Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

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Busytown: Less is more

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  • Steve Curtis,

    Trowenna , it seems for those who havent read the book is an aboriginal name for Tasmania.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 227 posts Report Reply

  • Jolisa,

    Thanks, Steve. Obscure but crucial information.

    Bedtime in my time zone, but carry on regardless!

    Auckland, NZ • Since Nov 2006 • 1411 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood,

    David Haywood asked, in the discussion thread for my last post: "Is Ihimaera's new novel -- plagiarism questions aside -- a good book?"

    Yeah, sometimes I like to assume the persona of, say, a semi-literate former energy engineer (to randomly pull an occupation from the hat) who goes around asking simple-minded questions such as: "Is this a good book?" and "Did you crack a smile?"*

    In reality, I'm all Jacques Derrida and The International Journal of Cultural Studies and, y'know, like everyone just creates their own reality. I mean, like, the way scientists have imposed their cultural values on the rest of us with gravity and temperature and all that other stuff.

    Plus -- to roughly estimate an upper bound -- there are only about 500000^100000 (500,000 to the power of 100,000) ways that a writer can combine+ the English language into a 100,000 word novel.++ That's like so small.

    It's obvious that everything possible must already have been written -- and, like, you've just got to copy from other people.


    * quoting Ronald Hugh Morrieson

    + permute? Is that a word?

    ++ to put that number into perspective there are estimated to be a 'mere' 10^80 (10 to the power of 80) atoms in the observable universe.

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 988 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood,

    Well, okay, maybe a fairer (very rough) upper bound would be a 50,000 word vocabulary and a 20-word sentence. But that's still more permutations than atoms in the observable universe.

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 988 posts Report Reply

  • Rob Stowell,

    damn. we'll have to hire more monkeys ;)

    Whakaraupo • Since Nov 2006 • 1574 posts Report Reply

  • Jolisa,

    Oh dear. I found a few more examples last night, in less than half an hour...

    I must say, every day for the last couple of weeks, I have flipped back and forth between "surely I'm mistaken, and even if I'm not, is this really the novel's greatest failing?" and "but this is outrageous! it's just not done!"

    I want to believe the best of people. But also, I want to expect the best.

    I'm wondering about just putting the parallel quotes online, for academic purposes, since there is such vigorous debate about how much "counts" and what the standard of originality is in a literary work.

    At this point, I'm inclined to think the novel should be withdrawn and rewritten, just to clear the slate, y'know? If, as an author, I found myself in such a position, I'd be eager to do right by myself and by the story.

    By the way, is there a lawyer in the house who could clarify the rules about citing other people's copyrighted words in a novel? I know that song lyrics, for example, and lines of poetry from living poets are always acknowledged on the copyright page these days. But how about plain old other books? Epigraphs, I think, are exempt? And should excerpts always be marked in some manner in the text, or can they be spliced in as long as you note somewhere that you consulted the book?

    If nothing else, this would be a very useful refresher for the writers among us.

    Auckland, NZ • Since Nov 2006 • 1411 posts Report Reply

  • Jolisa,

    But that's still more permutations than atoms in the observable universe.

    Yay, somebody did the maths! We are nowhere near the Creative Event Horizon. In fact, by Dr Haywood's calculations, the heat death of the universe will occur before we exhaust our typewriters AND our monkeys.

    Phew. As a wee mistletoe on the world-tree of literature, I feel better now.

    Nice calculating, Dr Haywood, but it's not too late to go back for that B.A., and then you can foucault with the rest of us artsy types. Maybe a B. Mus. (Perf) in banjo while you're at it.

    "Did you crack a smile?"

    I did. Several times, and like Nicholas Reid, not always at the right times. But there is a vein of humour in the novel that, were I an editor, I would encourage the author to embrace more fully. The thing is, he's clearly having fun with his historical figures, but also wants to mine them for maximum sentiment. It's an uncomfortable marriage, but it could be done well - you'd just have to go RIGHT over the top into a sort of pomo poco farce with a tragic heart to it (cf the late great Epeli Hau'ofa's Kisses in the Nederends, which everyone should read at least once a year). There's not nearly enough of that around.

    Auckland, NZ • Since Nov 2006 • 1411 posts Report Reply

  • richard,

    Even if you don't want to do the math (and I must admit, I did it just to warm my fingers up this morning), try taking random snippets of text and dropping them into google with quotes round them, and see how many "random" matches you get -- and once you get beyond five or six words, with at least one "rare" word, my guess is that most such strings do not produce any accidental matches.

    e.g. Then you can foucault with the rest of us



    But at this point I am uncomfortably reminded of news footage showing police digging up a serial killer's back yard. If every second or third hole they dig turns up something nasty, at what point can they be sure that they have discovered everything that is there to be found...

    [Not that I am implying that plagiarism is akin to serial killing -- but anyone who cares about it (Ihimaera's employers for instance?) might be well advised to make a systematic search, rather than simply assuming that they already had a complete accounting of the "borrowings"]

    Not looking for New Engla… • Since Nov 2006 • 259 posts Report Reply

  • Jolisa,

    + permute? Is that a word?

    You don't need to ask our permussion to make up new ones around here. We are neologism central, dude.

    Auckland, NZ • Since Nov 2006 • 1411 posts Report Reply

  • richard,

    + permute? Is that a word?

    It certainly is where I work. It is the result of verbing permutation, as Calvin would say.

    Not looking for New Engla… • Since Nov 2006 • 259 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia,

    I know that song lyrics, for example, and lines of poetry from living poets are always acknowledged on the copyright page these days.

    You also have to get clearances for song lyrics and pay for them. Stephen King has a nice anecdote about how Bruce Springsteen's publishers were asking more money to clear the rights to extensive quotes from the lyrics to 'Born to Run' than his publisher was willing to part with, until he picked up the phone and negotiated a mate's rate with his pal.

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 12034 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood,

    If every second or third hole they dig turns up something nasty, at what point can they be sure that they have discovered everything that is there to be found...

    Okay, my statistical knowledge is very basic (of the "I sample n widgets from the production line and x amount are flawed -- what's my failure rate?" type).

    But I think this is a straightforward problem.

    1. Count up the number of plagiarized sentences on a sample of pages from the novel. Say, sample every 50th page.

    2. Look at the variance of your sample pages.

    3. If the variance is too high then go back and re-sample at a higher rate of pages, e.g. once every 25th page.

    4. If the variance is reasonable then a good estimate of your answer is the mean number of plagiarized sentences per page multiplied by the number of pages in the book (I think you can assume that the pool of plagiarizable sentences can be approximated by infinity, in this case). E.g. if you sample every 50th page in a 500-page book, and find an average of 5 plagiarisms per page, then you can estimate the total number in the book as 5 * 500 = 2500.

    The trick depends on knowing what's "too high" or "reasonable" in terms of variance for the type of distribution.

    Surely we have a proper statistician in the house? Dr Goodger?

    The other trick, of course, is finding someone with OCD to do the counting if the sample rate starts to get a bit high.

    P.S. Not that you'd be completely sure using this approach -- just reasonably sure.

    Edit: stupid mistake in first version of this post -- typing with toddler on knee watching TMBG videos in another window of my computer.

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 988 posts Report Reply

  • mark taslov,

    Yay, somebody did the maths! We are nowhere near the Creative Event Horizon.

    So then there is consensus that an end point for this system can hypothetically be calculated wth a reasonable degree of accuracy. Not near mind, just finite. Surely only a devout monk who believed in an apocalypse would lay down such system, leaving it loitering somewhere in the middle before version 2?

    "I am the word" etc etc ..Christian undertones saturating the non-collective Dogma. Yes I'm aware 'copyright' in its loosest form predates Christianity, but it does seem to be a primarily western invention.

    It's a curiously physical phenomenon: the hairs on the back of your neck go up, and your heart sinks.

    It is. It is a curiously physical phenomenon in that we are well past the time that the general public was really that fussed. John Lennon and George Harrison were both sued for plagiarism and lost and paid and we all moved somewhere new because as artists they did it for us.

    So even if Witi becoming a Beatle sets hairs on the back or your neck alight Jolisa, Take heart in the level of cynicism the general public have already developed to the pedantry of that particular system of intellectual possession/ ownership.

    Should he rewrite the novel, or can it all be solved with some money changing hands? In which case where is the artistic and intellectual purity underpinning these values you're espousing.

    I think with your calculation of the nonevent horizon David, you neglected to mention the plethora of literature previously written in other languages yet to be translated into English which may infringe the copyright of works as yet unwritten. It's a minor issue I know, I'm not predicting anything, certainly not talking about whole novels (maybe 0.4%), I'm merely attempting to invalidate the functionality of a system designed to ultimately allow only one unacknowledged instance of every sentence or what have you.


    There's nothing wrong with a bit of collectivity now and then, its just a little harder if there's a heaven and a hell for transgression of the commandments in the back of your mind. Witi did not steal his neighbours ox, he simply took a photo and stuck it in his book.

    It's not so much that the system is wrong, merely that it is foreign to a nonconvertible number (David?) of people, unless of course we want to dust off our muskets again.

    your taxed dollar • Since Mar 2008 • 1682 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia,

    P.D. James also has a pertinent anecdote in her "fragment of autobiography", Time to Be in Earnest:

    The other title which caused problems was A Taste for Death. This was taken from four lines of verse which I had read, I think in a Spectator article, some years previously.

    Some can gaze and not be sick,
    But I could never learn the trick.
    There's this to say for blood and breath
    they give a man a taste for death.

    At the time I scribbled down the four lines, telling myself that 'A Taste for Death' would be an admirable title for a novel and would, indeed, probably prove suitable no matter what the plot. When the novel was finished, I tired to find the source of the verse, expecting little difficulty. In fact the lines were totally elusive. My editor and I, helped by Faber staff, culled Auden, Kipling, Hardy, Larkin and any other poet who seemed likely to be the author. Again the weeks passed and the novel was due to be printed. It seemed to me that the title was meaningless without the verse, but it could hardly be printed from memory and without acknowledgement. At the last minute the source was discovered simultaneously by an elderly lady living in the Cathedral Close at Norwich and a young lady working on the book pages of the New York Times. The lines are by A.E. Housman, published among his later work, untitled and not part of a longer poem. So perhaps it isn't surprising that the quotation eluded us for so long.

    I'm sure Faber's legal department were thankful James' sense of literary probity was so strong, because another feature of Housman's poetry is that in 1986 will was still under copyright. And the Society of Authors, acting as the literary representative of the Housman estate, would have had Faber bang to rights in any legal action, which would not only have been costly but highly embarrasing, given how much of Faber's literary reputation rests on it's distinguished poetry list.

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 12034 posts Report Reply

  • Tessa Houghton,

    It seems to me that it would be in everyone's best interests for the publishers to run the book text through an anti-plagiarism app (such as TurnItIn) and publish the results. To be honest, I'm amazed that publishers don't use this kind of software on every book, pre-publishing. Doesn't take long, and it seems like it would be a worthwhile exercise, not only to catch out 'big' offences like this one, but also to catch minor, genuinely mistaken instances of plagiarism.

    New Plymouth, NZ • Since Aug 2009 • 18 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha,

    transgression of the commandments in the back of your mind. Witi did not steal his neighbours ox, he simply took a photo and stuck it in his book.

    Wasn't there something about coveting thy neighbour's oxen.. or was that wife?

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16746 posts Report Reply

  • Tessa Houghton,

    New Plymouth, NZ • Since Aug 2009 • 18 posts Report Reply

  • Raymond A Francis,

    Witi did not steal his neighbours ox, he simply took a photo and stuck it in his book.

    I feel Witi may have taken a photo but he stuck it in a book he would like to sell to me and as good as claimed the ox was his interlectual property

    45' South • Since Nov 2006 • 543 posts Report Reply

  • mark taslov,

    I feel Witi may have taken a photo but he stuck it in a book he would like to sell to me and as good as claimed the ox was his interlectual property

    It was his intellectual choice of what property to steal, and that is uniquely Witi. Like I think it was Keir on the other who thread mentioned not just any Brillo box but a Warhol Brillo box, I find something in that.

    Wasn't there something about coveting thy neighbour's oxen.. or was that wife?

    I wish I knew. I feel lucky to have got some replies and feedback on my thoughts on this issue. When I try to have a discussion along these lines with anyone here, it doesn't compute.

    your taxed dollar • Since Mar 2008 • 1682 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia,

    transgression of the commandments in the back of your mind. Witi did not steal his neighbours ox, he simply took a photo and stuck it in his book.

    So, he's the literary equivalent of a peeping Tom with a camera? Dude, I don't know if Witi is going to thank you for the help! :)

    To be honest, I'm amazed that publishers don't use this kind of software on every book, pre-publishing.

    Sorry for sounding like a broken record here, Tessa, but I'm still amazed that Ihimaera's works apparently don't get looked over by a halfway competent editor. Just as spell-check software is no substitute for an literate copy editor with her eyes open, I'd rather rely on Jolisa 1.0 than TurnItIn to edit any novel of mine. .

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 12034 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood,

    I think with your calculation of the nonevent horizon David, you neglected to mention the plethora of literature previously written in other languages yet to be translated into English which may infringe the copyright of works as yet unwritten.

    Ha! Because the English dictionary is bigger than other languages that's already taken into account.

    But please note that it's only a rough upper bound -- the actual number will be much lower. I only jokingly mentioned it because you sometimes hear this sentiment from students: "there are only x ways to write a sentence, so I *have* to plagiarize."

    To calculate the real value you'd also (of course) need to include the grammatical structure of the language, narrative sense, etc. Although, happily, many modern novelists have dispensed with these things, which makes the calculation a little easier.

    My lovely wife (a linguist) speculates that it would be possible to develop a language in which there is only one grammatically correct way to write a 100,000 word novel.

    I'll mail a chocolate fish to anyone who can do this. And another, of course, to anyone who can incorporate grammar and narrative sense into the event horizon calculation for literature.

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 988 posts Report Reply

  • mark taslov,

    So, he's the literary equivalent of a peeping Tom with a camera? Dude, I don't know if Witi is going to thank you for the help! :)

    After Jolisa's crucifixion of the poor thief I'm sure I could apply bandages or something. BTW Jolisa, I thoroughly enjoyed the
    "Less is more" post, it's a very comprehensive analysis.

    who can incorporate grammar and narrative sense into the event horizon calculation for literature.

    Yes I was wondering about that with your initial figure.

    your taxed dollar • Since Mar 2008 • 1682 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    but anyone who cares about it (Ihimaera's employers for instance?) might be well advised to make a systematic search, rather than simply assuming that they already had a complete accounting of the "borrowings"

    You'd like to think that the publisher has been presented with every note and reference and scrap of paper, and a new editor has sat down with Witi and gone through the entire book page by page to create a complete record. He would have the best idea after all.

    Witi has already been damaged by this quite a lot. Penguin can probably get out with a minor flaming if they do good work over the next couple of weeks.

    It was his intellectual choice of what property to steal, and that is uniquely Witi.

    That didn't sound silly while you were typing it?

    Since Nov 2006 • 6204 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha,

    Theft is art?

    </sarcasm> not wanting to start the whole copywrong discussion again, ok.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16746 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood,

    Jolisa's crucifixion of the poor thief

    I'll add that I actually feel very sorry for Prof. Ihimaera. And, clearly, so does Jolisa. I think "crucifixion" might be going a bit far as a description...

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 988 posts Report Reply

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