The Kay Manning plagiarism scandal from a few weeks ago (Dear Author describes the debacle here) has revived memories of perhaps the most notorious plagiarism scandal in the romance writing world: the Janet Dailey/Nora Roberts face-off in 1997. For those who need a recap, Roberts sued Dailey for plagiarism after a reader pointed out that large swaths of Dailey’s novels Aspen Gold and Notorious were lifted word-for-word from Roberts’ work. After a protracted legal battle, Dailey settled out of court and Roberts donated the money to Literacy Volunteers Of America.
But that’s not really what I want to talk about now. Roberts was clearly in the right and Dailey was very clearly in the wrong (as was Manning). But the thing that makes me uncomfortable about all of this was Roberts’ initial reaction to the discovery that Dailey had plagiarized her books: she called it, famously, “mind rape.”
Now that term is coming up again in the discussions of the current plagiarism cases. And it bothers me. A lot.
What happened to Roberts—and Gina Wilkins and Liz Fielding and Julie Kenner and Catherine Mann and probably lots of others—is theft. Somebody decided to appropriate their creations and pass them off as their own. The fact that this action was theft rather than rape doesn’t diminish the heinous nature of the act. I’m willing to acknowledge that theft makes you feel violated in some ways—people whose homes have been burglarized frequently say this, and as someone whose home was burglarized a couple of times, I can totally understand their point of view. But for me there’s a big difference between the feeling of disgust and anger you have after a burglary and the feeling of violation a rape survivor has after being assaulted.
Here’s the thing. Rape is a crime of violence. It involves a brutal penetration of the body. For many women, it’s the worst crime imaginable, which is one reason that including rape in a novel as anything other than a crime has been banned by most romance publishers. To use the word rape to stand for anything other than its real meaning, the forcible penetration of the body, runs the risk of making the word itself less powerful—and perhaps by extension making the crime itself seem less onerous.
The distinction here hinges on the issue of violence. Rapes are by definition profoundly violent. Plagiarism just isn’t.
This distinction should in no way be taken as an attempt to diminish the seriousness of what Manning and Dailey did. They’re thieves, pure and simple, and they deserved to be punished for their actions. But theft and rape are not the same thing.
In the end, these authors were the victims of a crime. Something was taken from them without their consent, and that sucks. But they weren’t raped. Thank God!