Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Can't think of a Witi title

If you pan down the front page from the photo of hippopotamuses attacking a crocodile, you find a story about Witi Ihimaera, the veteran literary author, winning a $50,000 award from the Arts Foundation for his contribution to the arts in New Zealand. Except the article isn't really about that at all. "Ihimaera wins $50,000 arts prize," says the headline, "despite plagiarism row." I wasn't really aware there was a "row" about it at all, but let's see what the article has to say about the prize - an award not only made to Ihimaera, one of New Zealand's most critically and commercially successful authors, but to "carver Lyonel Grant, musicians Chris Knox and Richard Nunns and photographer Anne Noble".

Author Witi Ihimaera was last night presented with a prestigious arts award and a $50,000 prize - a week after he was caught up in a plagiarism row.

The writer of Whale Rider was embarrassed by revelations that his latest novel, The Trowenna Sea, contains passages by other authors without attribution.

He apologised for the oversight, which he said amounted to less than 0.4 per cent of what had been published, and promised any future editions of the book would include proper acknowledgments.

Right. You seem to have stopped talking about the award whatsoever. You realise that you've already published a bunch of articles on this amazing find, right? What is interesting about this particular article is that almost every paragraph feels the need to stick the knife in by mentioning or alluding to the 'controversy'. It's reasonably long, but let's look through it:

Despite the controversy, he has been named a laureate by the Arts Foundation. The honour comes with a cheque for $50,000.

Carver Lyonel Grant, musicians Chris Knox and Richard Nunns and photographer Anne Noble were also named laureates at last night's awards ceremony at the ASB Showgrounds in Greenlane.

Ihimaera made no specific mention of the scandal, but in as [sic, facepalm] speech that lasted about 10 minutes alluded to the furore.

"I would rather be someone else this week. Any of you are welcome to be Witi Ihimaera."

Yesterday, Arts Foundation executive director Simon Bowden defended the selection of Ihimaera so soon after the controversy.

"The award itself is for a lifetime of work and is an investment in someone's future ... He's an extraordinary artist."

Mr Bowden accepted the plagiarism was a "serious matter" but said Ihimaera was trying to make things right "as much as he can".

Ihimaera had told the foundation of the plagiarism claim before it became public and it did generate discussion among the selectors.

However, Mr Bowden said those things weren't enough to change their minds because Ihimaera was an artist whose writing had been enjoyed by generations. Though Mr Bowden had had only positive reaction from those he had spoken to about the issue, he accepted there could be some adverse feedback from the arts community. He believed most would congratulate the Arts Foundation on carrying on with the award.

Ihimaera said he hoped the plagiarism issue wouldn't overshadow the award.

"I take the long view ... that every author goes through a controversy at one part of their career. I do believe my entire career models the best ethical behaviour that is required of all artists in New Zealand."

He was grateful for the support he'd received from the foundation which would help him move past the controversy. He apologised again to those he failed to acknowledge, which was "inadvertent and regretful".

He planned to use the $50,000 prize to support himself while he wrote more historical novels - including a follow-up to The Trowenna Sea and another novel set in New York. He is retiring from his position as a professor at Auckland University next year.

Ihimaera said he had been unsure if he should accept the award because he didn't think he was good enough, but was "honoured and humbled" by it.

Anyone would think that the New Zealand Herald didn't regularly plagiarise press releases from, say, the BNZ or TVNZ. Like I said, this article was on the front page, but another similar, but more bitter, article didn't make the print edition and can be found online: "Exposed plagiarist [!] Witi Ihimaera given $50,000 award". Sorry Witi, you're no longer an author; you're an exposed plagiarist.
Prominent New Zealand author Witi Ihimaera has been named an Arts Foundation laureate and will receive a no-strings-attached $50,000 to spend as he pleases.
Jesus. "No-strings-attached"? "To spend as he pleases"? Unconscionable! You mean he doesn't even have to promise not to plagiarise anymore? And to add insult to injury, he doesn't even have to spend the money on subscriptions to APN publications? APN publications, that is, such as the Listener, a magazine that used to be an interesting and progressive read but is now almost entirely dedicated to stories about house prices and where to send your kids to school. (St Cuths or Dio? Oh dear.) Funnily enough, it's also the magazine which 'broke' the news of Ihimaera's borrowing of small passages without attribution. I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that not only is the award criticised in a front page article, but also in today's editorial - "Top award for Ihimaera is embarrassing":

The Arts Foundation of New Zealand has created an embarrassment with one of its five "laureate" awards last night. Doubtless the decision to make one of the $50,000 awards to writer Witi Ihimaera was made long before his latest novel was found to include at least 16 unattributed passages that appear to be substantially the work of others.

Doubtless, too, the selection panel operates at arm's length from the foundation set up to assist and promote cultural achievement of the highest quality in this country. But in the week since a reviewer's concerns were reported by the New Zealand Listener, somebody at the foundation should have intervened.

[...] Those who put him in this position have questions to answer. The selection panel consisted of Elizabeth Ellis, Jenny Harper, Derek Lardelli and two writers, Bill Manhire and Grant Smithies. Did they read the book? Did they miss the stylistic oddities that alerted the Listener's Jolisa Gracewood? Do they think her revelations unimportant?

Oh, did we mention that it was discovered by Jolisa Gracewood? From the Listener? The amazing thing is, despite this award being such an "embarrassment", the Herald have seemingly failed to find a single figure from the New Zealand arts world to quote from who will say they are embarrassed by it. Anyone? It's almost as if... no one else cares.

Plagiarism isn't cool. As a former pseudo-academic (aka student) myself, I worked long and hard to produce my own material and blah blah blah. But it's not like he plagiarised a whole book, and it's not like the award has anything to do with the work in question. So get over it.

I was thinking last week how lucky Rodney Hide was that Hone Harawira magnificently exploded into the news. Now I can't help but think how lucky Harawira is that Witi Ihimaera won $50,000. It's all just a giant merry-go-round - or, if you prefer, a tag-team wrestling match where the wrestlers are constantly tagging in and out, all avoiding that final, match-ending hold that they may or may not deserve.


  1. A Professor of English plagiarises material, not just on one occasion but in at least two of his books, and we are supposed to "get over it" because he says he's sorry. Sorry may have washed as an excuse once, but not twice. Especially when he was called on it last time round so must have been all too aware of the need to attribute copied passages. Do you think that the students who have to sign an undertaking not to plagiarise which accompanies ever piece of work they hand in at university would get away with "oops, sorry, I failed to properly attribute the work I copied".

    This is an issue because of the position he holds at Auckland University.

  2. you're way off target here, James.

  3. What was the Herald's response to Garth George using unattributed passages in his column?

  4. This blog is slipping a bit. I blame the job.

    Its very cynical, but probably not far from the truth to point out the lack of employer action is due to the potential academic staff backlash from censuring a homosexual male of maori descent.

  5. I don't think he's "off target" at all. The point is that the herald have taken a positive story celebrating the achievements of some great New Zealand artists, and reduced it to an "another bludging Maori" (s)hit-piece.

  6. That is fundamentally NOT what this story is about. That's you projecting your values and your preconceptions.

  7. >>> What was the Herald's response to Garth George using unattributed passages in his column?

    given that he did attribute them, not much

  8. Anonymous 1: You may have a point there - I'm more than willing to back down if someone puts a reasonable argument forward.

    Of course, the Herald pieces did *not* emphasise the University aspect of it, so they may not have considered that as important as you do.

    The other aspect, of course, is that all this has *already* been reported when it came out last week (or whenever). We've ALREADY heard this. The award was decided before the discovery, and awarded on the basis of PAST accomplishments. Of course, the awards likely wouldn't have been reported on without the frisson of controversy, and they probably would have just made the crocodile bigger.

    Monk: No I'm not.

    Is this an argument now?

    Master Hogwash: So sorry to have let you down. But you're right - it IS very cynical.

    Monk (again): I don't think the story was necessarily racially driven at all, but it nonetheless did turn a story about achievement into a rubbish shit-stirring article. You can't really deny that.

    Monk (again... sigh): You're technically correct - the best kind of correct - but forgive me for thinking that copying half of your column from a bullshit lobby group and semi-attributing it is worse than Ihimaera's (admittedly bad) trespasses.

  9. Oh I never realised Garth George and Ihimaera operated on the same level.

    Ah well, must be wrong.

  10. PS I sense a straw man argument.

  11. Maybe they had to keep repeating that there is a controversy because most readers wouldn't realise that plagiarism is controversial?

    Perhaps there's some sort of inverse relationship between reality and the way the news reports it - a respected author forgets to attribute a few passages and reporters reach for the Herald thesaurus - but humanity being forced to become refugees in the Arctic Circle after a 6 degree temperature rise doesn't even warrant an adjective or outraged vox pop.

  12. Monk- I sense a flip flop here. A couple of weeks ago, you were asserting that anonymous commenters on this blog should be held to the same referencing standards as professional journalists. Are you now suggesting that GG and WI should be held to different standards because they operate on different levels of literary significance? Or am I missing the point you are making here?

  13. Go to the Herald website, and type 'Ihimaera' into the search box. Then read the articles that come up - including yesterday's editorial, and Holmes's vindictive... er... vomitting.

    And then come back and say that James is off target, or that Ihimaera is getting the criticism that he deserves.

    Nice work, James. And on today's as well.

  14. JP Rocks. Nice try, but Garth George is not involved in this discussion. Therefore, his standards bear no relevance.

    And as for your claims of a flip flop, I maintain that if you demand standards of others, it helps to aspire to them yourself - which helpfully works on all levels of this discussion.

  15. yes gazzaj, that's because 6C hasn't happened yet, and the report is the latest in a slew of reports all contradicting each other.

  16. To suggest that a newspaper -- or any news organisation -- plagiarises press release is the stupidest thing I've ever heard.

  17. Yep. But you are reading a blog by someone who has never worked for a newspaper and knows nothing about journalism.