Buy A Vowel, Steal A Consonant
by Alan C. Baird

Princeton's student newspaper first broke the scandal. "In his mini-biography on the website of SUNY Stony Brook, whose Short Fiction Prize Ung Lee '02 won, the recent University graduate writes: 'There are many people who have helped me along the way, and who I feel compelled to thank.' The list includes his creative thesis adviser Joyce Carol Oates, his parents, his friends and his sister. Seth Shafer's name is conspicuously absent."

Yes, Mr. Lee had collected $1,000 in prize money, and many other accolades--including a separate $5,000 award--for apparently performing a light polish on Main Strength, a story which had won only $1,000 for Seth Shafer. When I asked Seth about his first reaction to the news, he replied: "I think I started laughing, to be honest. Wait, no, I became irate, maddened by the villainous breach of my artistic integrity. My face became flushed, my heart rate trebled. I cast open the window and let loose a mighty roar of rage, which veritably shook both the earth and sky. Or something like that."

Baird: It seems well-settled that your story was subjected to a bit of involuntary rewriting. Were any other pieces involved?

Shafer: It's my understanding that the originality of at least one more story was in question. This led to an investigation via Google searches, phrase by phrase, through Mr. Lee's thesis. That's when my Fictionline story popped up, and all hell broke loose.

Most writers would be outraged by such misdeeds. Why haven't you thrown any tantrums?

It takes too much energy. Many people feel that I should be furious, lining up lawyers, threatening all and sundry with writs, subpoenas and whatnot. Other people feel that I should demand monetary compensation, heaping piles of cash. Most people feel that by not doing so, and by not expressing the appropriate level of anger and indignation, that I am somehow condoning acts of plagiarism, and devaluing my own work.

But to make that case, you'd have to establish the fair market value for my work, as a sum total, derive the percentage that was supposedly plagiarized, and then calculate the actual damages involved.

Which, now that I think about it, might be an interesting exercise. I've never published anything in print (aside from campus journals during my school days), and only a handful of stories appear online. I received $1,000 for a prize story as an undergrad, $1,000 for Main Strength at Fictionline, and $100 for a piece featured at the Zoetrope site. I won a few assorted campus prizes as a student, say four hundred bucks worth. But that's pretty much it, as far as writerly earnings go. Grand total: $2,500.

So how much stuff have I written, to justify that pricely sum? Let's see, there are probably 25 stories lying around here somewhere, plus half a novel, an ungodly number of poems and one screenplay. Assuming an average of 3,000 words per story, 40,000 words for the unfinished novel, 20,000 words of screenplay and 5,000 words of melancholy love poetry, I've cranked out maybe 140,000 words.

That means the fair market value of my entire creative output boils down to about 2 cents a word. If somebody were to borrow 75% of the 3,380 words in Main Strength, that works out to $50.70.

And it's hard to get upset over a measly fifty bucks.

(Of course, I am human, so it does bother me that something was stolen, but context and perspective are very important allies in a situation like this.)

Has this event made you gun-shy about writing?

If anything, the opposite. Somebody loves my work, enough to steal from me! Princeton loves me! Joyce Carol Oates loves me! They really, really love me!

Honestly, no, not in any fashion. I did the whole MFA thing, and have made my own personal peace with writing, along with the larger mechanism of submitting and publishing. If I could point to the one thing that nearly discouraged me, it was probably the experience of going through a graduate writing program. I shiver to think about it: sitting in stuffy rooms picking apart stories, currying the favor of people who know people, submitting work to the "right" publications, trying to get your name out, trying to meet the "right" people, scratching to get an agent, scratching to get a book deal, scratching, scratching, scratching...

I enjoy writing. It makes me happy. So I do it. Nothing else, none of it, can touch that, the pleasure of sitting down and writing. It's a renewable resource, this writing thing. If something was indeed taken from me, it doesn't really matter. There's plenty more where that came from.

Would you like to meet with Mr. Lee? If so, what would you ask him?

I think that'd be fun: How did he find my story? Was it a simple copy-and-paste job, then workshopped? Were the edits based on critiques from fellow students? Did it seem safer to borrow from an online publication, rather than a print journal? Were any vegetables hurled during the award-ceremony reading?

You publish a literary e-zine, Pig Iron Malt. Can you don your editor's hat and objectively assess Accidents, Lee's prizewinning rewrite?

Heh. Not really, but I think his version illustrates the things which happen in a lot of classroom settings. The title is an obvious place to start. I can just imagine the comments: somebody's confused about what the hell "Main Strength" means, and then the chorus begins chanting that the story needs a better title. Something straightforward and clear. Hey, how about "Accidents"? Because, you know, there are lots of accidents in there.

I enjoy writing stories that are mysterious, that leave certain things unexplained, for the simple reason that I enjoy reading material that allows me to make connections for myself, or to search within my own experience for answers. But ambiguity causes much consternation among some critics, and bugs the hell out of a lot of readers. So I think it's natural that Accidents is more, umm, prosaic, and less, umm, mysterious.

I mean, if you wanted to steal One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, would you retitle it Crazy?

Let's discuss some other classics from the Shafer oeuvre. Francis Ford Coppola's All-Story Extra purchased Boll, your bizarre take on a high-school football game, and Sweet Fancy Moses published an equally strange baseball-playing monkey tale. Do you harbor some sort of weird fetish about sports?

Yes, yes I do. And monkeys, boy, do I ever have a thing with monkeys. Especially monkeys dressed up as butlers. I can't get enough of monkey butlers.

StorySouth contains How It Is, which details the drawbacks of being seen with a stunning woman. Have you ever faced this problem in real life?

I have indeed had the opportunity to frequent redneck bars with very attractive women, and I've lived to tell the story.

The Tatlin's Tower archive features Like This, a writer's chronicle of the last twenty-six minutes of his life. What would you be doing right now, if you were scheduled to play the main role in a hanging at some point during the next half-hour?

If I had only thirty minutes left, I'd probably change into a pair of clean boxers and dispose of all the, umm, religious pamphlets hidden underneath my bed. Not necessarily in that order.

Going back to your childhood, was there a defining moment when you realized that the act of scribbling down words might be your calling?

I wasn't one of those kids who dreamed of being a writer. I didn't take a writing class until my junior year of college, and I did that only to impress a girl. Unfortunately, she was underwhelmed. But other people liked what I wrote, and that was pretty addictive, so I kept doing it. After finishing undergrad, I was offered a fellowship and a chance to live in Austin, so I went for the gusto.

Overall, has this plagiarism brouhaha been good or bad for you?

Honestly, I can't say it's been a bad thing. Lots of people are reading my story. Plus, I'm doing okay, both before all this, and after: I've got a decent job, a truck that runs, and plenty more stories to write.

Alan C. Baird recently coauthored 9TimeZones.com - a print\web\wap project featured at the Whitney Biennial. Some of his online stories and scripts appear in Locus Novus, minima, 3am Magazine, In Posse Review, Identity Theory, the-phone-book.com, Literary Potpourri, Quick Fiction and flashquake. He lives just a stone's throw from Hollywood... which is fine and dandy, until the stones are thrown back.

Return to features >>>