Books News: Dan Mallory, 2 Starkly Similar Novels and the Puzzle of Plagiarism


Business News - Opportunities - Reviews



Last year, while promoting his debut thriller, “The Woman in the Window,” Dan Mallory praised the tradition of literary mimicry: “It is often said that ‘good writers borrow, great writers steal,’” he said in an interview with The Guardian, borrowing a phrase from T. S. Eliot.

In retrospect, his choice of words was both surprisingly honest, and perhaps a clue to the depth of his deception.

Mr. Mallory — who was recently the subject of an exposé in The New Yorker that detailed his past as a habitual liar who feigned fatal illnesses and fabricated a tragic family history — has acknowledged that the plot of his novel, which became a best seller, owes a debt to several famous works, including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” and Paula Hawkins’s blockbuster thriller, “The Girl on the Train.”

“The Woman in the Window” is also strikingly similar to a novel by Sarah A. Denzil, “Saving April,” which was published in March 2016, several months before Mr. Mallory sold his novel to his then-employer, William Morrow.

The parallels are numerous, and detailed. Both novels feature anxiety-ridden, middle-aged female narrators who are afraid to leave their homes, and they witness something suspicious while spying on neighbors. The stories have nearly identical plot twists in the final act. “It is the EXACT same plot like down to the main characters’ back story,” one person wrote in an Amazon review comparing the two books. “Sorry but there’s no way the amount of stolen material is a coincidence.”

Plagiarism in fiction is difficult to prove, and rarely prompts copyright lawsuits. Most intellectual property experts agree that plots and ideas aren’t protected by copyright, because there are so many familiar tropes, and writers often draw inspiration from earlier works. Within genre fiction, publishers who are eager to replicate successful formulas often participate in benign forms of copying, sometimes actively soliciting the next “Gone Girl” or “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

At Morrow, a spokeswoman said Mr. Mallory’s novel was well underway before “Saving April” was published and noted that “the outline of ‘The Woman in the Window,’ including characters and main plot points, was fully formed by Sept. 20, 2015, before ‘Saving April’ was released.” Mr. Mallory declined to comment.

In a response to The New Yorker’s revelations, Mr. Mallory said he had “severe bipolar II disorder” that caused “crushing depressions, delusional thoughts, morbid obsessions, and memory problems.”

“It’s been horrific,” he added, “not least because, in my distress, I did or said or believed things I would never ordinarily say, or do, or believe.”

In interviews, Mr. Mallory has said he started writing “The Woman in the Window” in the summer of 2015. He sold the book to Morrow in the fall of 2016. Stephen King and Ms. Flynn gave it enthusiastic blurbs, and a movie adaptation starring Amy Adams is set for release this fall. The paperback edition is due next month, and Morrow plans to publish a second book by Mr. Mallory.

The questions surrounding Mr. Mallory and his work are unlikely to alter the novel’s upward trajectory. (It has sold some 378,000 copies, according to NPD BookScan.) Books with similar plots abound in fiction, and The New Yorker’s revelations centered more on Mr. Mallory’s private and professional conduct than on his writing. But the debate underscores how lines blur when considering literary theft and acceptable homage, and when the deployment of clichéd plot conventions becomes an egregious use of another writer’s work and ideas.

“Great fiction builds on prior works in terms of both language and sense of place,” said Stuart Karle, an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School who specializes in media law. “In fiction, it is more accepted and expected to be part of it.”

Except for cases in which exact language is lifted without credit, or a character’s name and likeness are used, plagiarism claims against novelists tend to collapse in court, as they have in lawsuits brought against best-selling writers like J. K. Rowling and Michael Crichton.

Both novels feature anxiety-ridden, middle-aged female narrators who are afraid to leave their homes, and witness something suspicious while spying on neighbors. And the stories have nearly identical plot twists.

In recent years, copyright lawsuits against acclaimed novelists were dismissed after the courts found insufficient evidence of plagiarism. When Emma Cline’s ex-boyfriend sued her, claiming that she had stolen elements of her debut novel, “The Girls,” from him, a California court dismissed the case, after a judge ruled that a comparison of the two texts revealed “few objective similarities and no substantial ones.” In New York, when Charles Green sued Chad Harbach, alleging that Mr. Harbach’s novel “The Art of Fielding” had copied the plot of his baseball book, a judge dismissed Mr. Green’s claims, noting that “any similarities are either not copyrightable abstract ideas, or, when understood in context, not actually similar.”

The starkest plagiarism cases usually involve not just borrowed plots or ideas, but near-identical phrasing. In 2006, Little, Brown withdrew a debut young adult novel by Kaavya Viswanathan after it emerged that she had copied passages from the writer Megan McCafferty. Recently, the publisher Rhythm & Bones Press canceled a debut collection by the poet Ailey O’Toole, after Rachel McKibbens and other writers accused Ms. O’Toole of copying their verse.

Plagiarism is often more clear-cut in nonfiction, but there are murky areas. Copyright experts often argue that ideas and facts aren’t subject to intellectual property protection, unlike the extensive use of precise language and phrasing, so plagiarism is often treated as an ethical infraction rather than a legal one. Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of The New York Times, recently faced accusations that she had plagiarized passages of her new book, “Merchants of Truth.” She acknowledged that some passages lacked attribution and would be corrected in future editions, but defended her work over all by noting that “all of the ideas in the book are original, all the opinions are mine.”

Even in fiction, there are precedents in copyright law where the borrowing of plot elements is so extensive and blatant that plagiarism crosses into copyright infringement.

“The courts hold out the possibility that it could be infringement without a language overlap,” said Rebecca Tushnet, an intellectual property expert at Harvard Law School. “If you did the exact same things in the exact same sequence all the way through, the court wouldn’t have that much trouble finding infringement.”

Ms. Tushnet said the plot parallels between Mr. Mallory’s novel and “Saving April” were “likely too thin to support an infringement claim,” since some of the plot points at issue — like the unreliable female narrator and a young victim who turns out to be a perpetrator — are well-worn tropes in thrillers.

Still, the overlap is significant enough to give some readers pause.

Ms. Denzil, who lives in Yorkshire, England, started working on “Saving April” in October 2015, and finished a draft in eight weeks. When she released the novel in March 2016, it received largely positive reviews, and became a best seller on Amazon in the United States and Britain. It went on to sell over 120,000 copies, and has more than 6,800 ratings on Goodreads.

But two years later, some online reviewers began noting that “Saving April” was a lot like “The Woman in the Window,” by A. J. Finn, a pen name for Mr. Mallory.

The stories cover starkly similar territory (spoilers follow).

The protagonists of both novels are middle-aged women — Hannah in “Saving April,” and Anna in “The Woman in the Window” — who suffer from intense anxiety and are afraid to leave their homes, and begin spying on their neighbors, in both cases, an unhappily married couple with an adopted teenage child who has a troubled past. In “Saving April,” the teenager is a girl whose birth mother was a neglectful alcoholic; in “The Woman in the Window,” the adopted teenager is a boy whose birth mother was a neglectful drug addict.

The parallels continue: Both novels’ narrators have been traumatized and wracked with guilt over car crashes that killed their husbands and young daughters, when they were at the wheel, driving in bad weather and fighting with their spouses over infidelity.

In both stories, the heroines call the police to check on their neighbors after witnessing something unsettling, but the police discount their accounts because they suspect the women of heavy drinking and being unhinged. And the novels feature a nearly identical final twist: In each story, the teenager that the narrator is trying to protect turns out to be a manipulative psychopath, who tortures animals, has killed one or both birth parents, and then tried to kill the protagonist after confessing to the crimes.

In an email response to questions from The Times, Ms. Denzil, whose real name is Sarah Dalton, said she was troubled by the overlap. After consulting several author friends, she decided to move on, and never considered taking legal action. Still, Ms. Denzil feels that some readers might misjudge her book, and it frustrates her that some online reviewers mistakenly believe her book was published after Mr. Mallory’s and that she had borrowed elements of his story.

Recently, a handful of authors have come to Ms. Denzil’s defense. Shortly after the New Yorker article was published, the writer Kerry Wilkinson posted a thread on Twitter, linking to online reviews comparing the two books, and noting that Ms. Denzil’s was published first.

The novelist Annie Bellet suggested in a tweet that readers who were skeptical of Mr. Mallory after The New Yorker article should skip his novel, and offered an alternative: “Try ‘Saving April’ which is almost exactly the same plot,” she wrote.


Business News - Opportunities - Reviews



Leave a Reply