Writers step in to defend author accused of plagiarism in New York Times

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Jill Bialosky.
‘Substantial contributions to American letters’ … Jill Bialosky. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

More than 70 authors, including Pulitzer prize winners Jennifer Egan and Louise Glück, have come to the defence of the editor and poet Jill Bialosky after she was accused of plagiarism, saying that Bialosky’s “inadvertent repetition of biographical boilerplate was not an egregious theft intentionally performed”.

A scathing review of Bialosky’s memoir, Poetry Will Save Your Life, by the poet William Logan in the Tourniquet Review last week accused her of having “plagiarised numerous passages from Wikipedia and the websites of the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation” when writing biographical details of poets including Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson and Robert Lowell.

Logan provided examples of Bialosky’s writing and the passages from Wikipedia, adding that “many of Bialosky’s changes here and elsewhere – ‘barely’ for ‘seldom’, ‘verse’ for ‘poetry’, ‘unleashed’ for ‘gave rise to’, ‘total’ for ‘complete’ – are the slight, guilty revisions of the serial plagiarist”.

His claims were repeated in a New York Times news story, which quoted Logan as saying that “the similarity of language made my heart sink”.

Bialosky, a poet, novelist and editor at WW Norton, was honoured by the Poetry Society of America for her contribution to the art in 2014. In a response to the New York Times article, she said that she would “correct any errors that are found for future editions of the book”.

Her statement added: “William Logan has extracted a few ancillary and limited phrases from my 222-page memoir that inadvertently include fragments of prior common biographical sources and tropes after a multi-year writing process. This should not distract from the thesis of this book, which derives from my own life, my experiences and observations.”

Her publisher Simon & Schuster called Bialosky “a highly regarded editor and author” and the book “a unique and critically acclaimed” memoir. “We stand by the book and are ready to work with the author to make any necessary corrections for future editions,” it said.

Now 72 authors, describing themselves as “writers and friends of literature”, have written to the New York Times to express their concern about the paper’s story. They said that “by giving a large platform to a small offence”, the story had “tainted the reputation of this accomplished editor, poet and memoirist”.

The letter’s authors, Kimiko Hahn and David Baker, identified themselves as writers who have been edited by Bialosky. Of the 70 other signatories, who also include Egan, Claire Messud, Robert Pinsky and Roxanne Robinson, many are also published by WW Norton and edited by Bialosky. Egan and Glück are not.

The letter says that the charges laid against Bialosky “refer to a handful of commonly known biographical facts gleaned from outside sources”.

The authors say: “Given the trust that is assumed between a writer and her readers, this mishandling is not something to shrug off. Yet it bears saying that Ms Bialosky’s inadvertent repetition of biographical boilerplate was not an egregious theft intentionally performed. They say that they “stand with Ms Bialosky and her statement of apology” and that “it would be a terrible disservice to Ms Bialosky and to your readers if the article kept people from appreciating her substantial contributions to American letters”.

Stanley Ward
By Stanley Ward 12/10/2017 11:41:00