Accidental Strength

Princeton graduate Ung Lee wins prestige, cash, and a number of prizes for his fiction thesis. The hitch is, one of the stories was stolen. The author whose work was robbed responds.

Plagiarism is an ugly word. A physically ugly word, with too many jutting i’s and humped a’s. I always have to pause, when I spell it, and wince, when I say it. Plagiarism gets no love, no sugar, no bosomly hugs.

I’ve been plagiarized. Just like that. One day a fresh-faced, innocent author and the next, a victim of plagiarism. Plagiarized. (I still can’t get over that word. It’s prehistoric-looking, reptilian. A plagiasauras came lumbering out of the woods, its saucer-sized eyes red, luminous, as it turned its head toward me…)

Here’s the condensed version. I wrote a short story called ‘Main Strength’ in the early part of 2001. It was selected as a prize winner by the online journal Fictionline, and published there on July 8, 2001.

At some point in early 2002, a Princeton senior named Ung Lee produced a creative thesis titled ‘My America,’ which consisted of short stories, one of which was titled ‘Accidents.’ His tutelage under Joyce Carol Oates seemingly served him well, as his collection garnered a variety of awards, including

1) the Samuel Shellabarger $5,000 Creative Thesis Prize,

2) the Althea B. Clark Reading Prize,

3) a nomination for the University’s English Prize, and

4) the SUNY Stony Brook $1,000 Short Fiction Prize, for ‘Accidents.’

Except there’s just one small, tiny hitch. ‘Accidents’ is a very thinly disguised version of my story ‘Main Strength.’ We’re talking the laziest comb-over of comb-overs here. Not only are entire sections lifted verbatim, but even the characters’ names (Roy, Rena, Tanya, and Bernadette) weren’t changed. An investigation by the Princeton campus newspaper turned up more than 60 identical sentences, and as many identical lines of dialogue.

This is, of course, ignoring the simplest, most damning evidence, which involves the likelihood of any two writers independently writing eerily similar stories about identically named characters driving around in large trucks, harvesting deer for the value of their assorted parts.

So there you go. Case closed. Plagiarized.

I’m surprised by my reaction, by how I feel. Should I be angry? I don’t feel very angry. I don’t feel violated or victimized. I’m sorry, but I don’t. If you’re looking for moral outrage, for a vitriolic, fire-breathing defense of the sanctity and incalculable value of an author’s written words, well, you won’t find it here.

I hate to admit it, but I feel almost sorry for him. There, I said it. Label me spineless, string me up, draw and quarter me for my lack of artistic righteousness. Here, I’ll hand you the rocks. Go ahead and chuck them at me.

The SUNY Stony Brook website contains a picture of Mr. Lee, along with a bio. He’s sitting outside, smiling, at what appears to be a cafe or coffee shop. He looks like a decent enough kid. He’s got a nice smile, dresses well. Confident. Gap-casual. Hip.

He’s the living embodiment of the young, talented writer, on the cusp of stardom, another Jonathan Safran Foer in the making. The perfect mixture of talent, self-deprecation, and scholastic pedigree: a literary publicist’s dream. It’s a perfect picture for a book-jacket. His bio says it best: ‘I sort of fell into writing in college, as my interest in other (what my parents would call ‘legitimate’) academic areas waned. Now that I’ve graduated, it has become clear to me that the only reasonable objective is to avoid having a real job for as long as possible. This summer I will be teaching creative writing at a summer program at Yale, after which I will apply to graduate schools in writing and possibly film. In the mean time, I plan to travel parts of Asia and, hopefully, find something to write about.’

If anything angered me, it should be this. Not just the photo, but the words. Especially the words, because words are at the heart of all this. His words are doubly duplicitous, for not only is he discussing the act of appropriating my story, but adding an additional layer of dishonesty; according to officials at Yale, there is no record of Mr. Lee teaching there, in any capacity.

I can’t help but shake my head, at the sight of Mr. Lee, and his words. Not in anger or rage, but in sadness.

What now, Mr. Lee? Assuming you were ever serious about writing, or attending a graduate school writing program, you’ve efficiently and effectively removed all of those options from the equation, in one fell swoop of copying and pasting. Not only did you steal, but you were a sloppy and lazy thief. You got caught.

What’s sadder, though, is the larger picture. You attended a well-respected university and studied under a renowned author. You were handed the keys to the literary kingdom, but before you could even back out of the driveway you got tired, and instead car-jacked the first passing motorist, in plain view of assorted bystanders.

To put it simply: What I feel is that all of this is very sad. And pitiful, in the most literal sense of the word. I wish you the best, Mr. Lee, and hope you find some sort of satisfying career. I hope you find a way to put all this behind you, to discover your own ‘legitimate’ gifts. May both the literary and non-literary gods have mercy on your soul.

I write stories because I enjoy it, because the act gives me pleasure. I’m not a widely published author, I don’t have an agent or a book deal. I get up every day and spend many hours at a job, to afford 800 square feet of space that I come home to, and occasionally find time to write things down in. I’ve got plenty of other stories, sitting in my desk. I’ll write plenty of other stories.

None of this touches me, in the end. I’ve discovered my own gift, and I’ve got all the time in the world.