Last Wednesday, November 30, 2005, the New York Press, an alternative free paper, published an article about "The downfall of Brad Vice." The article was written by author Robert Clark Young, who had previously commented on the University of Georgia Press’ decision to pulp Brad Vice’s short story collection, and the accusations of plagiarism that surrounded that decision, in the comments section of a couple of blog posts over at www.storySouth.com.
Mr. Young argues that "One of the many problems with plagiarists is that their behavior, like that of other people who steal, often tends to be compulsive," in his article. He believes he has found the smoking gun that is case number two for author Brad Vice, and that a duplication proves that Vice is a plagiarist and not one who could possibly have made a mistake with his story "Tuscaloosa Knights." The question for readers of this article? How credible are both Mr. Young, and the case he brings forward?
First off, the case he brings forward. This second example that Mr. Young has discovered really doesn’t hold much water. He points out how some lines about screwworms in Vice’s short story "Report from Junction," are similar to lines from Jim Dent’s "The Junction Boys."
The examples he lists are as follows:
Dent: They often were victims of screwworms, a parasitic blowfly that would lay eggs in the sores of the living animals.
Vice: Screwworms are the larvae of blue-bellied blowflies, which lay their eggs in the wounded flesh of living animals.
Dent: The screwworms attached themselves to the animal’s vital organs and sucked out the life.
Vice: [T]hey will screw themselves into the vital organs and suck the life right out.
The full sentence is actually: Some of the worms have probably already burrowed deep into the calf’s body, and soon they will screw themselves into its vital organs and suck the life right out of it.
Dent: They sometimes would screw themselves into the brain and then exit through the eyeballs.
Vice: [T]he maggots will most likely screw themselves into its brain … before they exit back through its eyes.
The full sentence is actually: In fact, with worms already on the calf’s head, the maggots will most likely screw themselves into its brain and drive it completely mad before they exit back through its eyes.
Dent: He kicked the gelding and rode up on a ghastly sight.
Vice: Kurt kicked the gelding and charged up to a gruesome sight.
The first three examples are descriptions of scientific facts about screwworms. There can only be so many different ways to describe how screwworms bore into a creature, do harm to the creature, and exit. As to the fourth example, Vice was writing a story about Bear Bryant having taking over the Texas A&M football team and about a high school senior named Dennis Goehring (in Brad’s dissertation, the character was named Dennis Schaffer. It was changed to Kurt Schaffer by the time the story was published) – the incident Vice writes of stems from Goehring’s life, a fact that makes it likely that there would be similarities with his and Dent’s work about some of the specifics.
In an email, C. Michael Curtis, Senior Editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and editor of "Report from Junction" as it appeared in The Atlantic Monthly V. 290 n. 1 (July-August 2002), let me know that he was aware of the Dent book "… and decided to postpone its publication until we had worked with Vice to prevent easily-avoided overlap in some particular details. The story of Bear Bryant’s first A&M football team seemed to us well-known and not the property of Mr. Dent or anyone else. Further, the heart of the story we believed, then and now, to be the invention of Brad Vice, even though elements of its drama is placed in the familiar setting, as above."
Going back to Mr. Young’s original idea that plagiarists repeat their efforts – if you remove this second case, I believe you can go back to at least considering the fact that Vice actually may have made a horrible mistake with his intentions in regards to "Tuscaloosa Knights." It doesn’t mean you believe Vice should be off the hook, just that Mr. Young may not have nailed the coffin as tightly as he believes.
There seem to be other reasons to re-consider Mr. Young’s article in general. Jason Sanford at www.storySouth.com has detailed his own reasons for believing the article to be one of poor journalism, specifically noting that Mr. Young makes a large issue of pointing out how plagiarism is typically an offense found in the first draft, and gives a link to Vice’s dissertation – the first draft versions available to the reading public. However, when Mr. Young gives his examples of Vice’s "plagiarisms" as shown above, the examples come from the final University of Georgia manuscript version, not the dissertation.
Sanford also notes that while actively searching for examples that prove Vice a plagiarist, Mr. Young ignores something that might help one believe that Vice never intended on hiding the fact that he was well aware of his usage of Carl Carmer’s work – his dissertation (that again, Mr. Young refers to, and so, is aware of) has an epigraph from Carmer just before the "Tuscaloosa Knights" story.
Lastly, nowhere in Mr. Young’s article does he mention that he has attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. This is possibly the most egregious of Mr. Young’s efforts as he spends just under half of his article blasting both the Conference itself, and many of those who are involved with it, either as instructors or visitors – just so long as they have anything to do with Brad Vice.
It is Mr. Young’s contention that the reason Brad Vice has made it to the level he has (however you’d like to consider that) is through his involvement with Sewanee. He notes that during the 12 day long conference, many of the South’s leading writers will gather and decide many things. In fact there is a list Mr. Young has come up with:
which attendees should be considered for future scholarships to the conference
which writers should receive letters of recommendation to graduate programs
which new novelists should receive blurbs
which attendees should be nominated to New Stories from the South
what attendees have manuscripts that should be considered for the Flannary O’Connor Award in Short Fiction.
I cannot state for a fact that this list was built with the accomplishments of Brad Vice in mind, but he did receive scholarships to Sewanee; he did go to a graduate program that had at least two professorial connections to Sewanee; his book was blurbed by Barry Hannah, a pretty big wig over at Sewanee, among others; he’s seen two stories in the New Stories from the South; and he was awarded the Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction (which was subsequently withdrawn by the University of Georgia Press).
However, that first story that appeared in New Stories from the South, "Mojo Farmer" did so in 1997 – the year before Brad even showed up at Sewanee according to Mr. Young’s article. Of course, this fact is only important if you believe that this cabal of writers actually has some input on New Stories from the South. My understanding, from having read many of her introductions, was that Shannon Ravenel read copious amounts of literary journals and sent along a selection of stories as finalists to whomever the Guest Editor was each particular year. And I have always read that the University of Georgia Press had a standard method of submitting your manuscript of short stories to the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction contest.
This section of Mr. Young’s article makes it quite clear – if not for Brad Vice’s activities at Sewanee, and the, as Mr. Young puts it, "coloring one another’s Easter eggs and then filling one another’s baskets," he never would have made it this far in his literary career.
Mr. Young also points out that Brad Vice, in the acknowledgements of his dissertation gives thanks to "the entire faculty and staff of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference past and present," and notes that he singles out Hannah, Erin McGraw, Josip Novakovich, Tim Parrish, Allen Wier, Pinckney Benedict, Claire Messud and others.
A look at that section of the dissertation notes that Vice acknowledges many, many people. Specifically looking at writers, teachers and other literary folks – Vice breaks them into two categories:
Friends and Teachers:
Tim Parrish, Ted Solotaroff, Allen Wier, Kent Nelson, Josip Novakovich, Erin McGraw, Andrew Hudgins, Tom LeClair, Jim Schiff, John Drury, Don Bogen, Will Allison, Dick, Lois, and Gilda Rosenthal; and
"the Entire faculty and staff of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference past and present (especially Wyatt Prunty, Pinckney Benedict, Barry Hannah, Claire Messud, Cheri Peters, Phil Stephens, Greg Williamson, Danny Anderson, Leah Stewart, Leigh Ann Couch, Liz Van Hoose and Ron Briggs.)"
This may be semantics, but the way that Mr. Young states it, I would assume that the names Erin McGraw, Josip Novakovich, Tim Parrish, and Allen Wier would all certainly appear in that second grouping due to their affiliations with the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.
The important thing for Mr. Young however, was not where in his acknowledgements that Brad Vice thanked these folks, but the fact that his name can be linked to theirs somewhere in the literary world beyond Sewanee – the whole Easter egg thing.
Going through the list:
Erin McGraw was a faculty advisor for Vice, and she has blurbed his work. Reading Mr. Young’s article, I’m still not sure how her own eggs have been colored.
Josip Novakovich was a fiction fellow at Sewanee, and the head of the advisory committee for Vice’s dissertation. Brad praised Novakovich highly in a review he wrote for an e-zine, Wordgun. I suppose approving of Vice’s dissertation is where the coloring occurred for Brad here.
Tim Parrish was a student of Allen Wier’s at the same time as Vice and is a friend of his. Vice reviewed one of Parrish’s works, comparing him to Carver and Dubus. Vice also uses Allen Wier as the name of a journalist in the short story, "Report from Junction."
Pinckney Benedict has been a Sewanee writer and Vice wrote the Benedict entry in The Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vice also wrote a piece on author Claire Messud, another Sewanee writer, in a Writer’s Digest back in September 2000. I’m not quite sure what any of these last four authors has done for Brad – sure he thanks them in his acknowledgements, but without some specific point (say for example, in the UGA Press version of the book where Vice thanks Shannon Ravenel – I assume it is for including the story in two New Stories from the South anthologies), when I see a list of authors in an acknowledgements section, I generally assume they were friends who supported, and maybe even critiqued the author in question. Weak pastel coloring at best.
The big name on the list that Mr. Young makes the biggest point of the tit for tat nature of literary writers scratching the backs of each other? Barry Hannah. Mr. Young points out that while "most reviewers" were negative towards Hannah’s 2001 novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan, Vice raved about it in the San Francisco Chronicle (7/8/2001).
A quick google search of "Barry Hannah Yonder Reviews" yields plenty of results. The first seven reviews that I found were all positive. Granted, neither of Mr. Young’s examples (New York Times or The Baltimore Sun) popped up for me in the first few pages of results, but the following did:
The Review of Contemporary Fiction – written by Brian Evenson – June 2002
"But plot and focus are hardly the chief reasons why Hannah should be read."
Powell’s – Review a Day (originally in Esquire) – written by Sven Birkets – 6/27/01
"…Hannah, too, has written an apocalyptic ballad, a work of such gut-churning American gothic surreal-realism (or whatever you want to call it) that it has to be compared not just to Flannary O’Connor, but to Dylan of the great early mid-period, circa ‘Highway 61 Revisited’."
BookReporter.com – written by Joe Hartlaub
"Love of language however, will be enough to keep most going."
Rain Taxi Online – written by Brian Beatty
" … the rewards include authentic literary art and a folk wisdom that is as valuable as it is simple and true."
Portland Phoenix – Year in Review 2001
"…beauty and the absolute control of his prose."
City Beat – Written by Richard Hunt – January 2002
"He’s wicked in his delights, twisting and greasy, bent on vengeance, high on the language."
Boston Phoenix – written by Julia Hanna – July 2001
"…Wonderfully baroque orgy of fornication, degredation, …" (Though, Ms. Hanna did suggest that his earlier story collection, Airships, would be a much better entry to Hannah’s work)
Quite the beating from the critics. What else did Brad do to help entice Hannah into writing a blurb for his story collection? He praised the hell out of him in an interview with Matt Kunz – he of the Mississippi Writers and Musicians website (a Starksville, MS high school web project).
To be as up front as possible, some of the names within this post might ring familiar to those who know me. Erin McGraw – I’ve reviewed her works very positively, and have consistently listed either her, or her book, The Baby Tree, as one that should absolutely be read by more people than currently have. Pinckney Benedict – while I’ve not reviewed any of this trio of books (all published prior to my online activities), he has participated in a live E-Panel and I’ve consistently mentioned his individual stories when appearing in literary journals. Both are members of the Emerging Writers Network. As for Brad Vice – my dealings with Brad consist of emailing him and asking if he’d do an interview back when I received a galley from University of Georgia Press, and his saying yes. Before I got around to that interview, the pulping had occurred.
If anything, I’ve bitten a bit of the hand that feeds me by posting a question as to whether or not UGA Press reacted a bit hastily, even questioning whether or not a recent online issue had them a bit gun-shy.
Each reader, as they pick up details, must make their own determination about Brad Vice’s abilities and intentions. Personally, I think he made a huge error in not fighting for the epigraph to appear in his collection, and for not having an acknowledgements page that mentioned both Carmer, Dent, and any other Bear Bryant source books he may have read while writing his stories. I’m still not sure the University of Georgia Press needed to pulp this book so quickly, but I understand that the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction is a huge deal to them, and is not something they want tainted in any shape or form. What Mr. Young has given each reader is another bit of information to possibly help them form their own opinions.
Again, it is up to each reader to make a determination as to the credibility of Mr. Young’s article. Based on the above details, I’m going to take this piece the New York Press felt fine to run with a grain of salt about as big as my head.