Shin Kyung-sook. New York Times photo by Jean Chung.

I don't condone plagiarism, of course--what writer would? It's nothing less than stealing. It's wrong.

But this recent brouhaha with South Korean novelist Shin Kyung-sook does not fill me with outrage. It fills me with sadness.

Shin is a brilliant, subtle, graceful writer, whose two novels published in the United States were highly acclaimed. The first of the two, "Please Look After Mom," won the Man Asian Literary Prize, sold more than 2 million copies, and was translated into 19 languages. The second one, "I'll Be Right There," came out in 2014 and was also successful. She has a third novel coming out in the U.S. this fall. 

Recently, she was accused of "partially plagiarizing" one paragraph from a 1961 Japanese story called "Patriotism" and including it in one of her own stories--20 years ago. The accusation was not leveled by the Japanese writer, who died in 1970, but by another South Korean novelist, Lee Eung-jun.

Shin denied the accusation initially, but eventually said that it was possibly true. "No matter how hard I try to remember, I just don't recall reading 'Patriotism,' " she said in an interview with a South Korean journalist. "But I am in a situation where I don't trust my own memory."

She apologized and took full responsibility. "Everything is my fault," she said. The now-tainted story, "Legend," will be removed from subsequent editions of her story collection.

Since then the Guardian of London has reported that South Korean literature professor Hyun Tac-soo has alleged that Shin also partly plagiarized passages from German author Luise Rinser’s "The Middle of Life" in "Please Look After Mom." The Guardian, quoting the Korean news agency Yonhap, says that Hyun has filed a complaint with the authorities (which authorities govern plagiarism, I wonder?), and he told the news agency that he has “no intent to cancel the measure."

What is partial plagiarism? Using the idea? Some of the words? A phrase here and there? The whole episode is confusing and murky.

The only context I've seen comes from the Wall Street Journal, which reports, "Allegations of plagiarism are common in South Korea, often involving academic work. Last year a nominee for education minister withdrew his candidacy amid allegations he copied a thesis from one of his students while he was a university professor. Commentators often connect problems of plagiarism with South Korea’s hypercompetitive education system and emphasis on rote learning instead of critical thinking."

A statement issued yesterday by Pegasus Books states: "We stand by Ms. Shin and the integrity and authenticity of her the novels she has since published in the United States, including PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOM and I'LL BE RIGHT THERE, as well as the forthcoming novel THE GIRL WHO WROTE LONELINESS, which Pegasus Books will publish in September, 2015."

Did she steal from another writer? Did she inadvertently remember a scene and re-use it in her own work? Are other writers jealous? Trying to pound down the peg that is standing up? Or is she truly guilty of intellectual theft? Perhaps if I had better evidence of plagiarism, I would be outraged. But right now all I feel is sadness for a very talented writer whose sparkling international reputation is being damaged--rightly or wrongly.

 

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