Article: A Critic Reacts (Plagiarism aka The Borrowed Pen)
By Cody Sexton
I don’t particularly care about plagiarism. You might think that as a writer this should perhaps be one of the most important things I should care about, but no. Writing is simply putting ideas onto paper and I don’t believe anyone has a right to claim ownership of, or hold a copyright on, ideas. (Can anyone ever legitimately claim to own an idea? And who gets to own words?)
However, it’s important not to misunderstand me here. If someone copies your work word for word, in other words if all they’ve done is erase your name on the cover and write in their own in its place, then you might have an argument. Otherwise charges of plagiarism is just not that black and white (nor that interesting) and no amount of weight lifting and self-flagellating pompous asshatery is going to make it so, nor how many goddam expletives you string together on Facebook. (Obviously I’m referring to a particular person. One who pretends to be a writer on social media. And one I can’t particularly stand due to his self-righteous take on...well, every fucking thing. But that’s for another article).
Every goddamn writer I’ve ever known or respected has either been guilty of, or been accused of, plagiarism. (Which in the literary world amounts to the same thing).
“All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read heard overheard. What else?”
— William S. Burroughs
Yet, the biggest push back I receive from people regarding this laissez-faire perspective, revolves around the belief that: “Someone is benefiting from someone else’s labor.”
Labor and plagiarism have always been intertwined. The word itself derives from the Latin plagiarius, referring to “kidnapper.” Around the first century A.D., Roman satirist Martial gave us its modern sense when he wrote an epigram complaining that another man (whom he labeled a “plagiarius”) had kidnapped his writings (which he metaphorically labeled his slaves) and was passing them off as his own. What had been a metaphor for a slave-stealer—someone who got labor for free—became a symbolic expression for the theft of words. (In other words the plagiarist acts much like a capitalist who benefits from the labor of others). This is a very bourgeoise take however, because I can technically plagiarize from any work I please, so long as I give proper citations and attributions. But imagine a world where the plagiarist doesn’t benefit from any sale of his theft, a society where no money exists for example or one in which he gives his work away for free. Can it still be claimed that the plagiarist has profited something?
If the answer is yes, because the plagiarist is still staking claim to something they didn’t produce, then it seems that plagiarism has more to do with rudeness than anything else. A breach of etiquette. The plagiarist skirts societal norms. (It’s about ego. And writers have some of the biggest goddamn egos of any group of people. I’m absolutely convinced of it).
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent.”
— Jim Jarmusch
As Glenn Reynolds and Peter Morgan observed in a 2002 essay, the ancients who gave us the notion of plagiarism didn’t object to creative imitation. On the contrary, they encouraged it, knowing that there are only a limited number of good ideas in the world: “Imitation was bad only when it was disguised, or a symptom of laziness. It was not denounced simply on grounds of being ‘unoriginal.’ ” And in his excellent book Stolen Words: Forays Into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism, Thomas Mallon notes that writers didn’t care about plagiarism much “until they thought of writing as their trade.” Consider also that in most academic circles the very word “originality” often appears in quotation marks, seemingly because plagiarism is an incoherent, even impossible, concept and that a writer or artist accused of plagiarism is being faulted for doing something that cannot be avoided. R.M. Howard makes the point succinctly: “If there is no originality and no literary property, there is no basis for the notion of plagiarism.”
Plagiarism, likewise, only seems to exist within the art world, in particular the literary world. In any other sphere it’s not only accepted, but expected. It’s sometimes even referred to as “institutional plagiarism” and occurs without even the lifting of an eyebrow in most daily business communications and in other bureaucratic contexts. For example, if a company employee were to try to compose a quarterly report with original language and organization, her supervisor would probably take her aside and explain that to be more efficient, she should simply adopt the organization and language of past quarterly reports.
Some might argue (foolishly in my opinion) that “institutionalized plagiarism” is acceptable because the language and forms being plagiarized are “common knowledge.” That may be the case in some instances of institutionalized plagiarism but not in every case. Too often, we decontextualize common knowledge, thinking of it as facts every child learns in school or as information that exists in at least five (or whatever number of) credible sources, as some textbooks have defined it. In fact, content alone does not define knowledge as “common.” Common knowledge is that which is presumed to be ubiquitous or, at least, widespread within a specific community—that is, in context. Not all institutionalized plagiarism fits that bill.
There’s also what’s called “developmental plagiarism” which typically occurs when a novice writer tries to sound like the experienced writers within a particular community, profession, field of study, or discipline she is trying to enter. In order to make the transition from community outsider to insider, the novice writer will go through the general stages of all learning: observation, imitation, repetition, trial-and-error, revision, and retrial, incrementally progressing into the target community. In fact, it is difficult to imagine many circumstances where any writer (even experienced writers, successful in other communities) doesn’t, at least to some degree, fall into mimicking the language of the target audience’s community, thereby opening him or herself up to possible plagiarism.
“If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.”
— Wilson Mizner
Still, as Rebecca Moore Howard has shown, “patch-writing”— weaving the language of one or more source texts into one’s own text without adequately citing the source(s) — is a common form of developmental plagiarism. And as Diane Pecorari notes, patch-writing: “is virtually inevitable as writers learn to produce texts within a new discourse community, and is a beneficial part of the learning process.”
According to Stanley Fish, and if considered seriously, “all texts are palimpsests of earlier texts; there’s been nothing new under the sun since Plato and Aristotle and they weren’t new either; everything belongs to everybody. In earlier periods works of art were produced in workshops by teams; the master artisan may have signed them, but they were communal products. In some cultures, even contemporary ones, the imitation of standard models is valued more than work that sets out to be path-breaking.” (This was one of the positions in the famous quarrel between the ancients and the moderns in England and France in the 17th and 18th centuries.)
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.”
— T. S. Eliot
In The Little Book of Plagiarism, an engaging study of the concept, law professor and Judge Richard A. Posner attributes today’s “increasing attention” to plagiarism largely to a “cult of originality” first shaped by the Romantics—who venerated individual genius—and further intensified by a 21st-century modern market economy that values novelty in its “expressive works.” Obviously, originality does have something to do with all the confusion: Most of us expect writers—especially novelists and poets—to have a distinctive voice and literary style. We carve out exceptions for writers like Shakespeare—a plagiarist by modern-day standards—because they are creative in their use of borrowed material; such copying isn’t “slavish” but inventive, or, as Posner puts it: “The imitation is producing value.” Those who don’t recontextualize borrowed work—like Kaavya Viswanathan—we censure.
Posner may be right to connect our obsession with plagiarism to the rise of a market economy that values individualism in cultural works. But perhaps it also stems from a collision of contemporary ideas about what accomplishment really is: the result of effortless gifts, or the fruition of hard labor? Americans are fond of the myth of hard work. As preternaturally gifted distance runner Steve Prefontaine puts it in the 1998 biopic Without Limits, “Talent is a myth.” And recent studies have shown that the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall is based in quantifiable fact: The top tier of 20-year-old violinists, it turns out, practiced on average 2,500 hours more than violinists the next rank down. Yet contemporary culture pays quite a lot of lip service to the myth of innate talent, wildly overestimating, for instance, the contributions of single employees to companies.
Returning to Fish again: “Plagiarism, is an insider’s obsession. If you’re a professional journalist, or an academic historian, or a philosopher, or a social scientist or a scientist, the game you play for a living is underwritten by the assumed value of originality and failure properly to credit the work of others is a big and obvious no-no. But if you’re a musician or a novelist, the boundary lines are less clear (although there certainly are some) and if you’re a politician it may not occur to you, as it did not at one time to Joe Biden, that you’re doing anything wrong when you appropriate the speech of a revered statesman.
And if you’re a student, plagiarism will seem to be an annoying guild imposition without a persuasive rationale (who cares?); for students, learning the rules of plagiarism is worse than learning the irregular conjugations of a foreign language. It takes years, and while a knowledge of irregular verbs might conceivably come in handy if you travel, knowledge of what is and is not plagiarism in this or that professional practice is not something that will be of very much use to you unless you end up becoming a member of the profession yourself. It follows that students who never quite get the concept right are by and large not committing a crime; they are just failing to become acclimated to the conventions of the little insular world they have, often through no choice of their own, wandered into. It’s no big moral deal; which doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that plagiarism shouldn’t be punished — if you’re in our house, you’ve got to play by our rules — just that what you’re punishing is a breach of disciplinary decorum, not a breach of the moral universe.”
“It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.”
— Jean-Luc Godard
Let’s face it: Plagiarism, as we know and understand it, is a relatively recent invention of a bourgeoise culture obsessed with individualism, individual rights and the myth of progress. Because “Everything is derivative. Everything is stolen. Everything is copied.” There is no other way to produce art. (Now, to pay homage to the late Christopher Hitchens, do me a favor: go and spot the unattributed quotation in this article. At least, I hope there’s only one).
Cody Sexton is the managing editor for A Thin Slice of Anxiety. His work has been featured at: Writer Shed Stories, The Diverse Perspective, Detritus, Revolution John, Due Dissidence, and As It Ought To Be Magazine where he is a regular contributor. In addition he is also a 2020 Best of the Net Nominee for his pioneering essay The Body of Shirley Ann Sexton.