Let’s Talk About Plagiarism with Darcy Vance


It is a truth universally acknowledged that an author in possession of good ethics would never willingly employ the words or thoughts of another writer.

Except we do. A lot.

Take my opening statement – I did. It comes from Jane Austen’s classic novel, Pride and Prejudice. A quick glance at the Wikipedia entry for P&P lists more than 130 “literary adaptations” of the same story, most of them penned within the past decade. I can think of at least five additional novels in the young adult genre that didn’t make that list. One of them is The Geek Girl’s Guide to Cheerleading, the story I co-wrote with Charity Tahmaseb. Some of those books follow the plot path of Austen’s work more closely than ours but we all owe her more than a nod and a wink.

And that’s just one source of inspiration. If you like your reading on the fairy tale/fable side, you’re in luck. Snow White, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, each have been retold dozens of times. Romeo and Juliet? Hundreds. Maybe thousands. Ancient myths? Ditto.

Writers aren’t only influenced by authors long dead either. Does anyone really think it’s just coincidence that a plethora of vampire and werewolf novels hit the bookstore shelves soon after Stephanie Meyer’s ridiculously successful Twilight series took off? And – is there a literary agent alive who isn’t hoping one of the authors in her stable is currently tip, tap, typing out the chapters of the next Hunger Games?

Speaking of Hunger Games, many have asked this question: Is Suzanne Collins’ amazing trilogy nothing more than a warmed over Battle Royale? Ms. Collins says it is not, that she wasn’t influenced by the Koushun Takami novel at all. In several interviews she shares her true inspiration for the story: a mash up of the Survivor reality TV show, news footage from the war in Iraq, and the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

I’m okay with finding inspiration wherever you can get it. And I’m in good company too; some pretty outstanding literary minds agree.

Noted writer and philosopher Joseph Campbell based his life’s work on the belief that there is truly only one story that we tell over and over again. It is often reported that poet and critic T.S. Elliot said, “Good writers imitate. Great writers steal.” When Mark Twain learned that Helen Keller was accused of borrowing content for her first short story, he sent a letter to her stating, “All ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and put to daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them.” (LINK: http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20120511/03575518878/mark-twain-copyright-maximalist-who-also-believed-that-nearly-all-human-utterances-were-plagiarism.shtml )

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not in the camp that says, Plagiarism, eh, what’s the big deal? I think taking credit for someone else’s work is a very big deal. Plagiarism, when both commission and intention are clear, is shame-worthy and difficult to forgive. It’s also not always that easy to define.

Sometimes it is. Like in the case of Cassie Edwards, whose cut and paste lifting of passages from reference materials was outted by sharp romance reviewers Dear Author and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books in January, 2008. Or young phenom writers Kaavya Viswanathan and Helene Hegemann who’s proclaimed first novels were found to contain material borrowed nearly word for word — from young adult novels in Viswanathan’s case, and an anonymous blog in Hegemann’s. Or the super duper whopper of thievery, Q.R. Markham’s spy novel that included lines and passages from at least a dozen other tales – one of them six pages long!

Those are easy, but what about things like Fair Use, Common Knowledge, fan fiction?

Before she became a best selling novelist one young writer was widely read on internet sites that feature serialized stories based on the works of J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien. She was also once accused of plagiarism. But really, is it even possible to steal from a writer who is already borrowing the characters, setting and plot of another published author?

Then there are tropes, which the Merriam Webster Dictionary defines as: common or overused themes or devices. Where would the romance genre be without its secret baby stories? Or detective novels without private eyes whose personal lives are in disarray? If we banned all future use of the familiar: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back, the world of YA Lit might implode in the vacuum. And yet, at one time, each of these was an original idea.

Remember T.S. Elliott? That ‘great writers steal’ guy? He was actually misquoted. What he really said was: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” But that’s just the sound bite. Here is the rest of what he said on the subject: “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 …”

No matter how well meaning we may be in defending the rights of original artists, when we rely on sound bites, offer only pithy condemnations, and pretend that plagiarism is always a simple matter of black or white, yes or no, we trivialize the subject and stifle discussion. That seems like a dangerous tactic in an age where many of those joining the ranks of authors and bloggers grew up with remixes, mash ups and memes.

Instead, maybe we should resolve to steal more. I suggest we start back with Jane Austen and her much beloved and often imitated classic. In it, her characters learn the folly of being too proud to admit they are capable of error, and too prejudiced to realize not every oops has an evil intention behind it. It is only when they loosen their death grip on what’s proper that they are able to right the wrongs of the past and affect the kind of permanent change that leads to happily ever after. Just sayin’.

Darcy Vance‘s essays on family life have appeared in regional newspapers and her first novel was a finalist in the Get Your Stiletto in the Door Contest. She is the co-author, with Charity Tahmaseb, of The Geek Girl’s Guide to Cheerleading, and lives in Indiana. Visit her at thegeekgirlsguide.com/wordpress.