Sam and the Ossian Fraud

I’ve been writing since I was about 15 (that was the mid-1970s). Three things I remember working on at that time were a novel (unfinished), at least one short story, and poems (execrable and happily lost for eternity). When I think of the fiction, it often reminds me of the old saw about writing, that a writer needs to find his voice. I didn’t have mine then. I remember feeling that my work was inadequate somehow because it lacked the detail about clothing and people’s features and the surroundings that I was reading in novels at the time. I later discovered that of course not all writers do that, that some rely on perfect single details, or use a very spare, minimalist style. That was encouraging. I also remember that one of the stories I read at the time was “Trois visions réfléchies” by Alain Robbe-Grillet. It, at least, was very different: what I remember is a passionless, geometric, highly detailed description of a space.

I started writing short stories in my own style around the late 1980s and continued writing them till the mid-1990s. I managed to get six published, and then in the late 1990s, after I moved to Boston where I lived for five years, I switched to writing novels. I never managed to get any of the novels published by a publisher, so I decided to self-publish what I considered to be the two best of the six I had written: Will’s Dead Wife, and The Killing Type.

After that, for various reasons, I either got tired of writing fiction or lost interest in doing so. That was about the late 2000s (when I was in my early 50s), and it’s non-fiction that I have been writing ever since. I’ve self-published two of them and am working on two more:

I mention all this detail to illustrate that I’ve spent a lot of time during my life writing, and even though I’ve never been even close to making a living from it – always had to have a day job – I’ve learned a lot from it, and continue to love writing, reading, and the words of this lovely messy thing we call the English language. Words matter and as a writer I’ve always tried to choose them carefully in order to achieve an aesthetic effect and to say exactly what I intend to say.

No writer can be fully convicted of imitation, except there is a concurrence of more resemblance than can be imagined to have happened by chance; as where the same ideas are conjoined without any natural series or necessary coherence, or where not only the thought but the words are copied.

Samuel Johnson, 1751

One of my favourite anecdotes from the life of Sam Johnson concerns fraud. That is, writing words which you claim are someone else’s. In Sam’s case it’s now known among scholars as the “Ossian fraud,” and it concerns the poet James Macpherson, a contemporary of Sam, who claimed that some poems he published in the 1760s were actually his translations of ancient Gaelic poems from the 3rd century CE (wikipedia has a good summary of the whole dirty business). Sam’s reaction to the affair is great, and if you have three more minutes I’ll even recount the letter that he wrote to Macpherson after Macpherson threatened him …

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