I’ve been bummed out this week after hearing about the massive plagiarism accusations against B. Mitchell Cator, including several pieces from SmokeLong Quarterly that were apparently lifted and published in a book under different titles. For now, Cator has been largely silent, except for a few emails he’s sent to some of the writers and journals that he stole from. We have not heard from him at SmokeLong.
This makes me angry, and it also makes me sad. Angry because many of the writers I know are struggling to find time to write and publish in between other jobs and family obligations, and hardly getting paid anything for their work. Angry because flash fiction, especially, is a form that is brilliant, but largely misunderstood—each time I do any sort of presentation on the form, inevitably someone in the audience will say it’s the first time they’ve even heard of it—and plagiarizing these stories for profit seems like an even bigger ‘FU’ to me for some reason. Now, I say ‘for profit,’ perfectly understanding that chances are Cator’s self-published book on Amazon wasn’t selling like hotcakes before the news broke anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if his total royalties were less in dollars than the fingers I have on my hands. But even if he made 5 cents on the book…WRONG. But it’s also sad to me that he felt the need to put this much effort into plucking stories, paragraphs, sentences from other people and collaging it together to call it his own. I’ve seen many comments along the lines of: It probably would have been easier to just write his own book. But he didn’t. Why? Can we find some sympathy in this situation?
I’ve heard from lots of writers and editors, and we’re all sort of reeling in puzzlement. What makes someone do something like this? How could he think he could get away with it? And the thing is, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that this issue is much more widespread than we think. Perhaps not to the systematic, serial level that Cator conducted, but smaller violations. Stories previously published elsewhere, contract violations, lines and phrases lifted, even unintentionally, from other places. The online journal writing world, the flash fiction writing world, is a small one, and one that I feel is bound together in some ways by trust, collaboration, and support. Many journals, operating with small volunteer staffs and little to no budget, don’t have the time to extensively scour the Internet to verify stories accepted are the works of the author and don’t appear anywhere else. Editors are overworked, under-thanked, and usually juggling a million other things, and they trust that writers are going by the honor code. It’s not an excuse, but it is often the reality. Clearly that can easily be taken advantage of.
At SmokeLong, we’ve been discussing this issue and trying to decide what actions to take. I believe in the next few months we will be changing our editorial process slightly to give room to vet stories accepted and ensure as much as possible that we are publishing the highest quality and original works by writers. To my knowledge, we have never discovered plagiarism in any of our published stories, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen or hasn’t.
It’s been a sad week for writers, but also a good wake-up call for us as well. Here’s hoping it will make us better, more original, and more vigilant with our words.