A Charming Plagiarist

| 17 Feb 2015 | 02:13

    I. A Librarian in a Small Town

    Margaret Butler is a reading adviser at the Tuscaloosa Public Library. One day in early October, she was examining a short-story collection titled The Bear Bryant Funeral Train by a writer named Brad Vice. This was the winning volume in the University of Georgia Press' annual Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, a prestigious series that the library orders each year, and six copies had just arrived. Butler opened the book to the first page and was astounded by the opening paragraph:

    "And that's how it began. Three distant notes, high blasts on a bugle, then a drop of a minor third on a long wailing note."

    As Butler later told the Tuscaloosa News, "On the first page, I said to myself, 'I've read this before.'" She reached into a bookshelf and retrieved Stars Fell on Alabama, a book published by Carl Carmer in 1934, reprinted by the University of Alabama Press in 2000, and still protected by copyright. She quickly found the story that began:

    "We heard them coming long before we saw them - three distant high blasts of a bugle, then a drop of a minor third on a long wailing note."

    Butler alerted her boss at the library, Assistant Director Elizabeth Bradt, and together the two librarians began to highlight other passages containing identical wording, eventually identifying more than a dozen examples, some of them running more than a hundred words. Even the titles were alike: Vice called his story "Tuscaloosa Knights," while the original was from a section called "Tuscaloosa Nights." On October 6, the librarians reported their findings to both publishers. (They did not notify the editors of Five Points, the Georgia literary magazine that had first published Vice's story.)

    After examining the evidence, the director of the University of Alabama Press, Daniel J.J. Ross, replied to Bradt, "This seems a flagrant case, intentional and indefensible, with the feeble efforts to alter the original all the more blatant evidence of unacknowledged borrowing."

    The directors of the University of Georgia Press were even angrier. On October 27, they announced that they were rescinding Vice's award, recalling all of his freshly printed books from the stores and reducing each and every copy into paper pulp.

    Brad Vice happens to be an English professor at Mississippi State University. His employer immediately formed a committee to investigate him on plagiarism charges, starting a process that could result in his being fired.

    Vice reacted to all of this by making a number of confused and contradictory public statements. He told the Tuscaloosa News, "All I can say is I'm talking to the Press right now about their concerns. I don't feel at liberty to talk about it. People over my head are dealing with it." The University of Georgia Press reported that he had admitted to them that his story "borrows heavily" from Carmer's book and that he had made "a terrible mistake." He at first told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal that his "omissions" were due to his "ignorance concerning the principles of fair use." Although he later told the same paper that he was denying any "allegations of misconduct," he admitted to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, "I only wish that I could make amends." He told the Chronicle of Higher Education, "I made a terrible error in judgment.? I was foolish and naïve.? I intended my story to be homage to Carmer." He told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, "I am sorry I was ignorant of the principles of fair use at the time and honestly I'm still very confused about it."

    On Amazon.com, the last unpulped copy of The Bear Bryant Funeral Train raced up in value to $950.

    II. A Hanging Offense

    When one compares "Tuscaloosa Knights" to "Tuscaloosa Nights," it becomes very difficult to accept Vice's contention that he doesn't understand the meaning of fair use. Not only does he hold a PhD in English, and not only does he enforce university plagiarism rules when he grades papers at Mississippi State, and not only does his employer expect him to model ethical behavior for his students, but his lifting from Carmer is so breathtaking in its sweep that Vice's feigned ignorance starts to sound like that of the 18-year-old college student who, when confronted with a heavily plagiarized paper, sheepishly claims, "I guess I didn't know where to put all of those quotation thingies." You knew, Brad, you knew.

    Besides his PhD in English, Vice holds an MFA in creative writing. It's very difficult to imagine that in all of the years he spent studying how to read and write literature, anyone ever suggested to him that it was perfectly all right to steal another writer's work-so long as one changed a yellow pair of shoes to a green pair!

    One of the many problems with plagiarists is that their behavior, like that of other people who steal, often tends to be compulsive. Just as it is impossible to believe that Vice's borrowings from Carmer were "omissions" or "mistakes" or "errors" or the result of confusion, it would be hard to dismiss a second instance of plagiarism as coincidental. Unfortunately for Brad Vice, I have uncovered that second instance.

    One of the other stories in The Bear Bryant Funeral Train-a story that the librarians in Tuscaloosa had no reason to suspect-is titled "Report from Junction." It is the tale of a farm boy who will one day join Bear Bryant's famous football team. The story appeared in the July 2002 issue of the Atlantic Monthly and was reprinted in the 2003 edition of New Stories from the South.

    "Report from Junction" contains passages that are similar to material appearing in The Junction Boys, Jim Dent's nonfiction book about Bear Bryant, published in 2000 by St. Martin's Press. What is curious about Vice's thefts from Dent is that they don't even pertain to Bear Bryant or the football team, but consist of the most peripheral of descriptions, material that Vice could have found in other sources or easily rewritten in his own words:

    A few Southern literary bloggers, perhaps taking their cue from Vice himself, are defending his theft of Carmer's work as an "homage" to Carmer's presumed stature in Southern literature. If Vice's plagiarizing from Carmer is in fact an homage to Southern literature, then how are we to regard Vice's plagiarizing from Dent? Is it an homage to the screwworm?

    Perhaps: One storySouth editor objected, in an article entitled "The Literary Lynching of Brad Vice," to the "nuclear destruction" of Vice for having taken "the time-honored route of updating and commenting upon a classic literary story." Or, in Vice's words, "the dialogue had a truth value outside of Carmer's text." (The article, incidentally, singles out the Bryant story for especially rapturous praise.)

    When plagiarism was detected in the work of the historian Stephen Ambrose in 2002, readers started going back through all of his books, uncovering even more instances of theft. It is often the case that plagiarists, like other thieves, have been stealing for a long time before they are caught. Readers are now digging through Vice's work, and the results will probably not play too well before his university ethics committee.

    This is because I have also found that "Tuscaloosa Knights" and "Report from Junction"-complete with their plagiarized contents-both appear in the dissertation that Vice produced for his doctoral degree at the University of Cincinnati in 2001. A public document that anyone can download from the university library website, the dissertation now sits on the hard drives of Dr. Karen L. Gould, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Dr. Leland S. Person, chairman of the English department. These University of Cincinnati officials have launched their own investigation of Vice.

    Plagiarism tends to be a first-draft offense; it is now possible to trace Vice's plagiarism from its genesis in his original documents. The pattern sketches itself out-plagiarism in manuscript form, plagiarism in a dissertation, plagiarism in a story appearing in the small magazine Five Points, plagiarism in a story in the Atlantic Monthly, plagiarism in a story reprinted in the anthology New Stories from the South, plagiarism in at least two stories reprinted in a book that is awarded the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction.

    Following this long journey of highway robbery, one can begin to feel the fever of the kleptomaniac's joy in stealing, the exhilarating fear of detection, the thrill of not getting caught, the secret pleasure in having swiped Carl Carmer's Klansmen's shoes, in having scooped up Jim Dent's poor little screwworms. The secret stolen things are here for the entire Earth to see, yet they are not seen.

    Until they are seen.

    In the stunned aftermath of the pulping of Brad Vice's book, the literary and academic buzz circled upon itself with a number of puzzled questions. "How could he have done something so stupid?" "How couldn't he have known that in the academy, plagiarism is a hanging offense?" "Why didn't he ever revise the plagiarism out of his stories, when he had so many chances?" "How could a plagiarist have gotten this far?"

    III. Friends in Tennessee

    For 90 miles, Interstate 24 runs in a straight diagonal across the flat lushness of southeastern Tennessee. Except for the occasional service station or trailer park, the land is green and empty here. No bookstores, libraries, or bars are visible from the highway, yet once a year there will be hundreds of writers barreling down this road. In Franklin County, near the place where Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia jut together, sits the village of Sewanee, home to the quaint and self-admitted replica of Oxford that calls itself the University of the South.

    Here, on grounds that contain a Confederate war cemetery that is still bedecked with fresh Confederate flags, where the public reading of Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead" was until recently a yearly ritual, the university will host, during 12 of the hottest days in August, the Sewanee Writers' Conference. Sewanee is a junior-tier version of New England's better-known and more prestigious Bread Loaf Writer's Conference; Sewanee has openly copied Bread Loaf's hierarchy of faculty, fellows, scholars and contributors (as the paying attendees are known). The occasional New York editor or agent will be found drinking at Sewanee, usually in one of the Breadloavian exclusive cocktail rooms that refuse admittance to any writer who has not yet published a book.

    Over those 12 days, many of the South's leading writers will congregate here. They will decide which of the conference's attendees should be considered for future scholarships to the conference, which writers should receive letters of recommendation to graduate programs, which hot new novelists should receive blurbs, which conference attendees should be nominated for inclusion in New Stories From the South, and which book-length manuscripts might make good candidates for next year's Flannery O'Connor Award in Short Fiction. In addition to deciding which writers will be rewarded with career boosts, they will decide which writers will be greeted at the conference with indifference or official silence or, even worse, a coordinated workshop attack.

    While nobody associated with the conference is responsible for Vice's acts of literary theft, many here have been instrumental to his success. His literary agent, Gail Hochman, is a regular guest here. Richard Bausch, a "fiction consultant" at Five Points, the Georgia magazine that first published "Tuscaloosa Knights," is on the conference faculty. Vice's friend, Erin McGraw, who was one of the faculty advisers on his tainted dissertation at the University of Cincinnati, is also on the conference faculty, and she has blurbed Vice's work as being "complex" and "gorgeous." To her credit, at least she is not among his past supporters who have praised his work for its "originality."

    Sewanee is the institution most responsible for the creation of Brad Vice's literary career. He started here in 1998 as a scholar, when he was only 24. From 1999 through 2002, he worked as a staffer, a factotum position that affords a young writer a free stay at the conference, and access to the agents, editors and established authors who inhabit the conference's core.

    In the acknowledgments section of his dissertation, Vice thanks "the entire faculty and staff of the Sewanee Writers' Conference past and present," singling out Barry Hannah, Erin McGraw, Josip Novakovich, Tim Parrish, Allen Wier, Pinckney Benedict, Claire Messud and others. In the February 2005 issue of the conference newsletter, Vice takes up 200 words to brag about his publications in the Atlantic Monthly, Five Points, and New Stories from the South, along with boasting that he has just won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and that The Bear Bryant Funeral Train will soon be available in stores. He's careful to add, "Special thanks to those faculty members who have spent time with my fiction over the years," and again he singles out Barry Hannah, Pinckney Benedict, Claire Messud, Erin McGraw and others.

    Vice's relationship with Hannah is perhaps the one that is most interesting in terms of revealing how the Sewanee writers go about coloring one another's Easter eggs and then filling one another's baskets. In an interview with Matt Kunz, which can be found on a Mississippi website, Vice gushes, "I've read every word Barry Hannah has in print. He is a hero, a teacher, and a friend.? I collected Hannah's books the way kids collect comics and reread them obsessively.? I became one of his students at the Sewanee Writers' Conference."

    Hannah is the conference's Godfather, the ailing patriarch who sits in an overstuffed chair in the conference bookstore, too weak to stand, the youngsters kneeling before him as he signs books. Vice has become the old man's valued consigliere.

    In 2001, Hannah's novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan was getting kicked down the stairs by most reviewers. Anthony Quinn, writing in The New York Times, spoke for the consensus: "The action of the plot never seems likely to cohere.? Nothing feels integrated." The Baltimore Sun called the book "a joyless fever dream of the New South."

    Vice shared no such complaints. Pouring Southern syrup all over the book-review section of the San Francisco Chronicle on July 8, 2001, Vice was so jumpy with ejaculatory praise that he seemed ready for medication:

    "Barry Hannah's novels have won him a host of accolades.? Hannah possesses a rare linguistic inventiveness that seems to expand the story form, the same sort of manic talent that Bob Dylan shows for writing songs.? Hannah is the South's most generous maximalist.? There are passages in his novel that rival the beauty of thematically similar books such as A River Runs Through It or even Moby-Dick."

    Like any Godfather, Hannah dispenses favors with the regularity of a human calculator. In subsequently blurbing Vice's stories, Hannah wrote that they "carry forth in a new open air, not the old Southern cluster of lyrical depression."

    While Hannah's posterior is arguably the most prominent one available for the ambitious lips that gather at Sewanee, Vice was prolific in giving positive strokes to anyone at the conference who could have been of use to him.

    Vice settled a minor issue for all time when he wrote in a 1998 review that "Tony Earley's 'Charlotte' may be the finest story ever about professional wrestling." At the 2002 Sewanee conference, Earley, who was then on the faculty, nominated Vice's story "Chickensnake" for its ultimately successful inclusion in the anthology Best New American Voices. Vice sucked up to Sewanee writer Pinckney Benedict by writing an entry about Benedict in the The Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vice sucked up to Sewanee writer Claire Messud in his piece on her in the September 2000 number of Writer's Digest.

    Josip Novakovich, a fiction fellow at Sewanee from 1997 through 1999 and the chairman of Vice's dissertation committee at the University of Cincinnati when Vice was busy learning about screwworms, must have swooned in October 1998, when Vice wrote, in a review appearing on the e-zine Wordgun, "Novakovich is one of the most eloquent expatriates writing in America today.? Not unlike a stained-glass window, each glossy word has been arranged for maximum effect. Also similar to Nabokov, Novakovich is an elegant ironist.? It is important that Americans have authors like Josip Novakovich."

    And so it goes. A few minutes of Googling Vice's name next to the name of virtually any published author who's ever eaten barbecue at Sewanee will call up pit stop after pit stop of Vice's campaign to become the best-adored, best-appreciated and best-deserving young fiction writer in the history of Southern letters.

    In the February 1998 issue of Wordgun, Vice reviewed Will Blythe, a Southern writer who became a focus of the region's wannabes when he moved to New York and got work as a high-ranking editor at Esquire, Harper's and Mirabella. Listen to Vice skillfully pour the butter: "Blythe's language is so entertaining and the story so brutally weird that it may be the basis for the next Tarantino screenplay." To Blythe's credit, he did not respond by publishing Vice or giving him any blurbs.

    There are times when Vice's mania for lauding his friends and colleagues veers into the bizarre. In "Report from Junction," he creates a 1950s journalist named?Allen Wier. And consider this awkward bit of hyperbole from the Walking on Water review: "Parrish is one of those writers like Carver or Dubus who lays down each word like a mason lays brick, solidly, evenly, almost taciturn." What this statement lacks in grammatical parallelism and critical moderation is matched only by its lack of literary political value, since Tim Parrish, being a college teacher in Connecticut, has never been in a position to grease Vice's career. The answer is of course that Vice and Parrish are very good friends, having been Wier's students in Tuscaloosa and then colleagues at-you guessed it-Sewanee.

    Vice and Parrish have something else in common. The University Press of Mississippi threatened to pulp Parrish's collection, Red Stick Men, when it was discovered that Parrish had used the names of real people in his short stories. The offended parties threatened to sue Parrish and the press. His publisher, unlike Vice's, gave Parrish a second chance, and he quickly saw the benefit of succumbing to the pressure. He agreed to save his book by changing the names in the paperback edition, and he managed to keep his teaching job. Thus he narrowly avoided joining Vice in what might have developed into a new Southern genre for rare book collectors-Pulped Fiction.


    Robert Clark Young's novel, One of the Guys, is out from HarperCollins. He teaches writing for the University of Phoenix.