The Human Thresher: Davis, Padgett, Pizzolatto and Plagiarism
Paul J. Garth
Earlier this week, when the internet blew up with accusations made by Jon Padgett and Mike Davis of the LovecrafteZine, that Nic Pizzolato had plagiarized Thomas Ligotti, particularly Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race, I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. As someone who had read Ligotti and watched every episode of True Detective, I knew there was a connection, that Pizzolato had obviously been inspired by Ligotti, in particular in his creation of Rust Cohle, but I assumed everyone else would see what I did: that the accusation was flimsy at best, that it was made using small quotes which happened to contain similar sentiments, and that it is not uncommon for an artist to use another artists work as inspiration or thematics, especially when examining existentialism, morality, and horror. In short, I figured people would move on from it relatively quickly.
I was wrong. Instead, a seeming witch hunt developed, with many people looking at the evidence Padgett and Davis presented, and concluding that not only was Pizzolatto guilty of the accusations presented against him, but that he had knowingly obfuscated the conversation when suggestions of Ligotti’s influence had previously been brought up. These claims spread across the internet, starting with the relatively niche readership of the LovecrafteZine before exploding to sites like Gawker, the AV Club, and even the front page of Yahoo. Almost everyone I follow on Facebook and Twitter were involved in some way in the discussion, and as I write this, the debate is only continuing to grow. With that said, I wanted to take the time to re-examine the issue, and to share why not only Pizzolatto is not guilty of the accusations of plagiarism leveled at him by Padgett and Davis, but also why I think the evidence suggests that Jon Padgett in particular is being disingenuous with his sourcing and the claims he has made about those sources.
In discussing Pizzolato’s supposed plagiarism of Ligotti, John Padgett suggests everything comes down to a scene in the first episode of the series. In the scene, the Detectives are driving back from finding a ritualistically adorned murder victim, and Rust Cohle, Matthew McConaughey’s character, monologues on the futility of existence. According to Padgett, this monologue has been plagiarized:
The most egregious instance of Pizzolatto’s plagiarism involves some of the most captivating and most quoted of all the scenes from the series: namely, the car ride in episode one in which Rust Cohle outlines his pessimistic, anti-natalist worldview definitively and powerfully. It is a fact that (in that crucial, character-defining scene) almost every one of Rust’s infamous lines is either taken word for word or is a paraphrase of Ligotti’s distinctive prose and ideas from The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. (Emphasis Padgett’s)
Unfortunately, Padgett’s emphataical isn’t exactly true. What is more clearly going on in this scene is Rust is expressing his worldview, a fractured existence made only worse by the death of his daughter, his problems with addiction, and, cruelly, his own intelligence. Some of the ideas he expresses are also ideas found in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, but they are taken from, according to Padgett’s own sourcing, from wildly different sections of Ligotti’s work. In fact, Padgett draws together single sentences from three different parts of the book, each fifty pages apart to make his argument.
For example, when discussing this scene with Davis, Padgett provides breakdowns of Cohle’s monologue, taking lines from them and comparing them against other lines in Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race:
COHLE: … we are things that labor under the illusion of having a ‘self’…each of us programmed with total assurance that we’re each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.
“And the worst possible thing we could know — worse than knowing of our descent from a mass of microorganisms — is that we are nobodies not somebodies, puppets not people.” (CATHR, p. 109)
“Everybody is nobody…” (CATHR, p. 199)
“…our captivity in the illusion of a self—even though ’there is no one’ to have this illusion…” (CATHR, p. 107)
“…the illusion of being a somebody among somebodies as well as for the substance we see, or think we see, in the world…” (CATHR, p. 114)
(Sourcing and emphasis Padgett’s)
Aside from the weak connection between Pizzolatto’s and Ligotti’s writing, the first thing I noticed was the distances between Padgett’s sourcing of Ligotti’s work. The quotes he has pulled from The Conspiracy Against the Human Race are from wildly diverse sections of the book, in some places more than 100 pages apart. Instead of seeing the plagiarism of any specific line, as Padgett claims, we cannot even find evidence of a stolen complete thought. Instead, what we see is a writer who has been influenced by another artist, and who has given one of his characters nothing more than a similar vocabulary and philosophical outlook on the universe, an outlook, it should be mentioned, that is not exclusive to Ligotti, but has also been shared by Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and Cioran.
Padgett ignores the simple explanation, that this is homage, not just to Ligotti, but to all anti-natalist philosophers, and argues that the nature of the Cohle’s musings cannot be homage due to the fact that the issue was not brought up in interviews until episode three. This argument fails to stand up for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that a reference in an interview is not a capstone on the path to homage, and in fact, Padgett seems to express an air of bitterness that Pizzolatto would not sit down for an interview with him as part of the reason he is bring this up now.
First, Padgett claims, “In the many interviews Pizzolatto gave in the lead up to episode three, the show’s influences were discussed by the show’s creator at great length. You know who wasn’t mentioned by Pizzolatto until days after episode three aired? Ligotti.”
Padgett goes on to claim that Pizzolatto only admitted to the Ligotti reference after being cornered, or, as Lovecraftezine editor Mike Davis puts it, “was forced to do so”.
However, one thing that is undeniable fact is that the first FOUR episodes of True Detective were sent as screeners before the first episode of the season even aired*. In fact, in the arc of true detective, the truly weird elements of the series are not introduced until the second episode, not the first, as Padgett claims. The second episode contains the first references to the Yellow King and Carcosa, which only then illuminates Rust’s character as a descendent of Ligotti and Lovecraft, as opposed to another broken nihilist cop with a shattered family and a drug problem.
Because the third episode was available as a screener, and because he knew the press would be asking him questions about True Detective’s literary antecedents, it is entirely possible that Pizzolatto felt comfortable discussing the weird elements of the series in detail only after the second and third episodes had laid those influences bare for the general audience. In fact, in the interview which Padgett is referring to (which was probably conducted before the third episode of the series aired as it was published the day after and interview transcription, editing, lay-out, and accuracy checks all take time), Pizzolatto is not forced to mention Ligotti, but instead does so himself, willingly, without being prodded by it, as Padgett claims:
Speakeasy: If you could recommend any single work of weird fiction and/or horror to people, what would it be?
Pizzolatto: That’s tough — on the one hand I want to name one of the blue-chip classics, and on the other I’d like to give an endorsement to people who may not usually get enough attention. I mean, I’d suggest Lovecraft or Poe, but everybody knows them already. More recently, I’d point people in the direction of Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, John Langan, Simon Strantzas and others
So we have seen Pizzolatto discussing his influences before Padgett claims, in ways that Padgett and Davis claim he did not do. Further, in a kind of weird scripting designed to make this issue appear like an honest debate when the facts have already been decided, later in that same “interview”, Mike Davis points out that Pizzolatto had in fact already signaled Ligotti’s admirers:
Pizollatto: In episode one [of “True Detective”] there are two lines in particular (and it would have been nothing to re-word them) that were specifically phrased in such a way as to signal Ligotti admirers. Which, of course, you got.
Padgett responds to Davis’ set up with a with a counterclaim that is so over extended it risks becoming genuinely unfocused and spiteful:
I consider that justification absurd and disingenuous. The fact everything of significance in that initial car scene demonstrably comes from Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (re-worded or not) tells me all I need to know about the veracity of Pizzolatto’s excuse.
So, according to Padgett’s logic, the fact that Pizzolatto sent a winking acknowledgement to fans of Ligotti is disingenuous? I have tried to follow his thinking and have genuinely no idea what he could mean by this. He goes on to say that the acknowledgement of Ligotti’s influence “smacks of attorney-speak”, which is, again, a claim I have been unable to parse as Pizzolatto’s statement actually suggests he could have changed Rust’s dialogue but chose not to as an acknowledgement of Ligotti. I’ve never heard of an attorney going out of their way to suggest association with something when they could have denied it all together.
Padgett continues, “If Pizzolatto was blatantly lifting Stephen King’s words instead of Thomas Ligotti’s, do you think that Pizzolatto’s justification for plagiarism would be credibly and objectively accepted in any way… by anyone?” which is of course an absurd question and an even worse example to try to illustrate Padgett’s perceived problem, as Stephen King does not have any single identifiable philosophy in his works for one to draw influence from and also ignores the fact that, again, Pizzolatto cited Ligotti, just as he surely would King if he created a character named “Randall Flag” or used some other identifiable work of an author that was more than simply thematics and ideas developed over decades and with a clear lineage from Ligotti to Lovecraft to Poe to Nietschze.
Finally, Padgett cites an interview with Pizzolatto, then purposefully ignores the content of the article, as quoting from it would greatly undermine his point:
He sent Justin Steele a follow-up paragraph clarifying Ligotti’s influence on True Detective just days after Calia’s first article on the connection between the show and Ligotti’s work was published. But after that, Pizzolatto hasn’t mentioned a word about Ligotti. Not one word.
In as much as Padgett says that this is the last time Pizzolatto mentions Ligotti, this could be correct, but the content of the interview is ignored, as Pizzolatto directly and clearly states his reasons for not mentioning Ligotti and engendering the discussion about him:
…the audience cannot yet see the totality of Cohle’s character or the story being told. His relationship to the philosophies he espouses in the first three episodes don’t encapsulate the entirety of his character. For instance, Cohle can’t be a nihilist– he cares too much; he’s too passionate; he yearns too much (so, in his way, he deludes himself as much as Marty does). Who he ultimately is, is not yet clear… And this might be paranoid, but this early on in the run, I really didn’t want people accusing us of pushing some antinatalist or nihilistic agenda: the show’s true agenda, and its relationship to those philosophies, won’t be clear until the 8th episode finishes.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Pizzolatto’s supposed reluctance to discuss Ligotti, or weird fiction in general (which is an arguable claim in and of itself after episode two had aired), is something that becomes, if not clear, at the very least understandable, especially considering where the season ended, both in time, place, and in Rust’s psychology. It is demonstrably not a, as Padgett suggests, purposefully hidden dodge born out of the shame of plagiarism.
None of this is intended to be a defense of Pizzolatto or True Detective. In truth, neither needs it. Pizzolatto created (with the help of his influences) something that struck a genuine chord in American Culture. However, the writing of the show is not the only reason for the show’s wild popularity. The acting, directing, music, and design of the show were all immaculate and done with the kind of grace almost never seen on television, including HBO, and all of these elements combined are what made True Detective so popular. What is at issue here is not even the claims that Padgett is making (one can disagree on the limits of influence and homage), but instead the way Padgett is making them. His citations are varied and non-linear, he highlights clichés that both Pizzolatto and Ligotti use when describing human existence like “sin” and “meat”, “heart” and “non-existence” and claims them as un-impeachable evidence of wrongdoing, and worse, he knowingly presents information in links, the context of which repudiate his claims.
The fact that Nic Pizzolatto did not plagiarize Thomas Ligotti is one that is, if not inescapable, than one that does not bear out in study. The evidence that Ligotti was an influence and that Pizzolatto went out of his way to acknowledge that influence is too strong to come to any other conclusion, and Davis and Padgett have to seemingly bend over backwards to make the charges appear to fit, including posting a definition of plagiarism taken from the policy of the University of Cambridge. Never mind the fact that, for good reason, academia has extraordinarily strict rules when it comes to attribution, which if used in the real world would make almost any popular art a stolen fragment of something else. Never mind the fact that Davis runs the LovecrafteZine, a place that specializes in and regularly publishes what, by Davis and Padgett’s standards, would be material plagiarized from H.P. Lovecraft! (Though, to be fair, the acknowledgement is in the title)
So why are these claims being made? Why would Jon Padgett make such strong assertions unless he felt morally justified in doing so? Unfortunately, I can only speculate. In the interview with Davis, he makes two references to an attempted interview with Pizzolatto in which an air of bitterness is unmistakable. Padgett says, when first describing how he realized True Detective had elements of Ligotti in it, “I tried to get an interview with Pizzolatto about Ligotti’s influence on True Detective—writing to his agent—but I was told politely that Pizzolatto was ‘up to his ears in post-production and working on season two of True Detective.’”
Padgett then goes on state, describing when Pizzolatto officially referenced Ligotti, “It seems that the “too busy” writer suddenly had time for an interview mostly about, you guessed it, Thomas Ligotti”, as though he doesn’t understand the difference between a show-runner on one of television’s most powerful and prestigious networks being interviewed by a Thomas Ligotti fan site and The Wall Street Journal.
To be honest, I don’t expect this essay to change a lot of minds. Over the last couple of days I have seen people staking out their position on this topic as though it were some kind of sacred ground. If you
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting with any kind of certainty that Padgett’s claims are borne out of any kind of bitterness. It is entirely possible that when Padgett and Davis were conducting their interview, Padgett threw a little spite in because of his love of Ligotti and his anger at Pizzolatto’s supposed plagiarism. What I am suggesting is that Padgett’s claims fall apart rather quickly when examined at more than a surface level, and the tone he presents his claims with work against his assertions, not for them.
To be honest, I don’t expect this essay to change a lot of minds. Over the last couple of days I have seen people staking out their position on this topic as though it were some kind of sacred ground. If you truly believe that Pizzolatto took his intended homage too far and it crossed the line into plagiarism, that’s fine. I don’t begrudge you that belief, and accept it is one that a reasonable person may conclude, if not for anything less than the similarities in vocabulary. My main goal with this essay is to encourage people to re-examine the evidence and to demand more proof when putting a writer’s reputation at risk. I believe I have shown that, even if one were to still assume Pizzolatto was a plagiarist, Padgett’s sourcing and claims of content are sorely lacking when examined in depth, and I truly believe that allowing such claims to go unchecked without an in-depth look at the issue can only feed into the destruction of good writers and good art. Unfortunately though, we live in a society determined to tear down the few good things we have. Like any noteworthy work of art, True Detective had fore bearers and literary bulwarks that reinforced its scarily shifting skeleton. We should acknowledge these to further appreciate the show, and we should use the cultural touchstone the show has provided to bring attention to the works of one of the greatest and relatively unknown American philosophers we have. But tearing down art because of the perceived slight against another artist you happen to enjoy, especially by making such damning comments without the textual evidence to back them up, is both pointless and, as both Rust and Ligotti might say, completely lacking in any sense of meaning.
Post Script: Going Forward
While I was working on the final draft of this essay, I found a wonderful short thought on plagiarism from Gabino Iglesias over at his blog. He does a great job of breaking down what is and is not plagiarism from both a legal and ethical standpoint, and above all, encourages writers to be aware of their influences. It’s a great read, and I recommend checking it out here: http://www.poslodocosmos.blogspot.com/2014/08/a-short-thing-on-plagiarism.html
Paul J. Garth has had stories published in The Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey, Thrills Kills n’ Chaos, and has other stories upcoming, including stories in Needle: A Magazine of Noir and the anthology “Trouble in the Heartland”. He currently lives and writes in Dallas Texas, and can be found online by following @pauljgarth on Twitter.