ULA accuses Bissell of plagiarism; writer Glenn Kenny points to Bissell’s source citation

You’ll recall that I spent the early part of the week deep in a toothachy winter funk and let hundreds of email messages pile up in my inbox. Among the messages I missed until now was Karl Wenclas’ accusation of plagiarism against Tom Bissell, which some in the blogosphere have been quick to endorse.

Wenclas emailed various bloggers and editors, including me, and solicited public comments on his allegations.

Although I generally admire Bissell’s journalism, I haven’t read the works at issue: Chasing the Sea (about the failure of the Aral Sea ecosystem) and a Harper’s excerpt from it. I plan to read his forthcoming short story collection, but I doubt I’ll find time for the nonfiction.

Also, unlike some of my friends, I’m not particularly well-informed about Russian history and culture, except insofar as they are represented in the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol, and other long-dead writers.

In light of my relative ignorance, I probably would’ve ignored the call for responses except that Wenclas implied earlier today that my silence was motivated by some sort of impropriety — or at least a lack of backbone.

An old friend caught wind of Wenclas’ insinuations via Gawker (“Dude, maybe everyone’s busy“) and filled me in. From now on, I won’t take the bait. I’ve realized, finally, that these guys want to paint me as part of a vast publishing conspiracy. But today I took a look at the allegations, found myself unable to form any judgments, and sent off this response:

I haven’t read the Harper’s essay or Bissell’s Chasing the Sea, so I don’t know whether any attributions were made. I don’t know whether the Soviet jokes and quotes on the list are common Russian proverbs and cliches — like Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” for example — or if they’re documented only in Feshbach’s book. When I was in college, I was required to disclose paraphrased sources. But since I’m unfamiliar with the sources involved here, and the area of scholarship, I can’t offer an opinion on plagiarism.

Now writer Glenn Kenny, in email to Gawker, addresses the attribution question:

Clearly Karl Wenclas has been looking for an opportunity to avenge himself of the pasting Tom Bissell gave him and the ULA in the June 2003 issue of “The Believer” and believes he’s found one in this so-called plagiarism. The only problem is that Bissell (who, I should divulge, is a friend and collaborator) already addressed the issue. While “Ecocide” is cited in both hardcover and paperback editions of “Chasing the Sea,” Bissell added a note in the paperback edition of “Chasing the Sea” specifically stating “much of the information of pages 313-316 [of ‘Chasing the Sea’] is drawn from this book [‘Ecocide’].” It’s up to you if you want to deem that too little, too late, but given that the paperback was prepared in Spring of ’04 and hit stores in October of ’04, one can’t help but wonder if the King himself isn’t a bit slow on the uptake. . . . I hate to see a good man and a fine writer besmirched before all the facts have been gathered.


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