give new life to Charles Dickens. JM Coetzee, Daniel Defoe. It’s a matter of degree. I’m probably closer to Pierre Ménard when it comes to the great Russian novels of the 19th century, but never mind the indebtedness, it’s a great simplification to call it plagiarism.
As TS Eliot wrote in The Sacred Wood, “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets disfigure what they take, and good poets turn it into something better, or at least something different. This great masterpiece of modernism, The Waste Land, is itself a sort of anthology of other people’s big words. Does that make Eliot a plagiarist? Not at all, it seems. You take it, that is to say, and you make something else out of it; you make it yours.
My whole life as a writer has been a dialogue with the books I love (a kind of writing collage). That’s what people mean when they call me an allusive writer. In the preface to my second book, Someone Else (the title itself reveals the game), I write that:
as a young man, I found myself in everything I read. It was as if I had created a novel in my head, the characters would not be still, they would rise from the pages of their various books and argue and fight and merge and grow within me, but with an autonomy that made it as real to me as you are sitting here now. I was not alone in this…everyone I knew at the time seemed to be playing out some kind of fantasy, but in the intensity of my imaginative identification, an intensity fueled by the almost feverish world of the works themselves, and the way I saw myself and the world around me almost entirely through these works, I was maybe a little more extreme, a little more possesses. I wanted to be haunted. In my imagination I was a character that Beckett or Chekhov had created, I lived in their works as their characters lived in me…
I have always spoken through the voices of others. For better or for worse, I have lived my life in books and influence has been one of the key themes in my work. In The Remnants, my narrator announces at the beginning that “This is a book made of books” and goes on to list all the books that went into making it. In Asylum, the references to Kafka and Beckett couldn’t be clearer. And it continues. I did not hide this. It’s there to see it all. I’ve always believed that you can only write about this place by writing about the writing (and culture and history) of others (a kind of literary palimpsest). I say the same in No One:
Australia is a strange place. There are only other places in his imagination. It’s not just because of the recent migration, it’s been happening since the colony was established. We were born here and we imagine being there, in Asia or in Europe, reading their stories and their Literature. Over the years, I’ve come to think that Australia exists in that absence, defined, not like other countries, by how its people think about it, but by how it thinks about other places. – not in our imagination, but in our imagining of her, our imagination here by the way. The whole notion of an Australian literature could be distilled in the image of a painter who exhibits enormous canvases – on a heroic French scale; think of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa – but which only paints in a small corner the most detailed scene, like a perfect miniature.
I think my books live in this little corner.
Bob Dylan (himself the victim of countless accusations of plagiarism) once said that all music was folk music. The history of classical music, to take an example, is the history of the appropriation of folk forms and melodies. Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt, Bartok, the list is endless. And modern musical sampling is only the latest manifestation of this long history. Every artist takes. What else do we do but endlessly recycle stories? It’s a process that’s been going on ever since ancient Greek tragedians first recycled Homer’s stories for the Festival of Dionysus, or Shakespeare tapped into the nearly bottomless well of chroniclers, or novelists decided they wanted to write historical fiction. The point is, it’s not what you take but what you do with it that matters.
That said, I’ve never written a book like The Dogs before which has taken on so many different forms over so many years. My books are mostly short and rushed. But over the past fifteen years, my previous four books have each waded into it – squeezing attention for different reasons – and taken it for a while. Every time I put it aside, when it came to picking it up, it became something else in my head. The original novel has changed enormously, in other words. I adapted much of the initial material but did not retain the notes on which it was based, so over the years many sources have become so integrated that I have come to consider them my own . I’m not a gatekeeper as a writer. I need to throw things away because otherwise they get too heavy, inhibiting writing. I also never keep drafts because in the beginning I was always going back, almost comparing sentence for sentence and getting nowhere. My practice is to write over every draft whenever there is a new edit. Since I don’t save each draft separately, there is always only one version. It may not be a process that works for everyone, but it worked for me.
For most of its life, The Dogs was called Retard because I wanted to write a novel that had such ventriloquism as its theme and whose protagonist always feels late to the party, discovering that even his own life has him. preceded. What remains of those original drafts is contained in Part II of The Dogs, called Ruins for obvious reasons. Prince Orlov was my original protagonist, and the idea was that he would gradually begin to discover that even his life was not his own because it too had already been written (that unlike Borges’ Pierre Ménard, recreation was inevitable for him!). That’s why it had to be so literary. The pastiche of the great Russian novels of the nineteenth century was the dominant mode. But entering the 20th century too, because I wanted the Prince to discover that not only his past, but also his future preceded him (that he was late even in his own life!). I wanted his life to embody the 20th century, and so I had to build it from the literature of that century (because that’s how it survives). It was to be a historical composite. If I had thought it was plagiarism, I would have covered it up (no reasonable thief wants to get caught!). But I am not a thief. Like TS Eliot, I wanted the relevant passages to be seen and recognized as in a collage as the Prince acknowledges that it all came before. But somewhere in the writing, my idea, like the focus, changed. The delay became The Dogs, and the girl succeeded her father as the protagonist. But since the literary and historical material, built up by such a slow process of accretion over the years, was also appropriate to the past I wanted for her (and is now part of my own imaginative life), it worked for her and he stayed.
The Dogs is therefore, in a sense, a story of second-hand stories. History comes to us as Anna’s memories come to Michael (and Anna’s life came to me from the life I made for her father) – fragmented, contradictory, incomplete – and we have to give it a sense, as Michael does, to himself—aware, allusive stories that dominate the second half of the novel.
All of our stories from the time before us can’t help but be second-hand. The reader receives the source, in fragments from Anna’s edited transcript, and then Michael’s story about it. First-hand accounts, like his mother’s, say, “That’s what happened. Second-hand accounts ask, “What happened?” How do we know?” Michael – who was not there and does not know – must then construct his mother’s story from other stories, to demonstrate his helplessness in the face of his mother’s experience. (And the mine too!) In a way, the second half of the novel is really about writing itself, being a writer (which is why I made Michael a screenwriter) and the process of creating a story out of what we don’t know.The process of influencing, i.e. both conscious and unconscious.
Influence, like memory and the unconscious, plays a crucial role in the creative process. But the process can still remain opaque (just as memories can, and sometimes must be, forgotten), even to the creator.