Sunday, September 09, 2007

When the Skull Speaks

More than a year after the original contest, Fully Booked has finally announced the release of its Graphic Fiction Awards compilation. This anthology is set to feature the winners of the competition, from both the prose and comics categories.

I'm honestly not very excited about picking up the book, because I've already read and reviewed each of the finalist entries for prose fiction. At the moment, I don't feel the need to pick these up again at what's likely to be an overinflated price tag, just because I want the volume on my bookshelf. The way I see it, I've read these works already, I've made my feelings known, and I've moved on to other upcoming pieces.

All things said, however, I am curious about one thing.

Somewhere in the middle of my reviews and many others' analyses, it was found that one of the entries -- "A Song for Vargas" -- had lifted some of its lines from the The Last Unicorn, a Rankin-Bass movie based on a novel by Peter S. Beagle. These were some classic lines, no doubt, for them to stick to peoples' heads; They involved a talking skull and its desire for an empty bottle of wine, noting to a startled audience that it remembered the now-nonexistent liquor inside.

In The Last Unicorn, the talking skull serves as the informant for a distinct plot point. In "A Song for Vargas", the talking skull is held as one of the secrets of a mysterious captain. It is precisely this difference that prevents me from automatically assuming that this is a case of plagiarism. Instead, I find myself suspecting that the lines in question just stuck to the author's mind and emerged at some unlikely moment.

In any event, the lines are there, and the uncanny relationship between the short story and the movie is too prominent to be ignored. Anybody who's seen the movie will almost certainly recognize those lines, and I find myself wondering as to what their reactions will be like.

I'm not certain if "A Song for Vargas" will be included in the compilation. Fully Booked's announcement enumerates five of the finalists (including "Atha" and "A Strange Map of Time"), but doesn't mention "A Song for Vargas" in any way. Did they remove it from the running? Did they edit it for better public consumption? Or do they plan to release it as it was submitted, with the dubious lines intact?

Not that I'm trying to disparage anyone in any way, but I fear for the compilation if the latter case is true. This book is supposed to represent the winners of a high-profile writing contest sponsored by Neil Gaiman himself. How is an audience supposed to feel if one of the stories inside showcases a set of lines that were "borrowed" (deliberately or unconsciously) from an existing work?

I'm still not planning to pick up the book. But you can bet that I'll be sneaking a look at some of the copies, if only to see how Fully Booked decided to handle the matter. In the meantime, though, I'll be hoping that somebody doesn't do something that might turn out to be a huge mistake.

7 comments:

Charles said...

A Song for Vargas was omitted in the credits. The Fully Booked site with the original list of winners is down but here's what I found at http://neilgaimanphils.blogspot.com/2006_07_01_archive.html

Prose Category
1st Place - "The God Equation" by Michael Co and "A Strange Map of Time by" Ian Casocot
2nd Place- "The Great Philippine Space Mission" by Philbert Dy
3rd Place - "Atha" by Michaela Atienza
1st Honorable Mention - "The Omega Project" by Kim Marquez
3rd Honorable Mention - "Monstrous Cycle" by Cecilia Estrada
4th Honorable Mention - "Stella for Star" by Yvette
People's Choice - "The God Equation"
Comics Category
1st Place - "The Sad, Mad, Incredible But True Adventures of Hika Girl" by Clara Lala Gallardo and Maria Gallardo
2nd Place - "Splat" by Manuel Abrera
3rd Place - "Dusk" by Rommel Joson and "Defiant: The Battle of Mactan" by Juan Paolo Ferrer and Chester Ocampo
People's Choice - "Splat"

The 2nd Honorable Mention category in prose is missing, which is what A Song for Vargas won.

Sean said...

Charles: It looks like it's being heavily downplayed. The best I could find on the matter was this comment on Anansi Girl's blog, written by someone named Ricky:

Yea, I was there at the event and even met the guy who complained about Song for Vargas. He pulled out a ratty copy of the Last Unicorn. He pointed out which portions of the story were plagiarized. I forwarded his complaint to the FB people AGAIN. The guy emiled [sic] it earlier. Fortunately Song for Vargas didn’t win anything but it still deprived another writer of the chance to be in the shortlist. Shame on the guy. I do hope that the FB acknoledges [sic] publicly that the work is plagiarized even if it didn’t win anything.

As per Ricky's comment, I can see that the work isn't exactly being touted as "plagiarized", but it's apparently been removed from any and all promotions. If so, then I have to admit that I like the move... it remains quiet without actually giving credence (or unwarranted attention) to the writer in question.

Somehow, I wonder how the judges missed that. I'm pretty certain that most current spec fic writers probably saw or read The Last Unicorn at one time or another. Did the judges not also have exposure to Beagle and Rankin-Bass in this way? Ah well... we've got a ways to go, it seems.

Charles said...

Maybe it's because I was a bibliophile geek but the people I was talking/blogging to (like Anansi Girl) did talk about it (and it was somebody else who pointed out that hey, the 2nd Honorable Mention is missing) and brought up the Last Unicorn/Song for Vargas controversy.

Actually, it's easy to miss. In the same way that plagiarized papers get away with some professors. At the end of the day, the judges can't be familiar with all the written works. And honestly, it's a small part in the Last Unicorn story. Personally I don't even remember that talking skull scene (but that's just me). If they plagiarized the unicorn itself it might have been remembered. But it's interesting what sticks out in our memories and what doesn't. Also bear in mind that some of the judges (you know who they are) are older than us and thus might have different memories of a film (watching it as an adult instead of a kid, etc.).

banzai cat said...

Also, I think the judges for that particular contest were not all that well-versed on genre works. Well, that's what I think: I can't imagine Tony Perez reading Peter Beagle. (I can't remember who the other judges were; I could be wrong.)

Charles said...

"FYI: the judges were Tony Perez, Peque Gallaga and Gregorio Brillantes." - From Sean's own commenters in this entry: http://lengthofwords.blogspot.com/2006/07/review-peoples-choice-award-entries.html

anansi girl said...

From what I've seen, it seems FB is just carrying on as though "Vargas" never existed. Probably because it was kinda embarrassing the way they way they were able to let it get in the shortlist in the first place. I'm also assuming the author admitted as much, because I don't see him raising a fuss about suddenly being left out of the contest finalists.

What I'm wondering is whether they'd do something about the glaring error in "Stella for Star". Vivien Leigh was the Blanche Dubois character, not Stella! That was a very high profile role, I can't imagine how the author could've missed it.

Sean said...

Charles, Banzai Cat: Er... wouldn't it be ironic to say that the judges had little or no exposure to genre works? I would think that they would, seeing the nature of the competition that they're judging...

I will admit that we can't expect any judge to catch every little plagiaristic reference, though. Perhaps it was simply a good thing that Fully Booked ended up posting the shortlisted entries for everybody's perusal.


Anansi Girl: My guess is that once the author was exposed, he/she decided to drop out of sight and not answer any inquiries. While Fully Booked's non-acknowledgement of the "Vargas" is probably a standard corporate response, I'd like to see them take a more active stance on the matter; it would help discourage further plagiaristic entries. With the sheer magnitude of the prizes that they're offering, I'm sure that we're bound to see more problems like these.