Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Curious Case of Plagiarism

I was looking at vintage book covers on the net and came across Fires of Youth (1968) by James Lincoln Collier. The cover is titillating for the time it was published, the naked woman posing in a bottle, as if manufactured and ready to be consumed. But I was also intrigued by the subtitle, “With a forward by Robert Lusty about a curious case of plagiarism.” So I did a little research and it is indeed quite curious.

In 1962 Arthur Koestler announced that the newly founded “Koestler Prize” of 400 pounds would be awarded to an inmate for his contribution to art, music and literature (yes, you read that right). The British government endorsed the project, and a manuscript entitled Young and Sensitive by Dartmoor inmate Don Robson was awarded the first ever Koestler Prize.

Hutchinson & Co published Young and Sensitive in 1964, and launched a promotional campaign centered on Robson winning the Koestler Prize. The book was received to great critical praise. The Sunday Telegraph called it “a work of outstanding merit.” An Observer reviewer wrote that it was “the best account of an adolescent affair I have ever read.” Vogue described it as one of the “most poignantly written novels.” And Mordecai Richler, in The Spectator, stated that it was “a work of outstanding merit… [and] strongly reminiscent of the best of Sherwood Anderson.” The author, Don Robson, finished his jail sentence and then got married. He even appeared on television doing interviews about the book.

A year later, an unnamed man checked out a copy of Young and Sensitive at a library. This man realized that he had read the story before. He had indeed read Fires of Youth by Charles Williams, and noticed that it was, with only a few discrepancies, the same book. He informed the publisher by letter. The Robson book was, without a doubt, a plagiarism. The publisher pulled the planned paperback, and attempted to find the original author, Charles Williams, without success. Don Robson never tried to deny his guilt and returned the prize money. His story was that he bought the manuscript from an inmate for fifteen ounces of tobacco. The publisher released a statement explaining the fraud and gave notice that the book would be pulled from circulation. Robson was never prosecuted.

The New York Times picked up the story of the on-going search for Charles Williams. The American publisher Magnet hadn’t been in business since 1960 and had also gone AWOL. That is when a New York writer named James Lincoln Collier contacted Hutchinson & Co. He told them he had written the novel and sold it to Magnet under the pseudonym Charles Williams.

Penguin, in 1968, published the first British paperback edition of Fires of Youth (the cover pictured above). It was the third time the book was published, but the first time published with the correct author’s name printed on the cover. James Lincoln Collier went on to write over twenty books. My Brother Sam is Dead won the Newbery Honor and was nominated for a National Book Award. I always find it interesting how we, as an individual or culture, assign value to literature, and this story leaves me with many feelings of contradiction and compunction. Why is it that the original American version received no attention or acclaim? Was it that an award was given to an unlikely source of literary merit, which in turn created the sense of value? I’m curious to see what the reviews were like after the third publication came out. In any case, it makes an interesting, and yes, curious, study of how books are published and perceived.