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December 3, 2006

'The ancient art of plagiarism'

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Jan Dalley's November 28, 2006 Financial Times essay on the subject was a breath of fresh air in an increasingly vituperative and contentious arena, growing exponentially more so with the rise of the internet.

The piece follows.

    This article is all my own work. Or is it?

    Booker winner in plagiarism row. In which year did that headline appear? Was it 2002, when Yann Martel was accused of lifting the plot of "Life of Pi" from a Brazilian book? Or was it 1997, when Graham Swift's "Last Orders" was judged to have veered too close to William Faulkner's 1930 novel "As I Lay Dying"?

    Or was it last weekend, when a Booker-shortlisted novel by a past winner — "Atonement" by Ian McEwen — was the latest in line for this deadly charge?

    Plagiarism is such an old and venerable art that it is perhaps only in a culture obsessed by "originality" — a concept hardly known to earlier times — that it is a dirty word. Shakespeare would have been amazed by the fuss about Yann Martel: he took a large number of his plots straight from a contemporary source, "Holinshed's Chronicles".

    By modern standards, many grand figures are among the culpable: Picasso was so notorious that younger artists desperately kept their new work away from him, because he would re-work their ideas in days; George Harrison was successfully sued for plagiarism after he wrote "My Sweet Lord". No less upright a figure than T.S. Eliot grandly declared that "immature poets imitate; mature poets steal"; no less venerable a personage than Martin Luther King was caught out borrowing a sizeable chunk of his doctoral thesis.

    More successful writers tend to be accused by the less renowned when the rattle of lucre makes itself heard. When Alex Haley's mega-selling "Roots" broke all records, it emerged that whole passages were copied from Harold Courlander's "The African". And we've only just heard the end of the "Da Vinci Code" case, when Dan Brown was sued by the writers of an earlier book.

    The fact that many great artists have taken a light-fingered attitude to the work of others does not necessarily make it right, however. So what does constitute plagiarism? It's easy to confuse a work of art with a legal entity such as a patent, which can be clearly violated. Art just doesn't work like that. Lifting chunks of someone else's words, wholesale, is overstepping the line. But parallels, quoting,homage by imitation, mining a tradition, basing a character on a real person or another fictional character, borrowing old sources from the myth-kitty or new ones bobbing around on the zeitgeist: all these things are not only legitimate but also part of the richness we look for in art.

    All works live within a tradition, all are a mixture of originality and influence, of half-forgotten, half-digested impressions and ideas from elsewhere. And in some cases, yes, this legitimate give-and-take is mixed with a magpie mentality towards the glittery bits other people leave lying around. No one ever said writers were nice.

    The recent micro-fuss about Ian McEwan is ridiculous. His offence was to draw on a memoir by Lucilla Andrews, a writer of "hospital romances". It was factual material about the grim realities of nursing in the second world war, which he used when researching the grim realities of nursing in the second world war. There is no copyright in historical material - the Da Vinci Code case re-confirmed that - although there may be in the form of words in which it is expressed. Writers continually re-work each other's sentences: how else would history be written? Perhaps McEwan should have done that more thoroughly. I am therefore offering a bottle of champagne to the reader who can best re-phrase this: "she dabbed gentian violet on ringworm, acquaflavin emulsion on a cut, and painted lead lotion on a bruise".

    Here is the novelist Julian Barnes, commenting in 1997 on the Swift/Faulkner furore:

    "When Brahms wrote his first symphony, he was accused of having used a big theme from Beethoven's Ninth. His reply was that any fool could see that."

December 3, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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