My mentor John Hughes taught me how to write. Then he plagiarised my work
Ten years ago, I was living in Coventry, England. Though I had a room in a sharehouse, I barely used it. I preferred to live and sleep in the freezing cold shed out the back. I’d sit there chain-smoking, trying and failing to decide what I was going to do with my life.
Then, one day, a fox appeared in the garden. He spent a few days testing me out, evaluating me. Eventually, following whatever strange whim it is that guides the business of foxes, he came into the shed.
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During the day, he’d sleep in there. I would sit and watch him. He didn’t like me smoking – he would leave as soon as I sparked up a cigarette – so I stopped. He’d rouse around dusk, give me a quiet, gentle stare, and then saunter out into the yard. And every morning when I awoke, he’d be back, curled up in the corner. Until one morning he wasn’t. And I never saw him again.
He was a strange, tender, beautiful creature – unexplainable, the servant of no master. He was just this thing that entered my life, shared a little room with me, and then moved on, leaving the tiniest scrap of beauty behind.
I have written these paragraphs before: they appeared word for word in a 2016 review I wrote for a small Sydney music magazine called The Brag. I had been tasked with writing about the new album from Lubomyr Melnyk, a continuous pianist, who makes strange, elliptical music that contains no human voices.
I had no idea how to describe what his music did to me, so I took the story of the fox, and I linked the line in the last paragraph, about the “strange, tender, beautiful creature”, to Melnyk’s music. I was paid $40.
John Hughes met me when I was a battered teenager and gave me the skills and the care to make me a writer
I published hundreds of reviews in The Brag. Many have been lost to my memory, but that one sticks with me, for three reasons. The first, because I am unusually proud of it. I think it captures something about Melnyk, and about a small streak of grace in a time where there was little of it.
Secondly, because when I shared that review on Facebook, my mentor – the man who saved me, who shaped my life, who met me when I was a battered teenager and gave me the skills and the care to make me a writer – told me he liked it. His name is John Hughes.
And the third, because recently, a journalist got in touch with me. She would not tell me over messages what the call was about. When I pushed, she mentioned the Melnyk review, but would give no further details. So I called her. She was audibly nervous. She made light, confusing conversation.
Eventually, she said the words I should have expected, but hadn’t. “I’m writing a story about John Hughes,” she said. “Can you talk to me a little about how you know John?”
I met John when I was 13 years old. I was a student at Sydney Grammar School, a private institution that I hated from the very first moment I stepped through its gates. I didn’t fit in; never properly found my people, or my place.
I had been a confident child, but that confidence had slowly drained from me. I started getting nosebleeds, constant nosebleeds. I had known since I was six years old that I wanted to be a writer, so I read a lot, and wrote a lot, but these activities gave me less and less pleasure. I grew very thin. I did not sleep.
I don’t know how I heard about John’s creative writing class. He was an English teacher at the school, and held a small, informal gathering of students in the library at lunchtime – a time I usually spent in bathroom stalls, reading poetry alone. I started going to his class instead.
John was then, as he is now, a man with an impossibly kindly face. He has short cropped black hair, and wears glasses. He does not stutter, but he gesticulates in a way that seems like a cousin of stuttering, nodding his head when you are talking, maintaining eye contact. He smiles frequently. He leaves a lot of room for you, in conversation, and has a sly sense of humour that takes a while to reveal itself. He always struck me as a man without ego, which is a way of saying that he is a man with endless curiosity. He sublimates himself into the things he loves, and he understands that he matters less than these things.
If it seems like I can’t write about him without revealing that I love him, it’s because I can’t, and because I do.
John told us early that if we wanted to be writers, we had to write. So that’s what we did. We brought in pieces of our work, and he, smiling, told us what he liked about them. He had recommendations for everyone. There was a library in his head, and when a line struck him, you could see him browsing that library, and pulling out something he thought you’d like.
Through John, I was introduced to Sylvia Plath, one of the central figures in my literary and personal life. He showed me the beauty in The Great Gatsby, a text that I had unfairly dismissed – under his guidance, it bloomed. He told me about Cormac McCarthy, Mark Rothko, Walden. And, as I grew older, I recommended things to him. I became obsessed with cinema, and would lend him DVDs. We talked Herzog; Haneke; von Trier, hanging around each other in the halls of the library, delighting in the conversation.
It wasn’t just that he recommended specific writers. It’s that he took me seriously. He knew I needed to write, that I was lost without it. What he probably didn’t know, immediately: that without the comfort and care he provided I would be in much worse shape emotionally.
So I wrote, at a blistering pace. Every week, I brought in a new piece of work. Some struck John more than others; these were like gold to me. When I was 14, I wrote a story about a young girl caught up in the Dresden bombings of the second world war . John was unusually quiet while I read the piece to the group. Afterwards, he hung by the door. It was just me and him.
“You should do this,” he said. “Be a writer. You are very good at it.”
Later, with an irony that is not lost on me, John revealed that he initially assumed I had plagiarised the piece – that my parents had written it for me.
But I have never forgotten that moment. Someone had looked at me, when I felt least seen, and told me what I wanted to believe, but lacked the conviction to do anything about. It was akin to the moment in the shed with the fox. Only this fox – John’s kindness, his support – never left. It’s in these words, too.
For me, as for most writers, there are people I write for. They live in my head always – little fictionalised versions of themselves, who I’m constantly in the process of showing things to, and testing things against.
Some of these people I write for are dead. Some of them I’ve never met. Plath is one. So is the poet Robert Lowell. Another is John Hughes. I am still, in so many ways, that little boy, bringing my work to the quiet room in the back of the library, asking what he thinks.
John never told us he was a published author, until his first book, An Idea of Home, won a major literary award. During my last year of high school, his second book, Someone Else, was released. I attended the launch with my parents. Someone Else is my favourite of John’s works, a series of “fictional essays”, in which he borrows the language and lives of the authors he adores to tell you something about himself. At the launch, one of John’s university friends described John as “fox-like”, moving through the world with cunning and wit.
I bought a copy of Someone Else that I took around the world with me as I spent the next half decade trying to be a writer. John and I would email each other; when we were in the same city, we got coffee. Each time, he revealed something that gave me the strength to keep going. He called me the most natural writer he’d ever taught; he got excited when I told him of my literary successes, and consoled me when I discussed my failures.
He always had recommendations for me. He put me on to Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, a short, strange, dark novel that inspired me to write my own short, strange, dark novel, Cattle. He believed, as I did, that reading is an important part of writing – that we are shaped by the books we love. He was the first person I sent Cattle to. He liked it.
One day in 2017, while sitting at a Redfern coffee shop, he told me about his next book. It was called No One, and he described it as a murder mystery in reverse. After we shook hands and parted ways, I watched him walk up the street – and then I turned around, and went home.
John never got the success I felt he deserved for the books I believe he wrote on his own. They were scantly reviewed. If you know of him at all, you probably know him as a plagiarist.
Earlier this year, John’s most recent book, The Dogs, was discovered to have featured whole lines and passages from a number of sources – The Great Gatsby, which particularly stung, given the way John had brought it into my life, as well as Anna Karenina, All Quiet On The Western Front, and more. Entire sentences were lifted and not cited, with only occasional words changed; the book was removed from the longlist of Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin, as a result.
John apologised for plagiarising Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s work “without realising”, but defended his process in the Guardian, saying he was not a plagiarist. He said that he was shaped by the writers who had influenced him; that he had, in a sense, little versions of them and their words that he kept in his head. He claimed that he saw all writing as a lineage of homage, and pointed to famous artists who have limped after the work of other artists – in particular Bob Dylan, who I know for a fact that John has loved for years.
This defence was not well received. On Twitter, I saw people anticipating that John might have a mental breakdown. They were waiting for him to be discovered “wanking on street corners”. Hoping to get some relief from my extremely complicated relationship with what was happening to a man I loved – something that I firmly believe came as a result of his mistakes, which were mistakes – I attended a book launch. John was a punchline within the first five minutes.
When No One came out, I skim-read it. I was in the process of getting sober, and my head was in a fog. But I liked it. What I missed, however, is this section, which occurs halfway through the novel:
“When I came of age, as they used to say, and was no longer a ward of the state, I moved from Cessnock to Sydney and rented a room in a boarding house on the outskirts of Windsor. I preferred to sleep, however, in the shed at the bottom of the garden. It was winter when I moved and very cold, but I’d sit and chain-smoke and drink from a goon of tawny port, trying and failing to come up with something I could do.
Then, one day, a fox appeared in the garden. I’d seen foxes before, in my last foster home in Cessnock, but never this close. She spent a few days evaluating me. Eventually, following whatever instinct it is that guides the business of foxes, she came into the shed.
She started sleeping there during the day. I’d sit and watch her. She didn’t like me smoking – would leave as soon as I struck the match – so I stopped. She would rouse around dusk, give me what looked like a gentle stare, then saunter out into the yard. Every morning when I woke she’d be back, curled up in the corner.
Until one morning, she wasn’t. And I never saw her again.
In retrospect, I think that’s what the Poetess was. A strange, uncalled-for, beautiful thing – inexplicable, the servant of no master. I like to think sometimes that she might have loved me, but it doesn’t feel like love. More something that entered my life, shared a small room with me, then moved on, leaving behind the tiniest scraps of what even now I cannot name.”
These paragraphs were brought to my attention by the journalist. The structure is identical to my Melnyk review. Many lines are the same.
Over the phone, the journalist asked me a few questions. Distressed, confused, I told her that I loved John, which remains true. After we hung up, I picked up No One from my bookshelf and read and re-read that section. I felt a number of things. The strangest, most immediate was a version of pride. The man whose approval I had always wanted had decided I was good enough to rip off. I was sitting, with Fitzgerald, in the library in his head; my writing, like Tolstoy’s, had stuck with him, somewhere deep, and he had turned to it when he wanted to say something that he couldn’t say.
He had, I felt, failed me as an author. But he had not failed me as a man
I was also fascinated by the lines that John had changed. Some of the changes are merely structural, and made sense in the context of his story. But why the addition of tawny port? Is that what he would have drunk?
What was wrong with my line – “as soon as I sparked up a cigarette” – and what was better about his line – “as soon as I struck the match”? Why “inexplicable” over “unexplainable”?
Some commentators have suggested John changed lines to “cover his tracks”. But he is an astonishingly smart man; if he wanted to cover his tracks, he would do it much better than this.
Instead, I felt that I was encountering some essence of the nature of writing and reading – another lesson from John. Writing is a series of choices. Reading John’s words – which are not really his – and then reading mine – which are not wholly mine either, because they come from my life, which is made up of other people, and which are shaped by those authors who I admire – was a process of watching those choices happen, in as close as we get to real-time with literature.
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It hurt, and I was angry for what had happened to me and other writers – the way our labour had been co-opted, and not appropriately cited. Lots of people can imagine that hurt, I assume. But I can’t imagine that many other people understand the way it felt good, too.
John’s defences are not insane, or deluded, in the way that they have been characterised by some. Yes, all writing is homage. Yes, we need other writers in order to write. But no, that does not mean we can take their words wholesale. There is a spectrum, from plagiarism to homage, and all works fall somewhere across that spectrum. Some of John’s work, obviously, falls on the plagiarism end – and being shaped by others doesn’t justify not citing your sources.
John and I spoke after the first instances of his plagiarism had come to light. I had told him some of the things I hope he already knew – that he had changed and saved my life; that Someone Else came with me everywhere. I said little about the plagiarism itself. That is because I had decided, privately, that John was two things: a man that I knew, and an author. He had, I felt, failed me as an author. But he had not failed me as a man.
This was, I feel now, an arbitrary distinction, and the ways he plagiarised me make that clear. Perhaps I made that distinction for another reason: I didn’t want to hurt John. I still don’t want to hurt John.
Also, at the same time: he hurt me. He hurt me because I was a young, struggling writer, who got paid $40 to write about a significant period in my life, in a review that basically nobody read but him.
He then took those words, and my life, and put them in a book that – while not successful, per se – did get the kind of glowing reviews I have never received. He was rewarded for my labour. He did not cite me. He did not send the people who were moved by his words back to their source, which was me. He did not alert me, himself, to the ways he had taken from me. I had to find out from someone else. So, in fact, did many of the readers who enjoyed his work: they too were also left out of an important part of the writing, and they had to discover that through people who weren’t John. I am angry that he did that to me, and to the other authors whose labour he did not attribute. I am angry that he did that to his readers too.
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If John Hughes ever publishes another book, the first line of any review will make reference to his plagiarism. He has done that for, and to, himself, and everyone who he has affected is entitled to feel how they want to about that. I have my own relationship with what he has done to my words, that involve me – on some level – having forgiven him.
But the fact remains: he hadn’t understood the context of what he was doing; he had not done his homework. I feel some cruel satisfaction, writing those words. What student hasn’t wanted to say to their teacher: do your homework. It’s my lesson to him.
John Hughes declined to comment for this piece.