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Rotten Memories: Memoir Plagiarism

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Nov 14, 2014 3:29:59 PM
Iconic fashion designer Vivienne Westwood is facing accusations that her self-titled memoir, which she co-wrote with author Ian Kelly, contains plagiarized passages.
The accusations come from another author, Paul Gorman, who wrote the 2001 book The Look: Adventures in Rock and Pop Fashion. According to a blog post on his site, Gorman has noticed approximately 40 passages in Westwood’s memoir that either closely resemble or outright copy his book, most without attribution.
According to Gorman, the examples vary in severity with the worst being directly or indirectly quoted from Westwood herself. Because of this, Gorman said that he is preparing to sue Picador, the publisher of the book, Westwood and the book’s co-author, biographer Ian Kelly. However, despite the potential legal wrangling, Gorman says that he has not lost respect for Westwood. Instead, he places the blame mostly on Kelly’s shoulders saying that Westwood is, “A fascinating woman whose story deserves to be told properly.”
The book has also drawn criticism for spelling errors and possible factual errors. For example, in the book, Westwood claims that the idea for the title of Sex Pistols’ song “Anarchy in the UK” was hers. However, John Lydon, who was Johnny Rotten in the band, disputes that. But on the attribution issues, Westwood is hardly alone in facing allegations of memoir plagiarism. In 2010, former President George W. Bush was accused of lifting parts of his memoir, “Decision Points” from books and reports published by his advisers. In 2012, rapper Jay Z was sued over alleged plagiarism in his memoir, However, both of those cases were built on relatively weak evidence or stemmed more from political motives.
But even with those cases in mind, memoir plagiarism is still a fairly rare offense, especially when compared to other types of writing. Memoirs are, by their very nature, personal stories that are being told by the people best able to to tell it. Even if one were inclined to plagiarize their memoirs, it would be difficult to find someone to plagiarize from.
Still, memoir plagiarism is a very real risk, in large part because many memoirs are either co-written with an outside biographer, such as Westwood’s, or ghostwritten completely by someone else. These biographers, especially when pressed with tight deadlines and/or uncooperative subjects, may be tempted to turn to other sources to fill in any blanks.
Of course, even if a memoir is self-written, plagiarism is a possibility. Memories fail and individuals may need to turn to outside sources to fill in the gaps. Likewise, non-writers tasked with penning a memoir may find themselves intimidated without the help of a co-author or ghostwriter, making plagiarism a tempting, if unethical, shortcut. But given the personal nature of a memoir, plagiarism is a much more serious infraction than in other types of work. A memoir is supposed to be the ultimate written account of one’s life and, having plagiarism in that, has greater implications than a fictional work or a less personal work of nonfiction.
As such, it’s important for publishers and for authors to be on guard of plagiarism issues in memoirs. Even if the issue is caused by a ghostwriter or coauthor, the fact is, it will be the person who is on the cover that will be held accountable by the public. After all, when a work carries your name and is supposed to be your story, any ethical or factual issues within the work will inevitably reflect back onto you, just as they are now for Westwood.