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The Accidental Plagiarist: The Trouble with Originality

ISSUE:  Spring 2007

I. We Few, We Hapless Few

Many a man fails as an original thinker simply because his memory is too good.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human

There comes a point in many a person’s life when things that Nietzsche said begin to make good sense.

This is not necessarily a propitious sign. Understanding or simply identifying with Nietzsche doesn’t typically fill one’s life with joy; it can make a mess of one’s love life, make one speak in intelligent-sounding but laceratingly depressing epigrams, and give one the urge to sign missives as “Dionysus” or “The Damned.”

I recall the day when I finally understood one of Nietzsche’s statements which had previously baffled me, one which Harold Bloom is fond of quoting. To wit: “There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.” What happened was, I was talking one evening to a co-worker about the war in Iraq and, after explaining why I think we should get out of there fast, he suggested the following: “We should just nuke the whole goddamn country. What’s Iraq? Desert. We nuke the whole goddamn country and turn the desert to glass. Then our troops just have to look down and find the oil. Easy. It’s all about easy extraction.”[1] Then he laughed and slapped my back in solidarity. That laugh, I thought, is the sound of hope losing its feathers.

Times such as these, I like to play a little existential game with myself, one that I think Nietzsche would appreciate. The idea is to see if I can “will myself dead,” to, say, conjure up a myocardial infarction or a brain aneurysm by an act of sheer concentrated will. It never works. Instead of unbecoming I usually end up nodding, renouncing articulation for gesticulation (my co-workers always accept the gracious indefiniteness of the nod). Soon the talk turns to women anyway (we’re usually in a bar), which amounts to the only esoteric art most of my colleagues are interested in pursuing.

That bit from Nietzsche quoted above (appropriately enough from Human, All Too Human) has sighed and moaned about in my mind like an insistent, unfortunate mantra for four years now, years during which, not coincidentally, I have had a modicum of small-press literary success. As a writer of poetry and the occasional essay (read anachronism and anathema to the God of Economic Utility or, simply, Secular Humanist), I am constantly trying to come up with, if not an original idea, then at least an original rendering of one. But this pursuit is a difficult and quixotic one, since poetry and essays (and, outside of certain genres, most fiction) now fall under the canopy of “specialist” reader- and authorship, and the hundreds of literary journals and magazines that publish such esoterica are read by a small, select few. And we few, we hapless few readers are also, more often than not, the authors. Thus, not only are we readers and writers oftentimes taking out one another’s laundry, but also we periodically end up, as it were, wearing one another’s pants. Sometimes we do this unconsciously (which we politely euphemize as Influence: a laudable thing denoting wide reading and artistic ecumenicalism), and sometimes calculatingly (which we call Plagiarism: the redheaded stepchild of literature, the specter that haunts high-school compositions, the cancer that parasites the bowels of literary veritas whilst making many an author’s—and virtually every rapper’s—career[2]). And then there’s the sticky phenomenon of “subconscious plagiarism,” of which we’re all guilty (by virtue of being human), and of which George Harrison is, in many ways, the poster boy.

II. A Somewhat Contemporary Example of Subconscious Plagiarism: Angry Lawyers Attempt to Take a Bite out of Apple Records and George Harrison’s Ethos

Wah-wah / You’ve given me your wah-wah
—George Harrison, “Wah-Wah” from All Things Must Pass

One of the most famous cases of contemporary subconscious plagiarism doesn’t involve a “writer” in the strictest sense, but a Beatle. The late and great George Harrison (“the quiet one,” my favorite) was sued in 1971 for copyright infringement for what Harrison later dubbed “subconscious plagiarism.” To make an over-twenty-year case short, various fellows in designer suits and (we can safely assume) unfortunate seventies hair accused Harrison of plagiarizing the Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine,”[3] maintaining that Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord,” from his album All Things Must Pass (1970), was effectively the same song. Ultimately musicologists on the prosecution’s payroll found that “He’s So Fine” consisted of two basic musical “phrases” (motif “a” and motif “b”), the former consisting of four repetitions of the notes G–E–D and the latter of G–A–C–A–C, and then found that “My Sweet Lord” shared the same harmonic genetic code. Harrison paid a lot of money to the suits; the case was retried, and so on until the nineties. He finally resolved the matter by buying the rights to “He’s So Fine.”

But the fascinating thing for me was Harrison’s defense. In effect, he claimed that no one should be penalized for subconscious plagiarism because such regrettable mishaps do not involve any deliberation or premeditation. Read (in a Liverpudlian accent): “You gits can’t sue me for the conscious output of my subconscious mind. Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna.” Had his judge been Carl Jung, Harrison’s argument might have had a chance but, as Charles Baxter wrote, “Fuck and alas.”

It occurs to me now that Harrison could have saved a little face and avoided the whole Freudian angle had he invoked the words attributed to his former bandmate John Lennon for his defense: “There’s only so many notes, you know . . .”

I take no small amount of solace in Harrison’s defense, however, as I know that there must be several of my former students out there who have sat in university literature classes and thought, “Hey, that’s what Mr. Campbell used to say—only it wasn’t Erik Campbell, it was Joseph Campbell. In 1945.”

The Nietzsche quotation above should perhaps be modified to read thus: “Many a man fails as an original thinker simply because his memory—including his subconscious memory—is too good.”[4]

III. Abstractions That Society Gives a Damn About

But of what significance is Plagiarism to the world at large? Does our modern cut-and-paste and context-phobic society actually give a damn? As with all such philosophical questions of valuation, I turned to Google, the King Solomon of the twenty-first century, for the answer.

For my scientific inquiry I decided to gauge Plagiarism’s import by placing it alongside the abstractions Life, Death, Happiness, Sadness, Originality, and the Fox hit tv series The O.C.[5] I figured that for society to demonstrably give a damn about one of these abstractions it would need to have at least three million hits. The results are as follows:

Abstractions That Society Gives a Damn About
AbstractionNumber of Hits on Google (as of 9/23/05)
Life 540,000,000
Death 110,000,000
Happiness 12,100,000
Sadness 4,550,000
Originality 4,280,000
Plagiarism 3,320,000
The O.C. 770,000

It turns out that the “Abstractions That Society Gives a Damn About” breakdown yields very few surprises other than, perhaps, apodictic proof that I have far too much time on my hands. Still, there are over 3 million sites for Plagiarism, which means it’s a viable and important subject for inquiry, less important than Life, but more important than Fox’s hit TV series The O.C.

I’m pleased with the results; were they reversed I suspect I’d be trying to will myself dead.

IV. Teaching Zoltan a Lesson

Mrs. Wilkerson decided to teach Zoltan a lesson. She had him write, “I STOLE PROPERTY FROM KILGORE TROUT,” on the blackboard while the class watched. Then, for the next week, she made him wear a shirt cardboard with the letter P on it, hung on his chest from around his neck, whenever he was in her classroom. She could get the piss sued out of her for doing that to a student nowadays.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake

Most of my Google results for Plagiarism dealt with academic plagiarism on the high-school and undergraduate level. This is because many young students are sneaky. And lazy. And on drugs. Sneaky, lazy, young people on drugs don’t make for original, successful scholars. Poets? Perhaps (see Shelley, Byron, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Lowell, every single Beat poet, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Bukowski, and possibly Rod McKuen[6]).

When I was teaching high-school English the question of Plagiarism (and rarely the question of Influence) came up time and time again. For me, the amazing thing about the question was the multiplicity of answers that many students received from various teachers, my favorite of which was espoused by a notoriously incompetent and strident middle-school English teacher who had previously taught many of my students. Her definition of Plagiarism was, as I understood it, when a writer copies more than six words in a row without author ascription. There are many flaws with this definition apart from the obvious—that it’s just plain stupid. Using this definition, I could have started this essay with: “Call me Ishmael” or “A spectre is haunting Europe” or “Marley was dead: to begin with,” claiming them as my own.

Of course, in this “peek-a-boo world” (to use Neil Postman’s phrase) of instant-everything and correspondingly dwindling attention spans that make my cat look contemplative, most teachers are principally concerned with what I’ll call Hard Plagiarism (HP)—line-by-line copying without attribution. Consequently, teachers Google incongruously melodious extracts from suspected students’ papers, find that the words are ripped verbatim from an old Helen Vendler lecture, and subsequently let slip the hounds of comeuppance in the form of public embarrassment, failing grades, and phone calls home.

And what of Soft Plagiarism (SP), pilfering another’s ideas? Teachers don’t have to worry overmuch about SP, largely—if not exclusively—because in order to borrow and slightly modify or paraphrase an idea, a student first has to engage in an act of reading, which is bound to get in the way of instant-messaging inanities to friends, popping Ritalin like Milk Duds, and watching The O.C.

There are, however, always a few students who ask about the nature of ideas and their origins and argue in an inchoate but sincere fashion that knowledge is inherently derivative and communal, and consequently they would have to cite every statement made in their composition—nay, would have to cite every thought they have ever had—to avoid SP, and would therefore be subject to an infinite regression. In higher academic circles we would call such students promising “epistemologists” (i.e., those who study how one knows), but we are more likely to think of such students as “pains in the ass” (i.e., annoying people who cause emotional stress). Teachers, realizing the daunting significance of these impossible, or, at least, exhausting questions, end up supplying rather insufficient answers to these pains in the ass, such as that of the aforementioned middle-school teacher. We teachers know that we’ve never had a truly original idea—and most of us are fearful that we have heretofore even plagiarized our emotions.

So just call us Ishmaels. Our ideas, like Marley, were dead to begin with.

V. Confession the First: The Anxiety of Influence (the Author Accidentally Commits HP); or, Why I Give a Damn

And the gods, I have to believe, are perverse and ubiquitous, though no doubt more likely to visit those of us who habitually try to reach to them.
—Stephen Dunn, “The Poet as Teacher” from Walking Light

I admire a great gaggle of contemporary poets whom I regard as a veritable pantheon of secular gods, but Stephen Dunn is my favorite living poet, my high priest of vertically rendered experience. I love his work so much that it seems that he should be dead. You understand. I often think (lifting a sentiment from Robert Musil) that if the Muses of Contemporary Verse could dream collectively, they would dream up Stephen Dunn. Put in popular culture terms, were I Sean “Puffy” Combs a.k.a. Puff Daddy a.k.a. P. Diddy a.k.a. Diddy, Stephen Dunn would be my Christopher Wallace a.k.a. Biggie Smalls a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G.

I’m quite comfortable with citing my inspirations for aspiration, with imitating and trying to rise to the occasion of my literary and artistic heroes. Were I ever to write a novel, I would attempt to write one that Nabokov would have approved of. Were I in a rock band, I would try to sound as much as possible like the Replacements. Were I a better, more moral, and less materialistic human being, I’d like to live a life like Thoreau’s. Since I attempt and sometimes succeed at writing poetry, I judge my poems on what I like to call “the Stephen Dunnometer.”

Writer Nicholas Delbanco, in his essay “In Praise of Imitation,” explained the trouble with this medley of inspirations (using sexy diction and, I think, riffing off of T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” in the first sentence quoted):

All writers are promiscuous; we fall in love repeatedly—desiring this one’s knowledge of the world, that one’s way with character. . . . [W]e study with practitioners we never get to meet. So what passes for originality—a voice the reader can identify and an inflection he can recognize—is likely to come from a chorus of the young writer’s influential because admired predecessors: borrowings too numerous to name.[7]

Damn straight. This is why authors, especially young authors, often feel like a literary version of that famous poly-personality, Sybil. We’re crazy with well-wrought voices and beautifully rendered images adumbrating about our heads. We don’t know with certainty where we end and Delbanco’s disembodied practitioners begin.

One evening about one year ago, Stephen Dunn, my cat, and a dead baby gecko had me convinced that I was a really good writer.

I was in the upstairs bathroom shaving and I noticed my cat, King, had captured a baby gecko near the bathroom scale.[8] I am normally in the habit of rescuing the geckos from King by gently catching them in tissue paper as my wife yells, “Hurry! Jesus Christ, hurry!” and setting them free out the back balcony—but in this case I was too late. The gecko was lying there belly-up in front of King with a clear case of dead, looking so fetuslike and human that, after disposing of the body, I wrote the lines of what would later become the last section of a poem entitled “Cat, Man, God”:

The gecko had defensively dropped its tail,
Which persisted to writhe just north of its head
Like something forgotten,
Like rootless punctuation
For an idea that came
Too suddenly or too late.

I had the skeleton of the poem written in about two hours, but I sensed that I needed to better cinch up the theme of what we anthropomorphize and why. I then vaguely remembered something I had written about my cat and God, and so began thumbing through a blue notebook in which I jot down random thoughts. And there it was, the perfect ending, scrawled almost illegibly in the corner of a page (under the lines I had written “CONSIDER”):

Our cats like God
Have never spoken
A word that wasn’t ours.

Brilliant, I thought. I’m so shamelessly brilliant. (Indeed, one of the greatest things about writing is when the words and ideas somehow meet and begin waltzing about the page with seamless, symbiotic affinity. It’s one of the best ways to feel like a bona fide genius without the assistance of drugs.)

My Dunnometer was off the charts. If I just sit still long enough, I thought, the Ruth Lilly Prize will hit me in the face.[9]

And then, of course, I began to worry. Normally poems come to me very slowly. Unlike, say, Stephen Dobyns, I am the antithesis of prolificacy. “Cat, Man, God” came too quickly, and I knew that its composition was heavily expedited and inspired by the strength of its “found” last line. And that enigmatic “CONSIDER” had me concernedly considering.

So I went through my Stephen Dunn collection (the most likely source of my possible pilfering) wondering if I had and hoping I hadn’t lifted the line from his work. I spent all evening reading and found this, from Local Visitations (2003): “God knows nothing we don’t know. / We gave him every word he ever said.” And then this, from The Insistence of Beauty (2004): “It can’t, / alone, be fully what it is. I’ve / given it every one of its thoughts.”

So I became convinced of two things: (1) that Dunn occasionally repeats himself, which is his right, and (2) that I was guilty of Influence, not Plagiarism. I had taken a sentiment and made it my own, “pure and complicated”;[10] it was no “My Sweet Lord.” At the most, I surmised, I was answerable to SP; I had obviously been colored by Dunn’s idea, but my rendering was a riffing, not a ripping off. I spent another few days on the poem and submitted it to several journals.

Two weeks after mailing out the poem, I had an essay accepted by a very good journal. I was feeling good about myself and decided to celebrate by rereading Dunn’s Loosestrife (1996).[11] Toward the end of the book I suddenly went cold. I suspect that, had my bladder been full, I would have wet myself, in which case (to paraphrase James Joyce) I would have gone warm, and then cold. In the poem “Parameters” I discovered this line, which I had somehow previously missed: “Our cats like God have never spoken / a word that wasn’t ours.” The only difference between “my” line and Dunn’s was the enjambment. I had decidedly, yet unknowingly, committed HP. I was too shocked to try to will myself dead.

I then recalled that I had submitted the poem to several journals. I debated writing them all and letting them know what I had done to Dunn, but didn’t. I couldn’t stand the thought of an editor reading my apology and then saying to his or her staff, “Well, he ripped off some Dunn. Says it was some form of ‘subconscious plagiarism’ and then mentions George Harrison for some reason. Tell you what—let’s just fold his other poems into small squares and use them as coasters. Agreed?”

In the end, my poem was thankfully rejected by all, and my public ethos, such as it is, remained intact. I learned many things from this potentially disastrous affair, not the least of which being to take notes more carefully and not read so damn much Stephen Dunn.

One of the beginning epigraphs to Loosestrife is a quotation from William Gass: “Every philosophical catastrophe is a literary opportunity.” So I took Dunn’s line and made it an epigraph to my poem. It was a good line; I didn’t want to surrender it entirely. I still felt it was somehow mine; I had, after all, agonized over it.

And there are only so many notes.

VI. How Plagiarism Is like Adolescent Sex

The poem below had two therapeutic purposes for me when I wrote it: (1) to ameliorate some of my fear of Plagiarism and (2) to give myself a bit of a pep talk after receiving so many rejection slips during 2002:

Poet and Audience [12]

The Argument:
You Wondered Why You Weren’t Published

It’s because the postman has opened
All your submissions and kept them,
Tucked your words, as it were,
Under his proverbial, federal wing.

And just so you know,
Your love poems work.
He reads them to his wife in bed
Before what has recently become
Most lyrical sex; he even adds

A few verbs here and there
For the sake of flow.

The Consolation

But you’ll be pleased to know
He generally leaves your
Enjambment alone,
And understands well
The way irony goes;

A fulcrum for your failure
And his formally elegiac evenings,
Which he now has the diction
And courage to call epiphanic.

His only regret
Is that you ain’t
More prolific.

That’s how things go for the plagiarized. The plagiarizer always seems, to the plagiarized, to be having one hell of a time with the work—in a bizarre way, to be getting more out of authorship than the legitimate author. This conscious act of appropriation is akin to adolescent sex—strangely taboo and intoxicating, only with the heady threat and inebriating thrill of the author (the proverbial parents) arriving home early from dinner.

Or maybe it’s not so sexy.

VII. A Contemporary Example of HP: Neal Bowers Becomes an Inspiration to a Real “Pain in the Ass”

The accomplished poet, novelist, and teacher Neal Bowers woke up one morning to find himself a victim of one of the worst cases of lyrical larceny an author can be subject to. Bowers’s 1997 book, Words for the Taking: The Hunt for a Plagiarist, chronicles his story of tracking down this plagiarist (read this poor sack of shit or TPSoS), David Sumner, a.k.a. David Jones, who was passing off Bowers’s poems as his own.

Bowers’s account of his hunt for TPSoS is an Ahab-like odyssey of strange and stranger unearthings of poetic purloining. Put simply, Bowers discovers that poems he has published in time-honored literary journals such as Poetry are appearing all over hell’s literary half acre in obscure literary journals. What’s more, Bowers discovers that his poems, apart from having a new author ascribed to them, also sported different titles, usually had different first lines, and often had lines slightly changed. Two things were evident to Bowers after discovering this typographical ventriloquism: (1) He really got screwed, and (2) TPSoS, apart from sharing a foppish Monkee’s name, had some serious cojones.

TPSoS ended up being an ex-con, an ex–school teacher, and an ex–child molester.[13] He also turned out to be the epitome of a certain type of plagiarist that Tobias Wolff speaks about in an interview published in The Missouri Review. According to Wolff:

It’s often a very good, passionate reader who plagiarizes . . . —someone whose connection with a given work becomes so powerful that his sense of it being “his” story—a feeling every writer wants to create in the reader—allows him to forget that he did not, in fact, create the story. . . . You might then convince yourself that the plagiarism you’re committing is actually personal revelation. It can even seem an act of honest confession.[14]

Of course, there have supposedly been cases of children who convince themselves that they can fly upon donning a Superman costume, which is why some Superman costumes come with the greatest disclaimer in history: THE WEARING OF THIS GARMENT DOES NOT ENABLE YOU TO FLY.[15]

VIII. The Angry, Potential Versifier and Why My Dreams Would Bore Freud Stupid

Back when I was teaching I had a contentious meeting with a parent whose daughter was getting a low B in my class. The mother was unhappy about her daughter’s grade, was consequently on the precipice of a psychotic break, and wanted her daughter to (1) see a psychiatrist and get good and medicated and (2) switch to a less demanding teacher. The meeting went from bad to worse, and, having recognized the futility of my presence, the fatuousness of the mother, and the scarcity of polite options at my disposal, I picked up my briefcase and began to leave the room. With my hand on the doorknob I heard the woman say: “Don’t you dare briefcase away from me.”

This line stopped me at the door. What a great, ambitious verb: briefcase. How fitting and emotive. What precise, laudable, and audacious diction!

But the interesting thing is that I was certain that that word was completely original, that the mother conjured it from no source other than her anger.[16]

Could it possibly be, I wondered, that the most original speaker is the least well read (and vice versa)? If this parent were chronically pissed-off and decided to declare her anger vertically on paper, would Poetry open its doors to her? I stood in my shoes and I wondered and wondered. I stood in my shoes and I wondered.[17]

I recently reread Thoreau’s Walden and his essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” and was shocked to find that a great many of the epigrammatic wisdoms that I spouted to my classes in the past were in fact Thoreau’s. It made me feel sad and like a charlatan; I felt like I’d best write Tobias Wolff a letter just before donning my Superman costume.

Then I started thinking about funny people. By “funny people” I don’t mean crazy people, and I’m not employing the 1950s euphemism for “homosexual,” and I’m not thinking of those people who tell funny stories or view life as an exercise in sarcasm. I’m referring to those people who have a whole repertoire of jokes and are perennial hits at parties. I wondered: Do I know a single soul who has ever actually made up a joke?[18]

Then I started thinking about Victor Hugo and what he would think of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame or the “opera” Les Misérables. I wondered how irritated he would be if he knew Disney had made Quasimodo “cute.” Then I pondered how huge his royalty checks would be were he alive, and if he’d feel right cashing them.

Then I went to sleep and dreamed about a small, blank sheet of paper hanging out of a gargantuan typewriter like a limp, wan, mocking tongue. It was a ridiculously symbolic dream.

Lamentable Truth: You know you’re in a desperate situation when even your dreams are clichés that would bore Freud stupid.

IX. A Contemporary Example of SP: Yann Martel, Who Is Not a Child Molester, Is Treated like the Literary Equivalent of One after Winning the 2002 Man Booker Prize; or, Why I Could Have Titled This Essay “Life of Pi”

There’s no such thing as an original sin.
—Elvis Costello (emphasis mine)

I feel bad for novelist Yann Martel for two reasons: (1) his first name is Yann, which I think is pronounced “yawn,” which is just an unfortunate name, and (2) because he once felt compelled to answer an e-mailed question like so:

Let me debunk your stupid questions and their many fatal misstatements. . . . If you think every author who borrows is a plagiariser, you clearly know nothing about creativity (or the history of literature). I would suggest this to you: don’t read anything more recent than Gilgamesh, otherwise you might get upset. My God, I’ve wasted a lot of breath on you.[19]

The reason that Martel lost his cool is because the press had been punching him in the breadbasket for months after winning the famous Man Booker Prize in 2002.

Martel’s Life of Pi, one of the most successful literary novels of 2002, concerns the misadventures of a young, religiously minded boy trapped on a life raft with a Bengal tiger. Martel’s clear, minimalist style, coupled with his extensive zoological research, rendered this vehicle beautifully; so much so that his description of a hyena led me to think for the first time that the hyena is a truly badass mammal. The novel’s premise is so unconventional, so rich and gracious that, to my mind, any writer of reasonable talent would be able to make something out of it—the governing idea is just that great. Part allegory, part religious treatise, part postmodern meditation, part commentary on the art of storytelling, reality, and truth—Life of Pi is a darn good read.

The problem is that the premise (young boy, life raft, big scary cat) originally appeared in the 1981 novel Max and the Cats, by the Brazilian novelist Moacyr Scliar (whom no one in North America seems to have heard of before Life of Pi). And because there’s nothing more satisfying than scandal and watching successful people screw up royally (see Mariah Carey, circa Glitter), the press, internet bloggers, other writers, and, of course, Scliar and his publisher, had a field day with Martel in the press, some going so far as to morph him into the embodiment of a First World Literary Conquistador, pillaging the artistic coffers of Latin America while giggling. Consequently, Martel got defensive and fired off vituperative e-mails and publicly referred to Scliar as a “lesser writer,” despite rabidly maintaining that he had never read Scliar’s novel. Martel seemed to many to be protesting too much, bringing up Scliar’s book too frequently (which, again, he claimed never to have read), and getting various facts wrong regarding how he first heard of Scliar’s novel and its premise, claiming, for example, that he first heard of the novel in a “lukewarm” book review by John Updike in the New York Times, a review which, unfortunately for Martel, turned out never to have existed.

But what, if anything, was Martel guilty of? Breaking the law? Bad manners?

As far as the legal side goes, in the end Scliar and his publisher decided not to sue, and in fact may not have had a case to begin with. Scliar stated to the press that he was flattered that Martel found his novel so inspiring but that Martel “used that idea without consulting me or even informing me. An idea is intellectual property.”[20] However, Section 102(b) of the Copyright Law states: “In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea. . . .” This, as I understand it, is because ideas (as well as inventions, procedures, etc.) are protected by patents, but the actual expression of ideas is protected by copyright law. This means that if I invent a Superman suit that enables me to fly and decide not to get a patent and, because I’m stupid, subsequently decided to publish my process for creating said suit, anyone can steal my process (idea) without risking copyright infringement (say, by using my procedure to make their own Green Lantern suit), but they can’t reproduce my exact phraseology, make copies of my writing, etc., without sending me a check. What’s more, under Section 102, authors aren’t able to copyright titles of works, so Martel, if he really wanted to push it, could have titled his novel Max and the Cats and been legally protected.

Regarding the literary ethics side, Martel, to my mind, did nothing wrong and has a right to be miffed, and I’d bet that those readers who so stridently think Martel owes Scliar an apology and a check have had their groundbreaking and full-of-devastating-originality novel rejected twenty times by Random House. When we watch West Side Story we don’t get enraged that it ripped (or riffed) off of Romeo and Juliet. Likewise, if The Lion King is a cuddly, cartoon Hamlet crossed with Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” does anyone really give a damn? Granted, Shakespeare didn’t publish his plays, and copyright law, like personal hygiene, didn’t effectively exist in Elizabethan England, but whether or not Martel did read Scliar’s novel or only a review of it, the two or three people on the planet who have read both novels acknowledge that the similarities begin and end with the premise: young boy, life raft, big scary cat. What’s more, it seems likely that all this brouhaha over Plagiarism most likely resulted in more copies of Life of Pi sold and in Max and the Cats being purchased by many a North American who isn’t John Updike.

There’s no question that poor Yann Martel is guilty of SP; he was influenced by an amazingly original premise and then made it uniquely his own—which is as good a definition of writing as any.

Martel is guilty of being a reader and writer. He is guilty of being human.

X. A Thought Concerning Socrates

I’ve read that Socrates never wrote any of his philosophy down because he believed that words imbedded in print, being unalterable and static, could never be sufficiently defended against misreading and perversion. In his twilight years Socrates was put to death for sharing too many interesting ideas with young men in the agora,[21] which resulted in his being considered a “pain in the ass” by an assemblage of Greeks who were fed up with their sons humiliating them in front of the servants by using Socratic logic and initiating every utterance with, “Oh, yeah? Well, Socrates says . . .” Then, as we all know, Plato turned around just as the hemlock touched his teacher’s lips and began madly scribbling, using Socrates as the spokesperson and the de facto ethos for what we now call Platonism.[22]

And so now I wonder about two things:

  • Would Socrates be pissed off at Plato for appropriating his ethos?
  • If both he and Plato were transported to the twenty-first century, would Socrates, as Vonnegut would say, attempt to “sue the piss” out of Plato for stealing his ideas, for lost royalties, and for false representation?[23]

XI. Confession the Second: The Influence of Anxiety (“The Death of Satan,” the Birth of a Neurotic, and Why the Author Agonizes over Being Accused of SP)

One evening, three years ago, soon after moving to Papua, Indonesia, I called my brother and we talked for an hour about classic Black Sabbath albums (read the Ozzy Years: 1970–1978); we didn’t intend to—it just happened. When I went to bed my wife, who I thought was asleep, said: “Why would you talk about Sabbath for an hour at over two dollars a minute?” I apologized. Then she said: “That’s over $120. For Sabbath.” And then she said: “Jesus.”

But I thought it was a good question, and soon after began to write about my love of classic heavy metal. These meandering ruminations slowly and unintentionally became my first personal essay, “The Death of Satan,” which was later published in The Massachusetts Review. I found that I had the nascent ability to write prose, so long as what I wrote featured me as a character.[24]

The essay is essentially an apologia-cum-memoir which attempts to explain the allure of imaginary evil in classic heavy metal via Western philosophy and semiotics. I was so proud of its audacity and originality, and the editors were excited about it as well. I e-mailed a copy of the finished essay to my brother and told him that from now on he’d need to refer to me as “My Brother: Published Poet and Essayist with Mad Skills.” He wrote back saying that he liked the essay because it was funny and reminded him of School of Rock.

School of Rock? I’d never heard of it. I asked my wife what it was. She said it was a Jack Black movie and then told me that I read too damn much Stephen Dunn.

“The Death of Satan” was accepted in mid-2002, before School of Rock was released, but it wasn’t to be published until 2004, long after the movie’s release. And although my wife thought I was crazy, I couldn’t not feel that my integrity and “originality” were potentially under siege. So I bought a copy of School of Rock, watched it, and then added a new section to my essay, addressing how the movie espoused the aesthetic credibility of heavy metal solely and myopically from a performance-based standpoint, whereas it should have defended and explicated heavy metal’s philosophical import, as I had done so adroitly in my essay. The editors allowed the changes and doubtless thought I was being satirical and ironic.

[For Borges] no one has claim to originality in literature; all writers are more or less faithful amanuenses of the spirit, translators and annotators of pre-existing archetypes.
—James E. Irby, from the Introduction to Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, by Jorge Luis Borges
And if somebody asked, “but to a fiction there surely belongs an author?”—couldn’t one answer simply: why?
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

So you wake up one morning and things Nietzsche said begin to make good sense.

This chronically ill German with the crazy, bushy mustache and eyes full of falling angels seems to have presaged you. This sickly, delicate guy who, when he wasn’t writing epigrammatic indictments against everything connoting “weakness,” was busy alienating everyone he ever knew; this forlorn fellow who went publicly bonkers and was later propped up drooling and baby-like in his fascist sister’s parlor for visiting Nazis to gawk at—this guy starts to make sense.

Soon after sending in my changes to “The Death of Satan” I realized just how crazy I had become—skeptical of every thought, wary of my every utterance, muttering “Ah, Nietzsche! Ah, humanity!” under my breath.25 I debated quitting writing for good and becoming a gunrunner in Africa, but then remembered that that was precisely what Rimbaud did.

I stopped quoting Thoreau. I became manically mindful of my influences. In time everyone and everything seemed to overlap and bleed; everything suddenly became so irritatingly and inexorably symbiotic, derivative. I ended up spending many anxious hours interrogating everything I had ever written, searching for soft and hard echoes and intimations of other writers.

One worried evening, rummaging through my “aborted ideas” folder, I stumbled across an old short story idea I wrote, about a man who travels back in time to mid-nineteenth-century America and, since he’s an English teacher with no real marketable skills, winds up penniless on the street. In a desperate attempt to make a living he tries to remember all of the great novels from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries he used to teach and proceeds to rewrite them from memory. In performing this act of intellectual larceny, he edits and informs the various texts, which allows him to develop and infuse the novels with his own distinctive and, indeed, original voice. He still dies destitute, but strangely fulfilled and vindicated. And, as irony would have it, he is “discovered” 100 years later and heralded as a literary genius, a profound visionary, and the inspiration for sundry schools of craft and criticism. An award is later created in his honor, given to the most revolutionary and iconoclastic work of fiction written in a given year. (In case you’re a Borges fan, you should know that I wasn’t surprised a lick to discover that my short story idea was an incestuous cousin to the famous Borges story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”26 And, of course, when I wrote my story abstract I hadn’t yet read any Borges—a fact which is fittingly Borgesian, as it bolsters his oft-quoted paradox: “Every writer creates his own precursors.”)

After thoroughly damning Argentina I read my aborted idea one more time and placed it back in its folder, feeling for my poor, nascent protagonist. I forgave him for being a reader and wanting to write.

I forgave him for being human.

When at last I got into bed my wife rustled and said, “Jesus. It’s 2 a.m. What were you doing in the study for so long?”

I couldn’t think of a reasonable answer so I said, “I’m sorry.”

“At least you weren’t talking to your brother about Alice Cooper,” she mumbled. “Or some shit.”

And so, naturally, I then began to think about Alice Cooper and how he stole some stage theatrics from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and how Ozzy Osbourne later stole much of Cooper’s iconography and how Marilyn Manson is really an amalgam of the Cooper–Ozzy archetype and I tried and tried to quiet my mind and find sleep. To sleep. Aye, perchance to dream . . .

And although I read somewhere that every breath we take contains a molecule of Caesar’s dying breath, I breathed deeply anyway, hoping that—if not my breath—then my dreams might prove to be my own.

But part of me knew better.

Faithfully yours,


[1] After repeating this anecdote to a friend in the States, he informed that this same idea was also postulated by Howard Stern. Go figure.

[2] See Sean Puffy Combs, a.k.a. Puff Daddy a.k.a. P. Diddy a.k.a. Diddy, or Kanye West (in the hip-hop world, Plagiarism is referred to as sampling, and is somehow confused with creativity).

[3] Doo-lang doo-lang doo-lang . . .

[4] Perhaps because of the “My Sweet Lord” case, John Fogerty, formerly of Creedance Clearwater Revival (CCR), was sued in the 1980s for—get this—copyright infringement for plagiarizing himself. His old record label, Fantasy Records, sued Fogarty on the grounds that his solo song “The Old Man Down the Road” was too close a musical cousin to CCR’s “Run Through the Jungle.” Fogarty won the case (spending approximately $400,000 in legal fees), and played his guitar on the witness stand to prove the songs were distinctly dissimilar. Talk about a kick-ass jury duty assignment.

[5] Note: to preserve the socioscientific integrity of this inquiry, I entered “The O.C., FOX” for my search.

[6] This conjecture, to my mind, helps to explain Listen to the Warm.

[7] From Harper’s, July 2002.

[8] I live on the island of Papua, Indonesia, where geckos are as common as houseflies.

[9] The Ruth Lilly Prize is a $100,000 cash prize from Poetry magazine.

[10] Stolen from J. D. Salinger (I think from Franny and Zooey).

[11] This is because I am somewhat nerdy.

[12] First published in RATTLE #22.

[13] TPSoS is now also an “ex-poet,” as Bowers discovered that TPSoS, tired with poetry, has graduated to plagiarizing short stories; this is because even plagiarizers have ambition.

[14] From the Missouri Review, vol. 26, no. 3.

[15] This costume warning may be an urban myth, but I’m simply compelled to believe in it. I also believe in Sasquatch.

[16] I have since used briefcase as a verb in a poem.

[17] The previous two lines are bastardizations of John Keats.

[18] I have a friend who, each time I make a remotely humorous utterance, says: “That’s funny. Where did you get that from?” This makes me sad.

[19] From the Guardian Unlimited (11/26/02).

[20] This quotation is all over the web.

[21] From which we get the word agoraphobia, which is the fear of being put to death for sharing interesting ideas in public places.

[22] Rhymes with Plagiarism.

[23] In thinking about Plato and Socrates, I’m reminded of Raphael’s famous-beyond-famous-and-used-for-far-too-many-book-covers painting, The School of Athens. Most people have seen the painting in “detail,” focusing on Plato and a young Aristotle doing their peripatetic, rumination thing. However, in the center of the painting one will find Plato arguing with Aristotle, whilst a fellow is sneakily writing down his words. In the bottom right-hand corner one finds our boy Pythagoras busily writing down his calculations, lost in deep cogitation and completely oblivious to yet another sneaky Greek peering surreptitiously over his shoulder and copying down his thoughts. I’m now convinced that the painting is not about ecumenical knowledge in Athens—it’s about Plagiarism.

[24] I have never been able to write successful short stories or fiction. Short story writers, like Shaolin monks, are a mystery to me: I just don’t know how they do it. When I lived in Thailand I spent eight months writing one short story, a story that a former professor now refers to as: “That story with the village idiot in it.” The sad thing is I think he thought the story was intended to be satirical and ironic; the truth is I was trying to be realistic.

[25] Stolen and modified from Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

[26] In the story, the titular character attempts to write (not rewrite, but write) Cervantes’s Don Quixote by “becoming” Cervantes; he doesn’t transcribe Cervantes’s novel, but copies/mimics Cervantes’ life, thereby enabling him to write Don Quixote for the “first time.” In the end the texts are identical, but, in a perfectly ambiguous and maddening twist, Borges writes that Menard’s novel “is almost infinitely richer.” Gotta love it.


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Sarah Kit Shapiro's picture
Sarah Kit Shapiro · 7 years ago

Literary plagiarism (as opposed to musical plagiarism) is by definition the conscious act of knowingly copying another writer's copyrighted work and passing it off as one's own.  When it comes to the written word, using someone else's ideas without permission cannot be successfully prosecuted in a court of law unless it can be shown that the expression of those ideas has been knowingly copied, without permission or attribution.

If a certain threshhold (i.e. a significant amount of text) has been flagrantly copied, even camouflage such as the occasional or frequent use of synonyms is invariably insufficient to conceal from any sentient reader a statistically improbable textual similarity.

To the writer whose creation has been stolen, plagiarism is deeply painful.

It is dismissed with "What's the big deal?" only by those who are unaware of the joyful, painstaking labor of love--akin to an inner excavation, an archaeolgical dig into one's self--which alone produces worthwhile literature.           




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