Following the furore over the recent revelation that the horror journalist, Lianne Spiderbaby, had plagiarised the vast majority of her work, with evidence of plagiarism uncovered in her college thesis and upcoming book, I reached out to Mike White of Impossible Funky, who broke the original story for an interview.
You broke the news that Lianne Spiderbaby was a “serial plagiariser” but you have been careful to stress that your post was the result of an anonymous tip-off. Can you take me back to when you received that email? What was it about the story that interested you?
The email sent out on the Wednesday prior to the story breaking was not sent to me. I’m still not 100% sure of who put together that initial email which was subsequently forwarded to me on Friday July 12, 2013. That email may have been put together by John Timmerson (based on Tim Lucas’s post on the Video Watchdog blog).
Though I’m not really big on using the phone, I took a call on that Friday. This was my source of the whole story. This person told me about the email and even suggested the title, “Who Girlfriend Think You’re Fooling?” To be honest, I had only ever heard of Lianne Spiderbaby once before, via a podcast from Rue Morgue and didn’t get the positioning of “girlfriend” with “Who Do You Think You’re Fooling?” until after I received the forwarded email from my source and, after doing some research, saw that Lianne has been Quentin Tarantino’s girlfriend. Now things suddenly made a lot more sense; not just the title but also why this story should come to me. I don’t have much of a reputation (thus not being included on the initial email, I suppose) except for that of being a muckraker when it comes to Quentin Tarantino and his “influences”.
Initially, it was the idea of such blatant plagiarism that interested me. The addition of a Tarantino connection to the story made it too juicy to resist. It was like dangling a piece of raw meat before a (reservoir) dog.
I heard that (and correct me if I’m wrong) that the same email that you received was also sent to the various publications that Spiderbaby wrote for, yet you were the one to break the story. Why do you think that the other publications stayed silent on this issue initially?
I can not confirm the recipients of the email except via inference (again, going back to Tim Lucas’s post). Likewise, I can only speculate as to why Mr. Lucas or any other editor at any publication Lianne wrote for might have remained silent. I would imagine that there was a good deal of denial and betrayal involved in those initial reactions. Likewise, there needed to be a way to regroup and minimize the damage to the reputation of those publications. No one likes to be made a fool of and that’s precisely what Ms. Spiderbaby had been doing — not just to her readers but to her employers and friends as well. The pause in reaction may have come from a combination of shock at the implications along with a need to regroup and handle the situation.
Why did I go ahead and publish? Because I had no skin in the game. I’ve never met Ms. Spiderbaby nor have I published her. Additionally, I had no reputation to tarnish.
Did you ever have any doubt in your mind about running the story?
Of course! Hearing the initial description of a movie reviewer who may have lifted some of her work seemed like a little “gotcha” that might have made a good footnote. It wasn’t until I started confirming the contents of the emails I was forwarded (my source had also done some research), that I realized the extent of the plagiarism and knew someone had to do something about it. In the days that followed, dozens of other instances came to light, going all the way back to her college papers. I’m glad I overcame my initial doubt.
You’ve previously highlighted the similarities between Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Ring Lam’s City On Fire (1987) in articles and in your short film, Who Do You Think You’re Fooling? (1994) and the follow-up, You’re Still Not Fooling Anyone (1997). Why do you think these similarities, and the similarities in his other work are often overlooked or passed off as ‘homage’.
I think it’s easier ignore them and go on saying that the emperor is fully dressed. Certainly, Tarantino has toned down his outright lifts of plot points, dialogue, and shot composition; getting better at the art of collage (as homage) over the years. I also don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist but I also think that having the Weinstein’s behind him has also had a hand in shaping the media’s reporting. From the start of his career, Tarantino garnered a reputation of being able to revitalize careers and boost sales of “has been” actors. I think that a lot of people have reconsidered speaking out against him for fear that they might be on the “short list” of people he might name drop or push only to fall by the wayside again. Again, that sounds a little conspiratorial but let’s not forget that Tarantino and the Weinstein’s had a reputation for making (and more on the Weinstein side, breaking) people, careers and films a success.
Why do you think that when a scandal like this is uncovered that some people will attempt to defend and diminish the actions of the plagiariser and smear the integrity of the whistleblower?
Once you’ve believed the story it easier to go on believing it. Hearing someone tell you a different story can make you very mad. It’s easier to lash out. What makes me laugh about the situation is that Lianne publicly admitted her plagiarism (albeit in a fairly cowardly way — a single tweet before disappearing). So, it’s not like anyone can really deny that she stole what she wrote. It’s where people go from there that’s amusing. Some revel in her downfall, some accuse her detractors as being jealous, others chide people into “moving on” and putting the incident behind us all.
One defence or even, criticism of Spiderbaby’s plagiarism is her age; it’s either used to defend her actions, “Oh, she’s only young” etc or it’s used to highlight a supposed trend or casual attitude towards plagiarism in younger people. As a young person, I find this quite patronizing, but do you feel plagiarism is more endemic in the younger generation, or is it simply getting easier to find examples of plagiarized work thanks to the internet?
Unless things have changed greatly with school systems, it’s still being taught that plagiarism is wrong. Footnotes have not gone out of style. Even Wikipedia are sticklers for sources.
I don’t get the ageism thing though “in my day” it was all about going to the library and going through the mouldering books, maybe jotting down quotes on a 3X5 card, writing the source on the back. Perhaps copying and pasting is too tempting for people in the modern age but even within the confines of HTML there are several tags created just for quoting and citing the work of others. It should be just as easy to give credit where it’s due than it is to copy big blocks of text and claim them as your own. I certainly hope that’s not what the cool kids are doing these days.
You raised a really interesting point about Spiderbaby on your blog recently. You said: “Is there more value in the “image” of the author than the actual output?” Do you think journalism now has more interest in the Spiderbaby image, or indeed, brand?
The jury is still out for me. I find it fascinating that one person can get paid or notoriety built on the work of others. It seems that Lianne found a really good way to market herself and, for that reason, I think that the Lianne Spiderbaby “brand” managed to succeed where others — the people that actually wrote the words — didn’t. Now, to be fair, Lianne was stealing from everywhere. From reviewers on Amazon to film scholars. Maybe Lianne is just an environmentalist, choosing to recycle film writing rather than pollute the world with more.
But, yes, I can definitely see some value in the “brand” of one person over that of another. I know journalists who have either been turned down for jobs or removed so that Lianne could take their place. She had status. She had a degree (based on bogus work it seems). She had a reputation. After a while, people are going to want Lianne Spiderbaby™ rather than Joe Schmoe the guy who has been blogging and writing for years (and who knows his ass from a hole in the ground).
As well as breaking this story, you revealed that the introduction to Spiderbaby’s much-hyped book, the as yet unpublished Grindhouse Girls: Cinema’s Hardest Working Women had also been plagiarised from various sources. Did you expect to find there would be plagiarism in the book too? Do you think the book will be published in its current form?
To be fair, I believe that it’s more like a her book proposal than the actual final intro. That first chapter is way too short. So, I think that things may get cleaned up and I would hope against hope that her publisher would do a better job of footnoting than Lianne did.
Learning Lianne’s track record over the last few weeks, I fully expected to find plagiarism there when I cracked open the document. She didn’t disappoint. However, the majority of the writing is her talking about her background. This isn’t plagiarized as much as it seems fabricated. Her discussion of the “glory days” of Times Square seems like a romanticized version sold to her by people who had never been there.
I’m not sure how far Lianne’s gotten with her manuscript. The bulk of it is interviews, I think she should be okay if she could actually rewrite the intros without lifting anything from them. Perhaps St. Martin’s Press would consider hiring a ghostwriter for her. But, that would be too sad, wouldn’t it? A so-called “writer” needing a ghost writer?
Were you surprised by the horror journalism industry’s reaction to the story?
Reaction or lack of reaction, I suppose. So far I’ve only read two responses — though one was changed a few times. Both of these reactions seem to be coming from either a deeply personal place or someplace where they feel they need to cover their tracks. The immediate “it’s time to move on” felt premature and slightly suspicious.
After the initial story broke, some very big mainstream publications picked up the story; why do you think there’s been relative silence from the media and Spiderbaby since then?
I don’t know if I was deluded or not but I thought that the whole “Spiderbaby scandal” went beyond the scope of just “genre journalism” but maybe it doesn’t. Or maybe the story has been squashed. It just seems off that as quickly as the story went “big” it died down again. It could have just been timing. Too many people too jazzed for Comic Con or wringing their hands about other news stories.
Horror journalism has been rocked by a similar plagiarism scandal before, [The Dark Side scandal] how do you think the industry can safeguard against this happening again and build trust amongst readers and writers again?
There are fact-checkers in our industry (or should be). Perhaps a content-checker would also be a viable position. However, as a publisher myself (of Cashiers du Cinemart), I rely on working with people of integrity. I don’t know if I’m just walking a primrose path or if I’ve been incredibly lucky or if I’m just a good judge of character but I know my micropublication doesn’t compare to larger organizations where not everyone can be vetted by years of friendship and correspondence. I’m still curious to hear how the other publications that put out Lianne’s work will respond. If they don’t at least address the issue — even to brush it off — it says to me that there’s a larger problem.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers about publishing their work online? Is plagiarism a sad by-product of the internet, or something we should feel confident about reporting?
I think all plagiarists should be reported and shamed. There’s not much else that can be done, alas. Throwing a copyright notice on your work or even going the Creative Commons route really means diddly in the overall scheme of things. If people want to rip off your work, they’ll rip it off. Just be vigilant. And, moreover, be distinctive. It was Lianne’s lack of an author’s “voice” or, rather, the use of someone else’s, that got her in trouble. If an aspiring writer doesn’t know what I mean by “voice” then they should do some research and think about how they want to be represented in the internet or how they can make themselves stand apart.