Who Owns This Story?

In Jean Hanff Korelitz’s buzzworthy bestseller, The Plot, we meet Jacob Finch Bonner (the “Finch” is a tribute to Atticus Finch, of course). He wrote “the” book. You know the kind. The celebrity book club pick. The one that’s optioned for the screen. The one that catapults an author into total superstardom in seconds. The problem? It isn’t his story. Or is it? Can it be?

Read on to learn more, but not too much more, because we aren’t spoiler types.

Lara: I really love the questions The Plot raises. So, let’s back up a bit. Jake (Jacob) has written a handful of books. His first was met with mild success. His follow-ups, not so much. And now he’s teaching Creative Writing at a second-rate (or maybe it’s a third-rate) Masters of Fine Arts program. The program, which has students workshopping their ideas, conducting peer reviews, etc., has accepted Evan Parker, a very arrogant guy who is convinced he’s written the perfect book. The one that’s going to be all over the Bookstagram, the one that’s going to have him on press junkets, the one that is infallible. 

Jennifer: And he joins the class not to workshop his story, but to connect with Jake on how to get an agent and start the bidding war on his perfect plot. 

Lara: Right! And, understandably, Jake is a little put off by Evan Parker–who hilariously says he’s going to change his name to Parker Evan and then Jake refers to him as Evan Parker/Parker Evan. 

Jennifer: That was good. And Jake is successful in getting Evan Parker/Parker Evan to share the plot of his book and is rather stunned to find that it’s pretty damn perfect. It will be a tremendous hit, no doubt. But then time passes, like five years, and Jake is now at an even lower-level writing program, when he decides to Google Evan Parker/Parker Evan to see if there’s any news about his sure-thing book….

Lara: And he learns that EP/PE has died and the book was never published. Uh-oh.

Jennifer: Uh-oh, indeed. He realizes there’s an opportunity here. A really big opportunity.

Lara: And so we fast forward and Jake is being interviewed about his newly published book (currently being directed into a movie by Steven Spielberg) in front on an audience of over 2,000 people when he returns to his hotel room to a message through the contact form on his website from some TalentedTom@gmail.com that simply says:

“You are a thief.”

Jennifer:  Hence, at least two unanswered questions. The first–but not the one we’re going to talk about–is your basic whodunnit. Has a dead man risen from the grave to claim his unpublished story? Who knows about Jake’s “crime”?

The second question is the one we’ll focus on . . . with a few other comments. Who owns a story? Let’s be very clear about this: Jake did not plagiarize verbiage, word choice, linguistic finesse, etc. He wrote a plot told to him. Has he stolen anything? Is this a crime? Before you go there, Lara, did you like this book?

Lara: I really liked it. A lot. And, you’re right. To me, this is less of a whodunnit. And more about how did someone know Jake had taken this story, and is it even fair to say it was stolen? I think the concept of the book is really clever and Korelitz has written a good book that had me engaged from start to finish. It’s strong writing, with some intrigue and deft humor. 

What did you think?

Jennifer: Well, let me tell our readers that you and I have a history of book-selection that might be relevant to our discussion. We’ve been reviewing books since 2012-13, and a trend has been revealed: Lara has hits; I have misses. I mean, it’s not always like this–but it happens.

This is relevant because you mentioned that this author, um, writes like I do in terms of exclamation marks! And the parenthetical asides threaded throughout (which I love so much!).

And you said that you might recommend that I read a paper copy, rather than listen to the audiobook, to see this word-play.

So I did.

And you were right!

I found her writing style very readable, and instantly appealing. I was sucked in. While the thriller-aspect did pull me in, I have to say that I especially loved Jean Hanff Korelitz’s completely true asides on the Life of a Writer. Man, she hit home with her insider remarks through Jake’s characterization. His take on MFA life, writer residencies, book talk. I was giggling. 

This gem, said to a writer:

“You’re a strange kind of beast, aren’t you, with your petty feuds and your fifty shades of narcissism?”


And this secret, which explains why I don’t keep a journal:

“… it’s never a forgone conclusion that anyone is actually going to see your work, no matter how good it is. And if nobody reads it, it doesn’t exist.”

In other words, the act of reading is the consummation of writing. Wisdom.

I think there were five million examples of this.

Lara: I love when I am right, but I love it more when you acknowledge it. Readers, let the record reflect that I pick more wins than Jennifer. I will be picking our books from here on out and she can read her experimental shiz on her own.

I am kidding! Kind of.

Okay, so here’s the quote that made me tell you to read this book. Are you ready?

Jennifer: God, help me…

Lara: Okay, here it is:

“You’re only as successful as the last book you published, and you’re only as good as the next book you’re writing. So shut up and write.”

I can actually see you saying that to yourself. Or Tim (Jennifer’s husband) saying it to you as he leaves to go on one of his 2,000 bike rides. 

Jennifer: Well, yes. That’s entirely true. I don’t even know if I can comment on it, because it’s so true that its truth is blinding. 

Lara: The truthiest of all the truths.

But back to our original question about who owns this story? Is a story that you hear from someone else yours to share? What if that story was intended to be told as a book and the author, as in the case of this book, died?

Here’s what Jake believes:

“Once you were in possession of an actual idea, you owed it a debt for having chosen you, and not some other writer, and you paid that debt by getting down to work, not just as a journeyman fabricator of sentences but as an unshrinking artist ready to make painful, time-consuming, even self-flagellating mistakes.”

What do you think? What if Evan Parker/Parker Evan hadn’t died? What do you think then?

Jennifer: I think Jake did nothing wrong, except for not owning up to the Origin Story of his book. He was free to write it. There was no crime here, besides his insistence on a coverup. I do disagree with one writerly comment:

“Either it’s a good plot or it isn’t. And if it’s not a good plot, the best writing isn’t going to help. And if it is, the worst writing isn’t going to hurt it.”

True, but not true.

There are great books with minimal plot, ranging from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, two of my favorites. And you just did a search and a couple of great books came up: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. The writing is primary. The plot is secondary! 

Jake did the work! He shouldn’t have lied. 

Lara: I agree! There was no crime here, but TalentedTom@gmail.com thinks there is and it creates a nice diversion, a PLOT for this story. And there are publishers and attorneys, and a love interest, so it makes for a good story!

Let me ask you this: What if EP/PE hadn’t died and Jake just decided to go for it and get it out there first. Does that change anything?

Jennifer: I think he shouldn’t do that; again, though, it’s unethical–but not criminal. You know. I wrestle a bit with this. My husband gets no privacy in my writing. My kids do. I want to sometimes use their material–but I can’t. So, one must tread carefully.

What do you think?

Lara: I think if Evan Parker/Parker Evan was still alive, it would be a dirt-bag move. Not illegal, but ethically nefarious.

Jennifer: What else have you been reading?

Lara: I have a few books going on. I just finished Hernan Diaz’s Truth for our indie bookstore book club. It’s shortlisted for The Booker Prize. I liked parts of it, didn’t love the whole of it. I am in the middle-ish of The One-In-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood and A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson. My guy and I are reading West With Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge. And my son just said he would read Atomic Habits by James Clear with me. I should note that he said we will read it on our own time and discuss what we read; we “won’t actually read to each other, Mom.”

What about you?

Jennifer: Since we last met, I really haven’t read a ton. I did read one doozy of a book: Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica (translated by Sarah Moses), who is Argentinian and a woman, I just now realized. Briefly, a worldwide “transition” has occurred, and all animals are infected. They’re exterminated. “Regulated” cannibalism is the new way. Interestingly, I have to say that this is a beautifully-written book. 

And then I quit a lot of high-profile books. It’s a bit embarrassing to list . . . 

Next Up!

We will be listening to the author read his own story when we ear-read Dirtbag, Massachusetts, by Isaac Fitzgerald. See you next time! Until then, happy reading!


Can’t get enough of Snotty Literati? Follow us on Facebook!

Want to read more from Jennifer? Check her out at www.jenniferspiegel.com

Want to see what Lara is up to? Stay right here at www.onelitchick.com