The common explanation of plagiarism – and to some degree the the only explanation people seem willing to accept – is that plagiarists steal because they are mediocrities. They can’t come up with good enough lines on their own, so they have to take other people’s. They’re crumbling under the pressure to be greater than they are. Jayson Blair offered up this explanation a few weeks ago in Salon when he wrote that:
I certainly understand that pressure. Once you’re young and successful, I think, in this profession you’re only as good as your last story — and you want every story to be better. I think when you’re young and you’re immature — well, I’m unclear on why he did it, but when you’re young and immature, it’s just very difficult, I think, to resist temptation.
I don’t think I’ve ever been able to really successfully analyze why I did what I did. Obviously, in my case there was a little bit of mental illness at play.
I think most people would be loathe to suggest that Shakespeare or Virgil stole because they were fundamentally mediocre writers, or that they were suffering from mental illness. I sincerely believe that Virgil was a much better writer than Quinnus, though Shakespeare vs. Plutarch might be up for more debate.
I am going to say a fairly controversial thing: if you are a writer, I think you are going to want to steal lines from other writers.
If you are an aspiring writer, I think wanting to steal lines from other people is a very, very good sign. It is a good sign because it means you recognize what good lines are. Because, be clear, there are a lot of people out there who simply can’t tell. There are people who will very earnestly tell you that Twilight is written at the same technical level as The Sun Also Rises. They are not. If you are someone who values literature at all you recognize that, while you might enjoy 50 Shades of Grey it is not a well written book. Many, many people cannot do that.
In that way, plagiarism is not quite like stealing a television, because a television is not the kind of object of beauty that only a certain group can recognize. It is like being crazed with a covetous desire for an antique paperweight (which, come to think of it, Truman Capote, who wrote about shamelessly plagiarizing stories when he was in high school, used to collect).
And if you are someone who naturally appreciates good, quippy lines, then encountering them is like being a naturally appetitive person left in a room with pastries and being told “don’t take any of them.” This is not a troubling proposition for someone who doesn’t like sweets. But, of course, it will be a problem for people who do.
Why did you do it Jayson Blair? Because you were mentally ill? No. It’s quite sane to covet the things you find most beautiful and want to make them yours. Not to be at least tempted by other people’s great lines is simply to be an unobservant writer.