There. The forbidden thing. I’ve said it. Also, I stole this entire article off of some old lady on street, just so we’re clear. She was carrying it around in her pocket. That’s why I tattoo all my best lines over my body. So no one can get them except some sort of horror movie villain, like that guy in Saw.
Though honestly, I just stole that notion of writing on the body (cc: Jeanette Winterson) from The Pillow Book. You know how it is.
In any event, now that I have said the forbidden thing, I expect flowers from Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair. Despite his fictional status, I also expect them from the Bradley Cooper character in the upcoming movie The Words, who, if the trailer is to be believed, seems to respond to his guilt about plagiarizing a novel by running, just running everywhere. That is what you do when you plagiarize. You run. Not literally. Sometimes the running is only in your soul. If can be depicted with a lot of jumpy camera shots in the movie depiction of your crime, as it is in Shattered Glass. Although in The Fabulist, the novel written by the, well, fabulist, Stephen Glass, the protagonist responds to his exile from journalism by moving home and working in a video store. So, sometimes it’s literal.
Fareed Zakaria has made a rather frantic dash away from his plagiarism scandal, attempting to minimize it by claiming:
“Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column this week bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore’s essay in the April 23rd issue of The New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers.”
Jonah Leher offers a fuller confession, saying:
“The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at the New Yorker.”
Because people want to make it clear that these are very, very bad thing people are doing. Reuters reports:
Suppose I steal my neighbor Jill’s flat-screen television and install it in my living room. Jill or one of her friends who knows about Jill’s missing television comes over to my house a few days later, notices the television and asks, “Hey, isn’t that Jill’s television?”
I immediately confess. “Yes, it is,” I say. “I’m really sorry. It was a mistake.”
Jill or any interested observer or even the police might ask, “What do you mean by ‘mistake’? Did you mistakenly break into her house and mistakenly haul her huge flat-screen into your living room and set it up on the wall?”
Well, so far, most of the press seems content to let a colleague – Fareed Zakaria, who writes for Time and the Washington Post and has a Sunday CNN talk show – get off with exactly that explanation for stealing something. In this case, the theft was plagiarism.
That Fareed, what a scumbag! He’s no better than a television thief. Since we’re talking about it, though, let’s look at some other scumbags.
I seem to recall stories of one guy who used to sit around reading one of his contemporaries’ works looking for good lines. He then inserted those lines into his work. When his friends asked them about it he laughingly replied “I’m plucking pearls out of dung.” He laughed about it. Like a monster.
That guy was Virgil. His contemporary was Quintus Ennius, but no one now remembers him.
And that’s to say nothing of the greatest plagiarist of all, William Shakespeare. People think of Shakespeare as being a plagiarist because he lifted plots pretty heavily from Greek myths and The Decameron. That’s true. He did that. He followed exact plots and pretty much filled in dialogue. It would be like taking everything that happened in Harry Potter, but making all the characters talk as though they were in David Mamet play (which, come to think of it, someone ought to do).
And Shakespeare stole lines directly from Plutarch. Those lines about “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne…” in Antony and Cleopatra? That comes verbatim from Plutarch’s Life of Mark Antony. He was well known to do this – one of his contemporaries said that Shakespeare was “an upstart crow, decorated with the beauty of our feathers” to which Shakespeare is rumored to have quipped that he preferred Plutarch’s feathers.
And Alexandre Dumas! Dumas is known for producing volumes at a rate that would actually be impossible for printers to keep up with. That’s because he supposedly employed a stable of writers who helped him come up with plots and would write large sections of books on his behalf.
One of my favorite stories about him relates to the time a young writer came to him with a volume, hoping that Dumas might be willing to publish it under his name and share the profits with him. Dumas scanned the volume, and exclaimed “your hero doesn’t wear a cloak.” The young writer asked what he meant. Dumas replied “he goes out to fight a duel in the middle of winter and he doesn’t put on a cloak.” Dumas rejected it. A while later, the young writer noticed that Dumas has come out with a book essentially identical to the one he gave him. He went to Dumas and furiously declared “you’ve stolen my book!” “No, no,” Dumas replied, “in my version, the hero wears a cloak.”
Dumas was kind of a shitbag, actually.
But the people that Fareed Zakaria or, say, Kaavya Viswanathan (remember her? Of Opal Mehta fame) lifted lines off of are not going to starve cloak-less in the gutter as a result of that theft. Their careers will not be even remotely negatively impacted. The only people that modern plagiarists are really going to hurt is themselves. Which makes one wonder why they plagiarize at all.
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.
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.