Against Originality

Plagiarism, and the cipher of literary shame

For post-secondary instructors, catching a student plagiarist inspires a range of feelings: dismay; fatigue at the impending paperwork; sometimes a facetious kind of glee; and, if the offending text is especially obvious and Google-able, forehead-slapping incredulity. Plagiarism can feel like an insult not just to the writer whose work is stolen but to the reader targeted as the potential dupe. How could anyone think us so stupid, we wonder, while cannier cheats dance tauntingly beyond our grasp, diplomas in hand.

As mortal sins go, although plagiarism doesn’t crack the top seven, it does seem to provoke comparable outrage. And a teacher’s exasperation hardly compares to the wrath incurred by the pirating novelist or poet, who inspires a disdain usually reserved for history’s more malevolent dictators. That sense of betrayal speaks to readers’ trust in literature, which approaches a marriage’s compact of faith and fidelity. And so, whether purported non-fiction turns out to be made-up, or the allegedly original words we’re reading have been copied from someone else, or a writer isn’t quite who he claims to be, readers will renounce a cheat quicker than Joseph Boyden can say “Métis.”

A claim of literary plagiarism tends to follow the same ignominious cycle: revelation, denunciation, public shaming, public apology, retroactive erasure. In September of 2017, the posthumous discovery that Pierre Des Ruisseaux, Canada’s former poet laureate, had stolen verses from Maya Angelou, Dylan Thomas, and Tupac Shakur prompted Éditions du Noroît to pull the offending title. Then, in October, Richard Kelly Kemick was booted from the Journey Prize Stories for borrowing excessively from the work of Amy Hempel; the story promptly vanished from the internet and its original publisher, Maisonneuve magazine, announced that “the issue in which the story originally appeared will no longer be available.” Telling, too, was the requisite mea culpa: “[This] is certainly a misstep that I take responsibility for,” Kemick confessed to the Globe and Mail. “I should have both acknowledged [Hempel’s] influence and double-checked that my material did not overlap hers.”

A “misstep” of “influence” that should have been “double-checked” might seem a bit weak when one considers the evidence, some dozen-plus passages more or less transcribed from Hempel’s “The Dog of the Marriage.” Both stories are about protagonists at the tail-end of failing relationships who find solace among canine companions; both begin with an ending (Kemick: “The last thing my wife and I did together…” Hempel: “On the last night of the marriage, my husband and I…”) and end with new beginnings: Kemick’s characters’ “unclaimed futures revolve somewhere ahead of them,” while Hempel’s “wait, with perfect hope, for the make-believe story to unfold.” That Kemick transplanted his adaptation to an airport hints at an attempt to cover his tracks, which, depending how cynical you’re feeling, is either the most redeeming or damning aspect of the whole affair. Me, I’m not sure, but I’ll get to that.

While it remains to be seen where Richard Kelly Kemick’s literary futures revolve—on Twitter, that bastion of measured comment, he has been called everything from “a pasty white dude” to “dumb & a liar”—such a swift, punitive response suggests that the episode was a fleeting blight on the linguistic, stylistic, and conceptual integrity of the very enterprise of Canadian short fiction. Except! Poaching from other writers isn’t antithetical to the spirit of literature, nor is it particularly anomalous. That old maxim, “Talent borrows, genius steals,”1 apocryphally attributed to Oscar Wilde, and sometimes more accurately (but still imprecisely) to T.S. Eliot, has long provided moral leeway to any writer for whom influence might provoke anxiety. Eliot’s essay, which excoriates the dramatist Philip Massinger for his own lazy derivations, actually goes like this:

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.

Of course the indignation provoked by Pierre Des Ruisseaux and Richard Kelly Kemick wasn’t a result of their failure to create “something different,” but due to their apparent attempt to deceive—to not just steal or even imitate, but to pass off someone else’s work as their own. A clear enough intellectual crime. Yet rather than summarily dismissing these and other similar episodes of plagiarism, we might treat them as test cases of how and what we consider literary theft.  Kemick vs. Hempel, in particular, offers an opportunity to explore what constitutes an acceptable level of influence and what inspires moral condemnation, and what those distinctions might reveal about the culture at large.

Certainly many writers are guilty of stealing—conscientiously, unwittingly, or duplicitously. I myself have published two books of found material, one that churns transcripts of Frank Capra’s “Why we fight” films through layers of Google Translate, and another, compiled with my accomplice Jeff Parker, that attempts to reconfigure the words of professional athletes into poetry. I’ve also cribbed stories from an episode in Jacques Cousteau’s The Living Sea (with attribution) and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” (without), and my first novel features a number of characters who speak entirely in lines lifted from other works of fiction and lyrics by the Wu-Tang Clan.

In all of these cases, my hope is that my efforts might be exonerated of plagiarism due to their formal, thematic, or conceptual concerns, but the issue remains thorny and vague, both morally and legally. “There is no working legal definition of plagiarism,” Tae Mee Park, a partner with Bersenas Jacobsen Chouest Thomson Blackburn LLP, told me over email. “The concept tends to encompass a much broader definition than what’s protected under the law of copyright.” (Her firm frequently advises and represents media outlets, journalists, writers, artists, editors, and publishers in all aspects of media law, including defamation and copyright.)  Copyright is innate to any creative work, and apart from those paranoiacs who, like children plugging in their monster-deterring nightlights, addend a little circled C to their drafts, most writers worry less about being copied than producing work that is undetectably derivative of other writers.

This is more or less in keeping with the law. “Copyright protects the original expression of ideas, not ideas or facts,” Park explained. “Expression is defined by the exercise of skill and judgment to produce something that is original, and copyright infringement consists of the unauthorized taking of that originality.” (It’s intriguing to think of plagiarism not just as copying, but taking—a metaphysical theft akin to the anachronistic fear that being photographed might steal one’s soul.) Which is to say, under the rule of law, it’s not so much what writers say, but how uniquely they say it. Accepting these parameters for literary plagiarism, which echo most academic honesty policies at Canadian universities, assumes the primary criterion for literature to be its originality. This might sound reasonable enough, except that, when removed from academia and applied to literature, its logical extreme implies that books should be produced with aesthetic and conceptual autonomy—that is, without any discernible precursor at all.

Not only does such thinking deny the ways in which influence, allusion, and quotation operate in poetry and fiction, but framing literature as a practice of singularity and uniqueness obscures its communal roots. Long before concerns of appropriation and imitation took form, literary works from the Hindu Vedas to North American Indigenous folklores began in shared oral traditions, wherein the concept of a sole author was counterintuitive to how stories were created and shared among people. This is partly the reason that the ascription of authorship to figures like Homer—and, centuries later, Shakespeare—remains a source of debate: Were they solitary geniuses, collectives of storytellers, or self-aggrandizing careerists who co-opted communal material and called it their own? Of course, Shakespeare was a literal plagiarist as well, having flagrantly copied from Plutarch and Ovid, as well as from his contemporaries Arthur Brooke and Christopher Marlowe.

Through the Middle Ages, too, the dominant mode of western literary culture, steeped as it was in “coteries,” waged many of its more virulent battles along the border of allusion and outright theft. With everyone quoting everyone else, from their peers down through antiquity, and a public discourse that was as characterized by bickering and in-fighting as it was by artistic production, poets were especially sensitive to having their work copied without attribution or consent. John Donne called out those who pilfered his verses in “Satire II”:

But hee is worst, who (beggarly) doth chaw
Others wits fruits, and in his ravenous maw
Rankly digested, doth those things out-spue,
As his owne things; and they are his owne, ’tis true,
For if one eate my meate, though it be knowne
The meate was mine, th’excrement is his owne.

Little changed post-Reformation. Writing in the mid-17th century, Anne Killigrew, whose work her friend John Dryden claimed rivalled that of Sappho’s, responded to her (male, obviously) accusers in “Upon the Saying That My Verses Were Made By Another,” which concludes with the proto-feminist lament, “I willingly accept Cassandras Fate,/ To speak the Truth, although believ’d too late.” For centuries, these sorts of recriminations and their responses were simply inherent to the writing life, a dynamic echoed more in the proprietary posturing of hip-hop2 than the current discourse around books. And if the conversation around literary plagiarism, as it continued through the Romantics and Victorians, into the Moderns (for whom appropriation became a genre of its own), was often confrontational, at least people were talking.

What seems to have set in lately isn’t just a lack of dialogue, but an oversimplification of what plagiarism means in a literary context. Although diction is not the only element of a published work protected by law, recent accusations of plagiarism focus exclusively on phrasing. A writer’s aesthetics and formal approach certainly require an “exercise of skill and judgment,” regardless of how skilled or judicious the execution might be. What about those contemporary novelists who have made careers emulating (at best) and counterfeiting (at worst) some antecedent style? Or those who blatantly copy narrative and formal tropes coined and perfected by another author? No one would think to embargo every Canadian fiction writer whose domestic, relational, emotionally detached fiction owes its ethos to Alice Munro; for one thing we’d end up gutting half the nation’s literature, and the Journey Prize Stories would be a very thin pamphlet indeed.

Plot, too, seems to have become more or less fair-use material. Think about how one book’s commercial success often occasions a trend, be it the glut of teen wizard novels heaped upon the market for the past 20 years, or, if you prefer, all those recent vengeful “girls”—on trains, dragon-tattooed, or simply gone. The initial dust-up over Yann Martel plundering the premise of Life of Pi from Moacyr Scliar’s Max and the Cats ultimately amounted to very little,3 and an allegation that Chad Harbach stole much of The Art of Fielding from an unpublished manuscript has still yet to see its day in court. Most notably, neither author has suffered the public shaming heaped on verbatim plagiarists, nor has either had his career suffer comparably; Charles Green, Harbach’s complainant, has had his claims roundly dismissed in the New York media as “spurious” and “a low-level menace.”

If you’re unconvinced that phrasing is the primary, if not sole, area of discrepancy, consider the recent case of American poet and critic Jill Bialosky, whose recent memoir, Poetry Will Save Your Life, has sounded the plagiarist alarm bells. One of Bialosky’s alleged victims is Wikipedia, a communally compiled, freely accessible, and, per its own guidelines, neutrally written website that by design obscures authorship. The issue seems not that Bialosky has reproduced facts, which are no one’s property, but that her sentences are a little too derivative, even if the source material isn’t a particularly “original expression of ideas” in the first place. Here’s Bialosky: “Although Lowell’s manic depression was a great burden for him and his family, the exploration of mental illness in his verse led to some of his most important poetry.” And Wikipedia: “Although Lowell’s manic depression was often a great burden (for himself and his family), the subject of that mental illness led to some of his most important poetry.” Similar, sure. But wouldn’t any rehash of that information be?

There’s something hopelessly literal about these parameters for literary plagiarism. If the main criterion for originality is diction, we reduce even the language of fiction and poetry to a functional tool, a vehicle deployed solely to convey information. The printed word offers a unique ontology inaccessible to visual media, and it’s a good thing, because books can hardly compete with the graphic immediacy of cinema, television, and video games. And yet, in this culture of spectacle, in which budding short-story writers are taught to tell less and show more, we seem to struggle to honour the experiential capacity of literature, which remains the only art form that can actually replace one’s thoughts with those of another person.

Writers steal. The key is to do so openly, with intention and transparency. Had Kemick simply copped to his influences—as Lee Henderson did when he acknowledged a story’s progenitor in his 2010 collection The Broken Record Technique (“The Runner, After John Cheever”)—perhaps he’d still be up for the $10,000 Journey Prize jackpot. Kemick’s swindle might, if admitted, have broadened the themes of his own work beyond the literal, suggesting a kind of conversation between the two stories. A nod to the source material would also acknowledge the communality that has informed storytelling since its beginnings, with one author building on and from another’s work.4

One can only speculate as to the motivation behind Kemick’s subterfuge, but it does seem that if there were more openness in general about how fiction, at this point, is mostly built from previous fictions, he might have felt more comfortable declaring his intentions. Undoubtedly, his story would have been richer for it.  Useful here is Fredric Jameson’s assertion that most contemporary literature is essentially pastiche, a “blank irony” that, by feigning uniqueness and not foregrounding its own appropriative tendencies, neutralizes its engagement with the realities of postmodern cultural production and its own, actually unique place in literary history. Instead of pastiche, claims Jameson, authors might do better to aim for parody,5 which is an active and aware participation in predetermined forms—and the beginning of a conversation.

All writing is of course indebted to its antecedents, yet a culture whose dialogue with history exists almost exclusively in terms of nostalgia, and which values the exclusivity of the new over all else, seems to be influencing how we think about books—as if each title exists as a shining jewel of originality, less in conversation with the rest of literature than in competition with it. Of course, to take this country as one example, that dynamic isn’t helped by the predominance of prizes and actual competitions like Canada Reads, which seek to elevate a single work apart from and above the field. And while grumpy protestations about the “Giller effect” are nothing groundbreaking, it’s worth thinking about the confluence of the isolationist supremacy advanced by our literary culture and how resistant we are to books that borrow too much from other books.

It’s an even more backward mode of thinking when one considers today’s most fruitful resource for not only a writer’s research, but also for catching a suspected plagiarist: the internet. With sites like Project Gutenberg and UbuWeb offering entire libraries of fair-use material, it seems odd that writers would not be encouraged to plunder the riches of the past—especially when so much of it is available legally, for free. Yet so much contemporary fiction exists in a weirdly atemporal space that not only makes a practice of denying influence, but, per the ad-speak of publishers’ marketing departments, operates only laterally: Today’s authors are most frequently compared to their best-selling peers and rarely the greats who came before them.6

Wherever writers get their inspiration, acceptance that nothing is original, that everyone is borrowing from somewhere, would facilitate a more honest approach to influence and promote a more sophisticated understanding of what it means to “use” one’s favourite books. Amid this dismayingly ahistorical moment, perhaps literature might at least offer itself in context: everything owes a debt to the past. In a literary culture more tolerant of what we consider plagiarism, and which acknowledges the role of history, authors could openly address and explore how their work traces its literary lineage, and how context can change and create meaning—even of identically reproduced phrases.

It seems arbitrary to punish writers who appropriate content but not those who appropriate form—and also suggests that modernism and postmodernism never happened. But this persecution of literary plagiarists does reveal how form has become genre, and genre has been afforded the sanctity of a marketing category. And the market, of course, thrives on the illusion of innovation. The Kemick vs. Hempel affair speaks less to individual deviousness than to a limited and quixotic notion, sustained by the publishing industry, of the inventiveness supposedly embodied by fiction. Most creative work is fundamentally unoriginal, and we’ve long been hearing that the novel, reduced to a limited variety of mutations on an antiquated and exhausted form, has passed its creative and popular best-before date. If the novel is no longer so novel, perhaps one way to “make it new” (again) is to rethink plagiarism in a literary context, to embrace parody over pastiche, and to create a space where fiction writers, especially, can acknowledge the essentially communal nature of storytelling.

I’m not advocating for the creative overhaul that David Shields called for in his 2010 manifesto, Reality Hunger, which implies that the only means to resurrect the novel is—I think?—for writers to start poaching indiscriminately from every resource on offer. But perhaps softening the vitriol and ostracism directed at plagiarists might engender a more willing understanding of how literature works—which is osmotically and symbiotically, and essentially at odds with the relentless pursuit of the new that is mostly celebrated in the digital era. Books can’t compete with visual culture, but perhaps they can offer refuge to readers seeking an occasional alternative to the sensory onslaught of movies and TV.7

While in no way did Richard Kelly Kemick make Amy Hempel’s work “better,” “different,” or particularly “unique,” his case supplies more than another object of vilification. Perhaps the question should not be an incredulous, “What does he think he’s doing?” but rather “What is he doing with it?” If we are able to create a space where intertextuality is acceptable, the issue becomes less about treachery than intent. For example: Karen Solie’s poem “The Midlands,” from her 2015 collection The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out, concludes, “They speak plainly. The lie must be inside you.” Very nice indeed. It’s also quite close to this bit by Tomas Tranströmer: “The visitor thought: you live well. The slum must be inside you.” In Solie’s acknowledgments, she cites Mark Rothko and Nick Cave, but there’s no mention of Tranströmer, for whom she has elsewhere professed admiration. Whether the similarity is allusion or unconscious influence or simple coincidence is irrelevant to most poets, as well as readers. Why get worked up over one little line? It’s more rewarding, as a reader, to consider what effect is achieved through its use. A line that in Tranströmer is a lament about crumbling faith becomes, in Solie’s iteration, an existential meditation on the self.

Even if it were outright theft, the lack of credit would not bother me—perhaps in part because Solie is a “mature poet,” that sly breed of appropriationist whom T.S. Eliot has encouraged to cherry-pick their sources. But the acceptability of this breed of “plagiarism” speaks more broadly to the fact that, excepting the lunatic cultural thievery of Pierre Des Ruisseaux, many of the best contemporary poets engage conscientiously with previous movements, discourses, and one another in ways that most novelists do not—sometimes with attribution, and, perhaps liberated by a culture rich with cross-pollination, sometimes not. You’d think fiction writers would welcome this sort of thing. After all, a lie can be very compelling indeed.

  1. More succinctly, Picasso: “Art is theft.” Or a couple of millennia earlier, Bacchylides: “One pilfers the best of another. And calls it tradition.” Etc. 

  2. E.g. “Copy Me” by Migos: “You must got the rabies, you bite/ You copy my swag and I like it.” 

  3. Perversely enough, the Guardian had to retract its initial coverage of the scandal after using quotations from the New York Times without attribution. 

  4. Per, if you like, Harold Bloom’s “revisionary ratios” of new writers simply writing through, over, or into the work of their precursors. 

  5. “Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of the particular or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives…” (from Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism).  

  6. I write this looking at the 1969 edition of Marie-Claire Blais’ A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, the cover blurb of which cites Kafka and Dostoevsky as reference points. 

  7. Michelle Orange, writing in VQR: “As a term, television feels increasingly inapt, vestigial, at risk of acquiring the air quotes that presage irrelevance. Still, it refers to a form—episodic, moving-image narrative—for which we have not yet found a better alias.”