Rowan wouldn’t be the only writer in recent years—the era of redefining what is meant by “intellectual property”—to use plagiarism to make a statement. Those whose points have been well-taken, however, have generally been up-front about their borrowing. Among the best-known are Jonathan Lethem, whose 2007 essay in Harper’s, “The Ecastasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” comprised only lifted passages; and the British “collagiste” Graham Rawle, whose 2009 novel “Woman’s World” was “assembled from 40,000 fragments of text snipped from women’s magazines.” Both of these were praised for their meta properties: they worked on the story level and also critiqued and commented upon the stories they told through their acts of appropriation. If Rowan is trying to comment upon the spy genre—on how it is both tired and endlessly renewable, on how we as readers of the genre want nothing but to be astonished again and again by the same old thing—then he has done a bang-up job. If he wants to comment on our current notions of discovery, to turn us all into armchair detectives, Googling here and there and everywhere to solve the puzzle, he is a genius. (David Shields, whom James Wood wrote about last year in this magazine, might approve of his project.)
Here’s the obvious point: if you want to use quotation to comment on a genre, cool. Just tell your readers that that’s what you’re doing. Don’t try to sell your book as a novel you wrote all by your smart little lonesome.