I think most people are able to sit in that room full of sweets and not eat any if they know their career will be destroyed as a result – I certainly am. But I don’t pretend that the thought has never occurred to me. Of course it has. I think there are many pieces that I’ve written that would be made immeasurably better if I could just toss in a line or two from Plutarch like sea salt.
Look, perhaps what we need is not to enact a witch hunt every time someone commits an acts of plagiarism. It’s going to keep happening, because it has been happening for all of history. It’s going to be more visible in the era of the internet. Maybe we need to make it more of an understood part of the writing process. We need a culture of transparency. To that end, we need to promote some openness about where ideas come from. Shakespeare was able to pretty clearly say “yes, I steal from Plutarch all the time” and the response was generally “yeah, Plutarch is the man!” Virgil was able to laugh about it.
Maybe if we allowed for the fact that writers are going to want to steal other writers lines we could have a system in place where Kaavya Viswanathan could simply say, “yes [chick lit writer] had some great lines that I used” rather than trying to desperately claim that she’d stolen them be cause she had a photographic memory and just forgot those lines weren’t theirs (this is a common explanation, and it always sounds crazy). Maybe there could be a way to credit this at the end of articles, or somewhere in a magazine. I think throwing in an asterisk every time a borrowed line pops up seems inelegant, but I suspect there must be some solution better than the solution we have now, which is “getting really angry, shouting about people being scumbag television thieves.”
In an ideal world, acts of plagiarism even become pleasurable for us as readers because the writers make it clear that they’re doing it. T.S. Eliot, for instance, is plagiarizing left and right, and he expects you to be smart enough to realize it. I think it’s harder to imagine a world where Fareed Zakaria says “it wasn’t immediately evident to everyone that I was riffing on Jill Lepore? I guess I thought you guys were intelligent enough to get that” but I like the idea of a world where Zakaria, like Shakespeare or Virgil before him, could mention that he used some of her lines because they were great. And because doing so was an understandable impulse.
So, go ahead. Steal this article. If there are any pearls worth plucking out of this dunghill, they’re yours. Though until everyone comes around to being open, I will simply say that if I stole any of the lines here, it’s because I have a photographic memory.