Well, this about clenches it. I’m getting ready to shrug off any notions of writing commercial fiction and just write books for me, even if they end up in the metaphorical closet under the metaphorical bowling shoes.
Yeah, I know, I’ve said that before. But I think I’m getting serious about it, because I feel like some of the things about writing and publication that meant something even five years ago are being cheapened by the minute. While we seem to be in a Golden Age for some things (acoustic guitars, for example), our literary culture acts as if it’s slouching towards Gomorrah when it comes to artistic integrity.
You know, that whole notion that you write something original and stand by it and that you don’t have to resort to false pretense to sell it.
I’m not talking about recent lawsuits involving Harry Potter or The DaVinci Code. Whether there’s actually a case in any of those suits I don’t know, and I don’t really care. Those are Gravy Train lawsuits. If either one of those books had sold as well as, say, Ferman’s Devils, there wouldn’t be a story. There wouldn’t even be a lawsuit.
No, this is about all the stuff I’ve been hearing about of late that up until now I’ve been silent on. The teenaged prodigy who “must have internalized” large portions of the novels that influenced her to start writing. The guy who appeared on Oprah and passed off the novel he cribbed from two other books as his personal memoirs. Or another memoir writer, formerly a specialist in gay erotica, who manufactured a Native American persona to sell his cribbed novels – and now, caught with his hand in the cookie jar, is shopping around his memoir about his memoirs (shades of journalistic fraud Jayson Blair, who played the race card while telling all in his memoir, Burning Down My Masters’ House… which brings up a question – how do you fact check the memoir of a plagiarist or fraud?).
Right now there may be one person jumping up and down as he reads this, screaming at me and saying the pot is calling the kettle black. See, I had a
friend acquaintance in high school who was always accusing me of plagiarism.
We once read a story with a scene where policemen ran around talking in numbers to each other, obviously inspired by TV shows like Dragnet and Adam 12, where the crimes and the radio traffic were all numerically encrypted. I liked the idea so much that I cribbed it. I wrote a bit in a different context, where people talked in confusing strings of initials. For those three of you that read it, this evolved into the business with all of the initials in Old Loves Die Hard.
friend acquaintance couldn’t think of enough bad things to call me. I was a plagiarist, pure and simple, and I was going to burn for it. He made a career of denouncing pretty much everything I wrote during that period, and I came to realize that it was because he was jealous. There was actually something – one thing – that I was better at than he was. And he couldn’t stand it.
What he didn’t understand then – and what I couldn’t convey to him because, while I’d internalized the rules of how ideas worked, I hadn’t had experience enough with them to explain it properly – was that there was a difference between outright plagiarism and what Lawrence Block calls creative plagiarism.*
The former is wholesale copying of themes, concepts, ideas, and yes, even text, and incorporating it into one’s work and presenting it as original.
The latter is the process of seeing how someone else worked with their material, bringing their own ideas to the party, playing with it, letting it evolve, and then writing it new out of whole cloth.
The latter is a time-honored tradition among writers. It’s called formula. And if it didn’t exist, novels would have ceased after number 37 – because that’s the number of plots there are in the world. Imagine, a world where there was only one Harry Potter novel, one James Bond movie. Did you realize that Alien and Aliens have virtually identical plot lines – what a difference a screenwriter and director make. And John Irving used this to write his first few novels, arranging the same elements in different orders and sequences until he hit the lottery with The World According to Garp, and then did it one more time in The Hotel New Hampshire for good measure.
Block’s example of this is the occasion on which he was reading an Agatha Christie-like mystery, and at the end of the book it turned out that the butler had done it. He was sure the Vicar was the culprit. He had all of this mental evidence against him as he read the book. Then he started thinking, well if only this event had gone this way, and that event had gone that way instead… and pretty soon he had worked out a scenario for a new mystery novel that bore no resemblance to Agatha Christie.
But don’t tell my
friend acquaintance that.
Now there is a less-honorable path that creative plagiarism takes – this is why you see Harry Potter ripoffs all over the place now (Boy wizards make money!), and why there was a horror boom in the 1980’s (Stephen King makes money!), and why we have new sub-genres like techno thrillers and legal thrillers (Tom Clancy and John Grisham make money!). And you know what? God bless America for that.
But there are those, like my
friend acquaintance, who can’t differentiate between that and the kind of wholesale bottom-feeding plagiarism that has been roiling in the headlines since the beginning of the year.
This whole business of cribbing (and let’s call it what it is, which is stealing) with some false identities thrown into the mix has suddenly become a huge flaw in the industry – the literary equivalent of steroid abuse. Let’s face it, literature has had a long history of tolerance for character defect – we’ve had opium smokers, absinthe drinkers, heroin addicts, stoners, cokeheads, and full blown alcoholics functioning among our numbers since it all began, and that’s just under the heading of substance abuse. But even then they played inside the rules.
It’s not like this has never happened before – Stephen Ambrose, Janet Daily, and Alex Hailey have all been caught in the act at one time or another. It just feels like this dishonesty is reaching critical mass right now.
Like the rules have all gone out the door.
In this era of instant gratification, it’s no longer enough to have to come up with one’s own writing, especially when someone has broken the ground for you. Again, let me illuminate the difference here. “Hmm, Mark Haddon made a compelling character with an autistic narrator. What if I had an agoraphobic narrator?” “Hmm, these paragraphs from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time would work really well in my book. And nobody’s looking over my shoulder…”
This is all ironic, since the Internet, which is giving potential offenders access to even more resources, is making it easier and easier to catch these folks. I know an English instructor at a local community college, and she’s sometimes referred to as The Plagiarism Nazi by colleagues and students alike because of her eagle eye, her memory, and her ability to wield tools like Google in her quest for truth, justice, and original writing.
Perhaps that’s the problem. Maybe as many people as ever before are dipping their buckets a little too deeply into the literary well, but more of them are getting caught at it. And when those caught were those who commanded mid six-figure advances or more, were gushingly reviewed by the cognoscenti, or got plum interview spots on Oprah or Larry King, well, that makes the stench all the more foul.
But I don’t think that’s all of it. I think publishers are going the way of Hollywood, throwing unconscionable amounts of money at people and their books in search of The Next Big Thing instead of taking the time to nurture the careers of writers like they did back in the era of Maxwell Perkins.
When you look at all of that and you see the publicity a markedly original book can get, it’s just too tempting. There’s a lot of greed out there**. There’s a lot of temptation to take shortcuts because let’s face it, writing a novel is hard work. It can be lonely work. And when your friends are off at the pub tossing darts or doing whatever they do while you’re locked up in your silent little office, that’s when you hear the little voice telling you to pick up the ring… and slip it on your finger… just this once…
No. I’m not even going to give these folks, and any other of their ilk that much. I know too many writers who have worked too hard to produce original works that come from their own unique vision of the world to give plagiarists any justification at all. No matter what kind of childhood they had, or anymore, claimed to have had.
And when they give lame excuses like “I must have internalized those passages wholesale from my favorite novelist’s book” or “I recently learned that my essentially random and non-pervasive acts of copying are attributable to a psychological problem that I never even suspected I had,” they should be tarred with book-binding glue and feathered with the shredded remnants of their contract and manuscripts.
Okay. That’s enough. I’ll wipe the foam and spittle from my lips, having vented. I should be happy and serene for a while. Or for fourteen more minutes, until the next plagiarism scandal breaks.
Meantime, I’ve got work to do. A new novel about a southern belle who would do anything to preserve the plantation of her youth from the ravages of the Civil War. I’ve got it half done, even though I only started typing two weeks ago, and you want to know something? I’m going to dedicate it to my old high school
I hear you calling, but I ain’t no fool
I’ve got to be stronger
I’ve got to get over you
Each time I cry, its a sign of my pain
Every tear that falls, carries your name
(via iPod Shuffle)
* Not that any of this would have mattered to my
friend acquaintance – he would have found some other reason to hate my stuff.
** And I thought I was being greedy in 1978 when, on learning that Daw books paid a $2000 advance for a typical first SF novel, I said to myself, “I can do that!”)