The Trouble With Letting Your Fingers Do the Talking

June 18, 2008 at 6:53 am (Uncategorized)

Boy, did I ever learn my lesson the other day. It just goes to show I can put more than my foot in my mouth; I can cram my two typing fingers in there good and proper too.

It all started with a fierce burst of righteous indignation and misplaced certitude. This happens to me a lot because I usually KNOW I’m right, I just KNOW, I’m like, TOTALLY POSITIVE, one hundred percent CERTAIN. Until I’m not. And that’s what got my arse kicked on Monday.

I honestly thought I was right. As you’ll see. You don’t send a columnist and his editor the email I sent unless you’re pretty bloody sure you know of what you speak. I even went so far as to repeatedly, confidently accuse the guy of plagiarism; for a writer, there’s probably no greater single insult. Shit. It actually makes me cringe that I was so absolutely sure and yet ended up being so wrong. I blame the internet, the damn thing, much as I usually sing its praises and even as I’m using it right now to communicate with you all (so I’m a hypocrite too – geez, this comeuppance just won’t quit). It used to be a case of merely comparing publication dates, but now, oh no, that won’t do, you have to have read every single one of the 688,000 Google results before you can be certain you’re not getting it all wrong. Unfortunately I only scrolled through the first 5 pages of results, and armed with the three publication dates, off I went to complain just like those efficacious women you see waiting impatiently by customer service counters everywhere, all puffed up with their handbags locked across their formidable bosoms, giving everyone in their sight line the evil eye.

So here’s what happened. I sent the following email to Sam De Brito, his editor, and to the Letters page at Vanity Fair. Read it, and then I’ll tell you what happened next.

What, women aren’t funny but plagiarism is hilarious?

Excuse me for gushing, but I had the most “amazing experience” reading Sam De Brito’s column in Sunday’s S section of The Sun Herald (‘Sorry, girls, you’re just not funny’), and that amazing experience was a serious case of déjà vu.

Because I’m pathologically petty, I like punishing my husband for that long ago day when he successfully got me into bed by laughing at my jokes (see De Brito, Sam). I exact this punishment by refusing to get out of our bed every Sunday morning whilst he whips up a one-man kitchen spectacular. It’s worked out very well for me. As he’s toiling away, unselfconsciously embracing his weekly sabbatical as my home whore (see De Brito, Sam, for more on this phenomenon of the unselfconscious man, because these sessions feature heavily in my husband’s tales of adventure, achievement and conquest. He’s not embarrassed to tell his friends about them at all), I’m lolling around combining as many deadly sins into one fantastic binge as possible. Over time I’ve realised that reading S over breakfast in bed is a fast-track to a rousing session with the Super Seven. Here’s how it usually goes down at my house.

1.    Covetousness. Glynis Traill-Nash has great taste, a sense of humour and her finger on the seam, as it were. She always unearths something new for me to covet (see Smith, Sally).
2.    Envy. Tell me this. How can acting be work? Because it never looks or sounds like work in your cover stories, it always looks like the world’s best game of dress-ups with friends. Movie sets are always a beautiful love-in, the milk is never off, the boss is never a tool, and it’s always in the actual job description to get it on with the sexy married guy sitting opposite (see Jolie, Angelina, Hathaway, Anne, and Miller, Sienna), even though he always gets all the good lines (see De Brito, Sam).
3.    Lust. I fondly remember the good old days when Amy Cooper used to report with lush, colour photographic evidence that Tom Williams was still single and on the Sydney party scene. Look, I’m a happily married woman, but that man is a fine sex object, I mean, storyteller (see De Brito, Sam).
4.    Sloth. Did I mention I like reading S in bed? If it’s raining out, as it was on Sunday, I can push this out til mid-afternoon. I often do this reeking of stale alcohol whilst the unmistakable stench of our mid-thirties, we’re-too-old-for-this-but-two’s-better-than-one flatulence chokes the room (see De Brito, Sam). In such circumstances, I’ve contemplated moving my computer into bed and just never leaving, because if it’s good enough for Ernest Hemingway, it’s good enough for me.
5.    Gluttony. Into these ruffled sheets I have received many a just reward for my legendary humourlessness (see De Brito, Sam), ranging from toasted ham & cheese croissants with berry Danish to follow, to full-scale Eggs Benedict, always with extra Hollandaise. And because I’m slothful, I always ensure the sheets and doona wear just a little of the love too. Some sauce here, a little streak of butter and jam there. Many an issue of S has ended up smeared with my husband’s labours – oops, my mistake, that only happens after he’s “laughed like a lunatic smoking hydro” at something I’ve said, and we all know what that really means (see De Brito, Sam).
6.    Here’s the thing, I usually max out at 5 out of 7, which nonetheless is a pretty satisfying binge. I’m not usually consumed by injured pride reading S, nor does your section usually make me angry. But look at that: Sunday I hit the jackpot! Seven out of seven! How about that?! It was such an “amazing experience” that I just had to tell someone about it.

I’ll try not to be too “elliptical” about my “emotional issues” (see De Brito, Sam). Yes, like so many others I know, I’m very proud to be a funny woman – getting laughs is easy when you’re half psychotic – so I find the over-simplified, embarrassingly ignorant suggestion that women aren’t funny kind of insulting. Pride – aha! I am guilty of the sixth sin. So yes, my pride was wounded when I first read the thesis that women aren’t funny.

But here comes number 7 – anger – and this really does make my blood boil in a way that leaves me at my absolute un-funniest: that article published eighteen months ago, and its author was Christopher Hitchens, As in, not Sam De Brito.

“Why Women Aren’t Funny” published in Vanity Fair’s January 2007 issue, and quickly gained huge international notoriety. In fact, a Google search of that phrase alone returns over 688,000 results, a lot of them connected to the Hitchens piece. Indeed, the essay became so famous that VF published a response – ‘Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?’ featuring Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and others acting for the defense – in April 2008.

Oh yes, I am angry. I was so angry on Sunday that I not only got out of, but also actually made the bed, ranting to my husband in that “overexcited” way I do. The Hitchens piece is not even mentioned in De Brito’s article – as sloppy referencing of sources goes, this is absolutely egregious. Either De Brito didn’t bother to do even the most basic homework for his article, or he knowingly ripped off the Hitchens piece and claimed it as his own. I feel very strongly about plagiarism, so I thought I’d share its definition with because De Brito is clearly a little loose on its finer points: the appropriation or imitation of another’s ideas and manner of expressing them, as in art, literature, etc., to be passed off as one’s own.
Reading your column on Sunday, I couldn’t just smell our Dutch oven farts, I could distinctly smell a rat.

Angry, Proud, Gluttonous, Envious, Slothful, Covetous, Lustful, and really peeved (as well as, dare I say it, still pretty bloody good company),


See, I was really sure I was on the money (oh and by the way, I was making up that whole slothful, eating in bed thing to make a point…I needed that whole riff on the seven deadly sins to actually work) You can tell, can’t you? But little did I know, Sam De Brito actually beat Hitchens to the punch, publishing this blog post five months before the VF essay published. It’s pretty similar to what appeared in the paper on Sunday. That is, Sam De Brito got there first, not Hitchens, and, understandably, he was really, really pissed with me. He left a shat-off message on my phone (complete with a condescending ‘sweetheart,’ just to put me back in my place), and shot back an email with the link to the original blog and a challenge to send the same accusation to VF, which I duly did (I know it’s possible to have two male columnists have the same idea at the same time, but it’s still kind of strange).

Total case of Mea Culpa 1.01. Damn it all, I was totally off the mark. And accusing a well-known Sydney columnist of plagiarism really wasn’t my finest hour or smartest career move… It’s frankly just bad form (but then, I was SO SURE I was right!!!), but you can see how it happened. Armed with the publication dates alone, I was on fairly strong ground. Put it this way: when I was tutoring Professional Writing at UNSW, this would have been enough for me to mark a student’s essay as highly suspicious. Add to that a Google search, and I felt like I’d done enough investigating, as a reader, to fire off my complaint. And as you can see, I went in guns blazing. It’s awful being so wrong after being so positive about being right! Anyway, I could totally appreciate the man’s desire to rake me over some hot coals, so I faced up to my mistake and all’s well that ends well, but it does make me look at the internet a little differently. As in, warily.

It withheld the exact information from me that exonerated the columnist, and the information was there – somewhere – just out of reach. And resting my case on the publication dates of hard-copy magazines and newspapers once would have been enough in the way of best practice, but no longer. Now it’s just the battle of the blogs out there, and millions of writers large and small are cramming their simultaneously-occurring thoughts out there in one big idea super-highway that makes the entire notion of originality (and copyright and intellectual property) almost laughable. Is it even possible to have the first word on anything anymore? I’m not sure. But one thing I do know (and I’m sure of it, I’m positive, I know it’s true, I’d bet my house… no, no, I was wrong last time but this time there’s no mistake, HONEST) is that women bloody well ARE funny, and I don’t care who said it first.

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