Laurie’s News & Views Issue #30

July 30, 1997

 Nora, Janet. . . Janet, Nora:

Unless you’ve had your head in a hole lately (and haven’t been reading this column regularly – see issues #28 and 29), you no doubt are aware that the copyright infringement allegations made against Janet Dailey by Nora Roberts have progressed far being the allegation stage.

On Tuesday, July 29, the AP ran a story over the wire indicating that Janet Dailey had admitted to plagiarism. The two-paragraph story stated that Aspen Gold and Notorious contained “ideas and passages” from several of Roberts’ books. The story closed with this quote from purported Roberts’ fan, Janice Johnson: “It’s hard to steal ideas for those things. All the story lines are the same. Only the names are different.”

Those of us who read that initial story wondered why it was necessary to include that last sentence. By Wednesday morning, we were rolling our eyes up to heaven as we read AP’s expanded story by Jeff Wilson which led with, There is a reason romance novels all seem to read alike.

Then The Washington Post and Good Morning America got into the act. The headline of the Post’s story by David Streitfeld read: Stolen Kisses! Romance Writer Lifts Another’s Bodice of Work and the lead for the story was as follows: “Heaving bosoms and throbbing loins are all very well, but if you really want to make a romance writer breathe heavily, try pinching her prose.” And, on Thursday morning’s edition of ABC’s Good Morning America, love scenes were read aloud by the male anchors of the show.

Unfortunately, what was lost amongst all this ridicule was of real importance. One author had admitted to stealing the work of another. Had the authors in question been Robin Cook and Michael Crichton, do you suppose Spencer Christian would have been reading paragraphs of surgeries on air? Would he have read some scary stuff from Dean Koontz and Stephen King had one of them admitted to stealing work from the other?

What undoubtedly made things worse was Janet Dailey’s rationale for what she did – psychological stress made her do it. While in no way am I belittling her losses, her blaming the deaths of family members, her cat, and the illnesses of her husband for her actions seems as ludicrous to me as the rapist in Houston who sued the woman he assaulted for defamation of character.

This episode has hurt every reader and every author in the genre. Even Nora Roberts, whom this commentator believes has acted very professionally in all this, has been accused of being petty and vindictive by some readers. I read a posting on the RW-L listserv yesterday by someone who said she had lost respect for both Janet Dailey and Nora Roberts because Roberts didn’t give Dailey a chance to defend herself. If someone broke into my car, stole my cd-player and was caught red-handed, what defense would there be? “I was too stressed out to earn the money to buy my own stereo equipment so I stole yours?” I don’t think so!

Frankly, the stealing of words and ideas is worse in my opinion than the stealing of goods, but is perhaps a better way to illustrate just what plagiarism actually is. The authors (and readers) I have spoken to view Janet Dailey’s actions as unconscionable. Perhaps Rebecca Forster put it best when she said, “The day I can’t write my own books is the day I gather my courage, talk to my publisher and, if need be, give back the advance. That’s what Dailey should have done. Stealing someone’s work is like stealing part of their soul.

Some readers believe that while Nora was indeed victimized, she should have kept quiet and worked behind the scenes to resolve this. That by bringing this into the open, she is somehow at fault for the media spotlight being on the titillation rather than the theft. I am hopeful that readers with this view are in a small, small minority because this is blaming the victim at its worst.

This entire episode began as a result of an on-line discussion about the books in question. And, from what I understand from other writers, there was an attempt made by Ms. Roberts to resolve this quietly but it was rebuffed or ignored. Regardless, as author Douglas Clegg said, “You can’t steal something and expect to get away with it. Janet’s written some terrific novels which probably are all her own — but just as when anyone anywhere will fall because of illegal conduct, Janet Dailey is not exempt. And Nora Roberts has done nothing wrong at all. All she has done is what any of us would do: protect our work.”

Even I have not come away unscathed. I have talked at great length in the past of the circle the wagons mentality most of us have and how it is necessary to point out what’s bad in our genre along with what is wonderful in order for us to gain the respect we deserve. Earlier today I read a post on AARList (which I administer) stating that my purple prose parody page perpetuates the image that romances are comprised entirely of purple prose. Is it better to poke fun at a problem and try to resolve it with loving humor or to pretend the problem does not exist at all?

My current Letter of the Week was a rant by a reader, historian, and hopeful romance novelist who took offense to a fellow historian who lambasted historical romances as entirely inaccurate and ridiculous bodice-rippers. Part of her response was:

“I am well aware of what many people think of my chosen genre and believe that the only way to gain respect is to point people toward the books and authors that make a mockery of the stereotypes. . . At The Archives of Laurie Likes Books, she held a contest to see who could send in the worst example of purple prose! We all had a good laugh and vowed to scour our own manuscripts for anything that resembled it! Believe me, we are the first to criticize the poorest examples of the genre. We also believe in standing up for the genre when it is attacked instead of slinking away hiding the covers of our books (which by the way, the majority of authors have no control over!)”

Janet Dailey’s defense of her actions, according to the AP article, was, ”I recently learned that my essentially random and non-pervasive acts of copying are attributable to a psychological problem that I never even suspected I had. I have already begun treatment for the disorder and have been assured that, with treatment, this behavior can be prevented in the future.”

Just what the future holds for Ms. Dailey is unknown at this point. In an interview earlier this afternoon with Carolyn Marino, Editorial Director for HarperCollins publishers, she called Ms. Dailey’s actions “such a shock”. She added that the media ridicule “hurts romance writers. . . it would be a shame to hurt wonderful and strong writers of romance.” When queried as to the future relationship between HarperCollins and Ms. Dailey, Ms. Marino stated she did not know what the outcome will be.

Nora Roberts and her attorneys are looking at their legal options in the matter. Ms. Dailey, according to her publicist, has already agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to the Literacy Volunteers of America. And, HarperCollins has agreed to discontinue sales of Notorious (Aspen Gold is no longer in print).

But stopping the presses on Notorious and making a contribution to a literacy organization will not be the end of this for either author. Other books by Janet Dailey are being scrutinized by Roberts’ camp, and, beyond, Notorious and Aspen Gold, a third book, which has been written but not yet published, has been identified as including plagiarized portions as well. That book, according to Dailey’s publicist, will not be published.

This was Roberts’ last statement to the press:

“I am continuing to evaluate my options. I would sympathize with any problems she may have, but plagiarism under any circumstances is a line that cannot be crossed.

“As yet, I have neither agreed to a settlement with Ms. Dailey, nor commenced legal action, because my paramount concern has not been financial compensation, but rather identifying all instances of copying and bringing an end to this disturbing pattern of plagiarism in a way that best serves the interests and integrity of the writing community. I am continuing to evaluate my options as to how this goal might best be achieved.”

This unfortunate episode illustrates both the good and the bad in the publishing industry, the media at large, and the romance writing community. I am as insulted and fed up with the manner in which the media has presented this story as everyone else is and wish for a time when two women could be viewed as involved in something other than a catfight. I hope for the day when the term “bodice-ripper” could be eliminated from our vocabulary. I will work for the day when this genre is taken seriously and gets the respect it richly deserves.

I’d like to hear from you. Please e-mail me here with your thoughts and comments.

This is a special edition of Laurie’s News & Views written to both combine the facts of this situation as I have investigated and to provide my commentary. I have received numerous requests from readers as to my opinion and have provided it above.

I spent two hours with Kathryn Lynn Davis last week and plan to write up my article based on our interview next. As for my next column, which will be coming soon as well, please feel free to contact me here on the following topics:

  • Covers – especially the back cover when it doesn’t jibe with the content of the book
  • Buried Treasures – Great authors no one has heard of
  • Endings & Epilogues – the good, the bad, and the saccharine
  • Purple Prose

TTFN, Laurie Likes Books

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