‘I am no thief’: Author John Hughes responds to plagiarism controversy

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Australian author John Hughes has issued a lengthy response after sections of his 2021 book The Dogs were found to have been plagiarised.

Parts of the novel were copied from classic novels including The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina, as well as The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich.

The writer has claimed that the plagiarism was unintentional.

In an extended statement published by The Guardian, Hughes wrote: “The recent discovery that I had appropriated passages from Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War (2017) in my novel The Dogs without realising I had done so (believing them to be my own), and now these recent discoveries, not only disturbed me greatly (there is nothing more disturbing than discovering your memory is not your own), but have made me reflect on my process as a writer.

“I’ve always used the work of other writers in my own. It’s a rare writer who doesn’t.”

Hughes claimed it would be a “simplification” to call what had happened plagiarism, at one point stating: “I am no thief.”

“Every artist takes,” he wrote. “What else do we do but endlessly recycle stories? It’s a process that’s been happening since the ancient Greek tragedians first recycled the stories of Homer for the Festival of Dionysus, or Shakespeare tapped into the almost bottomless well of the Chroniclers, or novelists decided they wanted to write historical fiction. The fact is, it’s not what you take but what you do with it that counts.”

Hughes claimed that the protracted writing process for The Dogs had led to the novel changing “hugely” over the years.

“I adapted a lot of the early material but did not keep the notes on which it was based, so over the years many of the sources became so integrated I came to think of them as my own,” he claimed. “I am not a keeper as a writer. I need to throw things away because otherwise they become too much of a weight, inhibiting the writing.

He also revealed that he “never” keeps drafts, because “in the early days I’d always be going back, comparing almost sentence for sentence and getting nowhere”.

“My practice is to write over each draft with each new edit,” he said. “As I don’t save each draft separately, there’s only ever the one version. It may not be a process that works for everyone, but it’s worked for me.”

Towards the end, he characterised the process of influence as being both “conscious and unconscious”.

“Influence, like memory and the unconscious, plays such a crucial role in the creative process. But the process can still remain opaque (just as memories can, and sometimes need to be, forgotten), even to the creator,” he concluded.

Despite Hughes’s claims that the plagiarism was unintentional, the full extent of the claims have provoked a significant backlash online, with The Guardian identifying 58 “similarities and identical instances of text” between The Dogs and The Unwomanly Face of War, as well as whole multi-sentence passages that were taken from classic literature.

The following lines, for instance, appear verbatim in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and are repeated identically in The Dogs: “It faced – or seemed to face – the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

Following the investigation by Guardian Australia, Hughes’ novel was withdrawn from the longlist of nominees for the Miles Franklin literary award.

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