Did Lawrence Block Plagarize Robert Silverberg in 1960?
I sat down to enjoy one of Lawrence Block’s Andrew Shaw softcore titles from Nightstand, College for Sinners (1960)—as most of the Shaws are enjoyable—and was surprised, perhaps disappointed to discover that the little novel is a direct rip off of one of Robert Silverberg’s titles for Bedstand books, Campus Love Club by David Challon (1959), reprinted in 1962 by Midwood as Campus Sex Club by Loren Beauchamp.
Both books are set in a thinly disguised upper Manhattan institute, Metropolitan College in Silverberg’s novel, unnamed in Block’s, but obviously Columbia University. Both are about a sexually awkward young man who gets the chance to join an exclusive sex club of undergraduates, called The Libertines(the book was reprinted in 1973 by Greenleaf’s Reed Nightstand as The Libertines).
The Shaw book is not an exact word-for-word replica of the Silverberg Challon book—College for Sinners is told in the third person while Campus Love Club is told in the first, the former a bit more humorous in the narration than the later. In both books, the protagonists, eager to lose their virginity, employ the services of a Harlem streetwalker; in Silverberg’s, the prostitute does not speak any English and in Block’s, the woman talks in street slang, calling her john “baby” every other sentence. However, both protagonists are so nervous they are incapable of an erection, thus they do not lose their virginity. Later, both young men in each book take out a campus tramp, a girl who never says no, and are deflowered in that manner.
Note the peculiar similarities when membership of both clubs is explained
“Membership is limited to fifteen—five sophs, five juniors, and five seniors. Each September the juniors and entitled to sponsor five new men for membership…Membership is limited to undergraduates, and you can’t remain a member for more than three years” (Campus Love Club, p. 68-70).
“We have twelve members, no more, no less., Four each from the sophomore, junior, and senior classes. Two men and two women. Each year four members graduate and four new sophomores are invited to join the society.” (College for Sinners, p. 64)
While the group in College has six men and six women, the group of fifteen men in Campus has a sister group of women comprised of fifteen from Chelsey College, an all-girl’s school that is connected to Metropolitan (like one of New England’s Seven Sisters, Vassar or Smith — the sister college for Columbia is Barnard).
Both sex clubs have an apartment in Greenwich Village for orgies—dues are $20 a month in Campus, $50 a year in College. Sexual arrangements are the same: no female member may deny sex for a male member, and vice versa. No one spends a night alone.
Both books have similar consequences and wrap-ups. Not exact, mind you — in Campus, the NYPD raids the group’s orgy house after the kidnap and drug a girl and forced her into sex acts, and when a guy comes to rescue her, a fight breaks out…in College, the protagonist finds true love and becomes disgusted with the immoral ways of his collegiate colleagues, so sends an anonymous letter to the Chief of Police, outlining what happens, what night they can be found, and who these people are.
In Silverberg’s, there is tragedy at the end, the narrator’s life ruined as he goes on without a college degree, the other members disgraced and one committing suicuide. This is usual for Silverberg whose work — sleaze, SF, or fantasy — has a dark bent. Campus ends on a more happy note as the protagonist has found love.
But these books are too damn similar to not take note.
So what happened here?
I asked Silverberg if anyone knew he was David Challon back then and he said no – in fact, seems only the past 10-15 years that many of Silverberg’s pen names in sleaze have come to light (there is no mention in a 1978 bibliography, which only lists a handful of Don Elliott books).
Did Lawrence Block pick up the Challon novel and like it so much that he did his version – seemingly plagiarized – and figured no one would ever notice?
No one ever has, until now.
Did he see the Challon manuscript while at Scott Meredith in 1959 and think, Wow, what a story…
Did he forget reading it and wrote this one as the concept lingered in the back of his mind? The books are only a year apart. One might say, well, maybe there was an item in the news about such a club at Columbia or NYU, or a rumor going around — that’s reasonable, but the fact that both protagonists try to lose their virginity the same way, and botjh have erectile challenges while with a hooker, and the rules of the sex clubs are quite similar, are evidence that this is not a coincidence or shared idea in the creative either.
Read both for yourself, if you wish, and you be the judge.
But what the hell, eh…does it matter?
No, it doesn’t. I don’t wat it to seem like I am out to say, “Ha, I caught you in a youthful folly, Mr. Block!” My interest is academic.
This will be a curious footnote in the history of paperback publishing,