Writing & News

Response to plagiarism in The Dogs 9 June 2022

Responses by John Hughes and Terri-ann White regarding The Dogs.

I’ve never written a book like The Dogs before that has taken so many different forms over so many years. My books are for the most part short and written in a burst. But for the past fifteen years, my previous four books have each intruded into it – pressing for attention for different reasons – and for a time taken it over. Each time I put it aside, when it came to taking it up again, it had become in my mind something else. The original novel changed hugely, in other words. My reading and research was worked and re-worked so much over the years, built up by such a slow process of accretion, it became a part of my own imaginative life. 

It came to me as a surprise, then, to find how much of Svetlana Alexievich there was in Part II of my book. After so many recordings and transcripts of conversations with my Ukrainian grandparents and trying to integrate these into the ‘ruins’ of the earlier drafts, I’d come to think of that oral material as theirs. (I had heard so many similar stories from them, and it’s clear they were common experiences for many people during the war.) This is not to say the words are not Alexievich’s, simply that I no longer remembered them as such. Over the years I’d picked up so many bits and pieces and woven them so tightly into what I hoped was a coherent whole I could no longer unpick them, even if I had wanted to. I don’t mean by this to excuse the appropriation, merely to explain that Alexievich’s first-hand accounts of Russian women from the Second World War are so much like my grandmother’s fragments as she related them to me, the two became conflated in my mind. Even the scene of the baby in the swamp (which corresponds to other horrific accounts of people in hiding), I remember it as a story she told me, even as I see now that it was Alexievich’s version I included. But there are important differences as well that result from the appropriations (my book is nothing like hers). In Alexievich, for example, the woman is left frozen in the moment of horror, whereas in The Dogs I imagine a life for her before and after that terrible moment. I believe I make it into something different by doing this, that the incident becomes a part of a much larger story. 

This might sound like a justification. It isn’t. I’m not trying to justify myself here. I am rather trying to account for how I could have used so directly parts of another writer’s work without realising I was doing so. I have taught creative writing for many years and the importance of small detail in the evocation of voice has been a key component of that teaching. I read The Unwomanly Face of War when its English translation was published in 2017. I admired the book enormously, especially Alexievich’s methodology of using the oral testimonies of others to build an account of a lived history. It was perfect for me when it came to talking to my creative writing groups about voice (and I certainly acknowledged Alexievich then as the source). I typed up the passages I wanted to use and have not returned to the book itself since that time. At some point soon after I must have added them to the transcripts I’d made of interviews with my grandparents and over the years with each new draft come to think of them as my own (the voices and experiences of wartime, as I’ve said, were so much the same). 

I did not at any stage in the writing intend to pass off Alexievich’s work as my own and was truly surprised when I saw the material included in the article (there is nothing more disturbing than discovering your creative process is not what you had assumed). I can see that the appropriations are real, but I don’t remember making them. I see now that was a false memory, but it was still my memory all the same. (Ironically, this is exactly the kind of forgetting I marvelled at in my grandfather when I wrote the first essay in my first book, The Idea of Home, and called it ‘An Essay of Forgetting’.) If it hadn’t been my memory (if I’d been trying to pass off a Nobel Prize winner’s work as my own), I wouldn’t have used the details and stories so directly! Memory and the unconscious play such a crucial role in the creative process, but the process can still remain opaque, even to the creator. I don’t think I’m the first writer ever to have experienced this. Nevertheless, the fact remains, and I would like to apologise to Ms Alexievich and her translators for using their words without acknowledgment. 

As the publisher of The Dogs I stand steadfast alongside the author, despite the appropriations now evident in this text. I, too, had read Svetlana Alexievich when her remarkable books arrived in English translations. Her polyphonic style mesmerised me, in the words of the Nobel Prize citation, as a monument to suffering and courage in our time. I did not recognise these lines she had recorded in John Hughes’s novel: they are, ultimately, unadorned descriptions of human voices speaking of violence in a simple and often banal style, balancing testimony with survival. 

As a writer I understand how creativity can get mixed up in the making of a long work, like a novel, when copious notes from research, listening in to conversations and reading the work of others, can begin over time to sound like your own words. To find a sounding board in what is usually a private space of writing and inhabiting characters is a remote option. I am only sorry that I didn’t recognise these borrowed descriptions used by John Hughes in his larger story of a survivor, a woman who lives to an advanced age in this profound novel. 

Now identified, it is my responsibility to make amends and acknowledge these primary source materials in the book I have published.