Clichés, Influence, And Google
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/3/06
In recent years the state of literature has been in manifest decline for a variety of reasons. Instead of seeking to ameliorate the situation, the people who run the publishing industry have exacerbated the decline with increased cronyism, the fostering of -isms and schools of bad writing, the refusal to publish real criticism, and having publishers, editors, agents, and critics refusing to do their jobs. Many bad writers who have benefited from this system have decried it, although always ‘safely’, speaking of ‘unnamed others’ who have ruined things. Never do they ‘name names’ of the offenders- be it bad Postmodern writers like David Foster Wallace, PC hacks like Maya Angelou, plain old bad writers like Richard Russo, or hack genre writers like Dan Brown.
Since I have spent many words in decrying such, I will focus here on some of the recent literary ‘scandals’, since they grab far more public attention than bad writing does. The most blatant example of this trend was in January of this year, when ‘bad boy’ memoirist James Frey was hauled by his publisher before Oprah Winfrey’s tv audience, and publicly chastened by the Queen Of All Hypocrisy for lying in his memoir of drug addiction and other ills. Newspaper columnists and other supposed paragons of ‘truth’ condemned the drug-addled suburban frat boy writer for lying about his life.
I was one of the few and first public voices to condemn the condemnation of Frey as a ‘liar’. My argument was simple. First, Frey should be condemned, but because he’s an even worse writer than the above named bad writers; not for ‘lying’, since the very classification and genre of ‘memoir’ implicitly acknowledges the gospel’s truth is not being told. Second, memoir is a wholly different creature from autobiography, and the distinction is not arbitrary. A memoir as Edmund Morris’s Dutch, about ex-President Ronald Reagan, finds the author making up events in a far more well known public figure’s life, as well as fictively installing his own made up ‘persona’- years younger than his real self, into Reagan’s life. Now, say what you will about Reagan, and the success of the venture, but Morris’s book forever severed any claims that the two genres were interchangeable. This actually goes back several centuries, but Morris’s was the first deliberately acknowledged modern memoir to admit its usage of artifice. The best known prior example is Marcel Proust’s memoir Remembrance Of Things Past, which some people term an autobiographical novel. No one calls it autobiography, though, for Proust changed names and his own sexual orientation, as well the sexes of his lovers. An even greater example was Alex Haley’s Roots, where he plagiarized a fictional novel’s, Harold Courlander’s The African’s, descriptions and passed it off as ‘fact.’ And what to make of Truman Capote’s nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, where it is well known that many ‘facts’ were altered for dramatic effect to increase the titillation factor about a crime whose facts were public record?
What does it say about our society that such a genre even has to exist? If a memoirist has to lie about the names of the people he knows, to forestall nuisance lawsuits from ex-lovers, enemies, and friends who cannot bear to have the facts of their lives dealt with, where does that memoirist become culpable? I’ve learnt this in my life, that no matter how honest a writer is being, he has to change names, because there will always be liars and reprobates who can ‘buy the truth’ via greater financial resources or connections. And, in art, is ‘honesty’ really such a good thing? The very root of the word art comes from the same source as artifice. In short, art is not reality, and it cannot be, no matter how good a simulacrum. There is a fundamental difference between writing as art and writing as journalism.
Was Frey a good man when he had to change names, dates, and places, to avoid frivolous lawsuits, but bad only because he made the scenes in his book more melodramatic, to increase sales? Were Frey’s claims about spending months in jail, and having oral surgery without anesthesia- both easily provable and manifest lies, somehow more morally culpable than Proust’s shame over his homosexuality or Morris’s far more grandiose fictions, or Haley’s out and out plagiarism? I think not. The real crime Frey committed, and will be condemned to live down in perpetuity, was being a bad writer, but even that was enabled by ‘the system’ that looks to have shock value replace art as a sales concept. Proust was capable of sterling and great prose, Morris has always been a solid writer, and Haley’s prose- in both Roots and The Autobiography Of Malcolm X (an autobiography criticized for its loose play with ‘facts’, and wholly written by Haley- what does that say?), has moments of searing power and excellence, so I suspect that a great deal of the backlash came from people who knew Frey was bad, but thought that since his book was more in line with the self-help culture of recent years, his ‘lies’ were unforgivable- since the self-help political dogma values ‘truth’ above all else. Meanwhile, Proust’s being a self-loathing homosexual, Morris being a grand fabulist, or Haley’s being a confessed plagiarist, were mitigated by Proust’s era of sexual repression, Morris’s subject being a life built on public lies in the first place, and Haley’s ability to play the ‘race card’ to ward off detractors.
Yet, the Frey scandal was soon replaced with another literary
‘scandal’ du jour- that of Kaavya
Viswanathan, a college aged romance writer, with an exotic Subcontinental
background, toiling under the latest brainless ‘genre’ to come along- the
chick lit novel. It didn’t take long for the anger and resentment of many
other chick literatistas to ‘out’ Viswanathan as having plagiarized her
book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, And Got a Life, from another bad chick lit writer’s books, Megan F. McCafferty’s Sloppy
Firsts and Second Helpings,
to the tune of several dozen very similar passages. Viswanathan took the old
standby defense as having merely ‘internalized’ her beloved literary
heroine’s words as her own. To a degree, there could be truth to her claim, if
there were only a few instances, not dozens, because bad artists are simply not
creative. Viswanathan’s biggest crime, in the long run, however, may have been
to have plagiarized very bad writing in the first place. The passages stolen are
the trite ramblings of a hack. Viswanathan did nothing to even remotely cover up
her theft, not making it better nor different in the least.
Then, it came out that Viswanathan may not have even written the
plagiarized passages, and that she was merely a ‘beard’ for a writing mill, Alloy
Entertainment, that tries to get its crap published by using ‘fronts’
who do none of the writing, but look good and sexy on dust jacket covers. A few
years back Nell Freudenberger had such claims made about her on countless
literary chatrooms, after she rocketed to a mega-book deal after working at a
publishing house and showing her writing to a boss. The result was reams of
editors working on trite tales of rich young American girls in exotic locales
who do nothing of interest. Soon, she is having a novel come out which similarly
has been worked over by editors, which only makes one wonder if the reason most
of the published works in recent years are so generic is because they have been
subjected to the lowest common denominator editing by committee, rather than
having a single point of view.
Naturally, plagiarism is an old problem, but it’s one that is not so
cut and dried. As T.S. Eliot, who was accused of plagiarism- and not just for
his admitted pastiche in The Waste Land, once said, ‘Immature
poets imitate; mature poets steal.’ Similarly, Hart Crane- the greatest
published lyricist of the Twentieth Century, has been accused of plagiarizing
the poetry of the relatively unknown Samuel
Greenberg. While there is certainly a similarity between some
passages of the two, there is no theft, merely ‘influence’, a term I will
return to. Other famed poets, like S.T. Coleridge, have similarly been accused.
However, poets are hardly alone. Fictionists like Dan Brown have been accused.
Although recently acquitted in a British court of stealing the idea for The
Da Vinci Code from two non-fiction writers, Michael Baigent’s and Richard
Leigh’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail (as well as further claims he stole from
Lewis Perdue’s 1983 novel The Da Vinci Legacy),
the fact is that a side by side comparison of texts from his and their book
shows similarities every bit as striking, or more so, than that in the
Viswanathan case. Not that any of the writing in this case is much better, if at
all, than the chick lit writers, but it begs the question of whether or not
Brown’s fame and riches simply ‘bought’ him the verdict that a young and
unknown writer like Viswanathan could not.
The larger question seems to be, is plagiarism like ‘fair use’? That
is the protection in the copyright code that reads:
US Copyright Code Sec. 107. - Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use
Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:
(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.
In essence, if one is writing criticism or satire, one can take the words of another to either enlighten or entertain. Especially in shorter works, like a poem, a whole poem can even be reproduced in a critical piece. Longer prose works are more troubling, for one cannot write a critical analysis of a novel and reproduce the novel’s whole text within.
The Dan Brown case does raise troubling points, for how can one set of
very similar writings be declared not ‘actionable’ while another set brings
cries of foul play? Was it because Dan Brown admitted he read the prior work,
and named them as a ‘source’? Perhaps. Then what to make of the case
of poor Brad Vice? This year he, too, has been through the grinder, after a
‘reworked’ a story of his, Tuscaloosa
Knights, was found to have striking similarities to passages from an
obscure 1934 nonfiction book, Stars
Fell on Alabama, by Carl Carmer. The fact was that neither his source
nor his story was any good, ala Viswanathan and Brown, but unlike them he
claimed that the place where the tale appeared had not added his addendum that
his tale was an homage to the earlier tale. Of course, one might wonder where
any true creative impulse lies in all of this? And if truly an homage, why not
quote specifically from the piece, or place the similar passages in italics, a
long standing recognition that a work has ‘quotations’? Was Vice simply
bankrupt of story ideas, as well as skill? How close does a given piece of
writing have to hew to another to be plagiarism, and not homage, as he claimed?
Vice said he used parts of Carmer’s nonfiction work to add ‘authority’ to
his fiction, but is such mere excuse making? The book in which his tale
appeared, The Bear Bryant Funeral Train, failed to cite Carmer’s work,
and Vice’s publisher, the University of Georgia Press, pulped his book. Vice
weakly claimed that his doctoral dissertation, which was an earlier draft of the
story, did have an epigraph from Carmer’s work, and that the press
hypocritically asked him to remove the epigraph to reduce the appearance of
influence. Yet, there is something very fishy about the weakness that Vice’s
explanations have garnered, which has only further made him appear guilty.
But, just what is ‘homage’, as Vice describes it? Let me give you a
blatant show of ‘true homage’, which makes some of Vice’s claims a bit
lazy. One of the most famous American poems of last century was Elizabeth
Bishop’s The Man-Moth, which was a dream-like poem conceived after she
read a newspaper typo for mammoth- the prehistoric hairy elephant cousin.
It has a unique structural format, and child-like rhythm that is unmistakable.
Here is its first stanza:
cracks in the buildings are filled with battered moonlight.
The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat.
It lies at his feet like a circle for a doll to stand on,
and he makes an inverted pin, the point magnetized to the moon.
He does not see the moon; he observes only her vast properties,
feeling the queer light on his hands, neither warm nor cold,
of a temperature impossible to record in thermometers.
Some years ago I wrote and published a poem called The Mothman, based upon the supposed sighting of a supernatural creature in the 1970s. It is a famous incident, and was detailed in a recent Hollywood film called The Mothman Prophecies, with Richard Gere. I mimicked the style and number of stanzas from Bishop’s poem because of the manifest similarity in the poems’ titles, and to subvert its conceits with a rawer edge. Whereas Bishop’s poem was light and dreamy, and mine was darker, more political, the titles and stanzas are so blatantly similar that no serious reader of poetry could deny its status as homage, and for me to have noted it as such would be condescending. Here is its first stanza:
where fearsome angels cower, the Mothman
glides soundlessly above illusion. The moon
is something that cannot fly, and you cannot see
the moon, below him, as he spreads his terrible wings
his red eyes become the billion-year bloat
of giant stars dying into the useless night of eyes,
yours, folding in to the unremarked of realms.
What saves me from being called a plagiarist and lifts the poem into
‘homage’ is that I manifestly am playing off a very well known work, and the
resultant poem equals or surpasses its forebear in literary quality.
Individuation is a marker of excellence, and rarely does one hear of plagiarism
claims being directed against great works of art. By contrast, Vice’s story is
from an obscure, mediocre work, and even the title of his tale does not signify
it as an homage, even if the publishers did screw up, as he claims.
However, not all similarities of word choice are conscious, and when
people unconsciously plagiarize it is called cliché. How many bad poems,
novels, stories, films, plays, and even blog posts use the same tropes and,
literally, the same run of words, to the point of eight, ten, fifteen words
being similar or exact? Clichés are execrable, and trackable, for they are
numerically present more than other novel series of words. Of course, the
difference is that bad writers employ clichés, or ideas used before by others,
because they are comforting and require little effort. The numerical
possibilities of all possible sentences and phrases may approach infinity, but
assuredly, the human capacity to exploit this possibility is manifold magnitudes
of degrees less. Also, most clichés are not employed intentionally, and the bad
writer is likely unaware of the cliché.
So, is intent the real crime? This relates back to the Frey mess, because
the moral hypocrites of the Left have disdained him for intentionally lying,
where they feel he did not have to, whereas they accept the lies of name, date,
and place changes as needed concessions to a litigious society. Yet, if that
litigiousness is borne on others’ deceits, and a necessity, is not Frey merely
lying more successfully than others- at least from a sales perspective? After
all, when one looks at some of the other bestselling memoirs of the last decade
or so- Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac
Nation, Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, or
Brad Land’s Goat; all have come under scrutiny for their veracity by
people claiming to be characters in the work. And only McCourt’s work can even
be considered a well written book, yet even his brother, writer Malachy McCourt,
has said that the book is loaded with ‘blarney’.
Even worse opprobrium has been unleashed against people whose very
professions are supposed to be citadels of ‘truth’. The cases against
historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin have gotten much ink,
and both weakly blamed their lapses on the work of their ‘research staffs’
who forgot to ‘attribute properly.’ It makes one wonder, though, if, like
Viswanathan, either historian ever wrote an actual word their name claims, or
were merely ‘fronts’ for their own little historical book mills. This year,
shock news jock Ann
Coulter has also been charged with plagiarism, and like Viswanathan, Brown,
and Vice, the side by side comparisons look damaging.
So much has been made of these supposed ‘close readings’ of the above
accused that a whole website is devoted to such pursuits. It is called Famous
Plagiarists, and it does detail many of the above named cases, as
well as that of political and social figures like Senator Joseph Biden and Civil
Rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. Having read over many of the accusations,
more than a few ring stale, and stink of a Boy Who Cried Wolf quality,
for lumping the clearly ‘influenced’ work of a Hart Crane with the clearly
stolen passages of a Viswanathan is
disingenuous, in the least, despite the site’s disclaimer of ‘allegedness’
to avoid lawsuits. No doubt it is a valuable resource, but as my greatest talent
is for pattern recognition- thus my great critical eye for clichés, I find some
of the charges against Coulter, Viswanathan, and Brown to be very debatable,
for- again, the cited passages are so banal, as to be laughable.
A few years ago I was accused
of plagiarizing my descriptions of characters from the 1970s The Odd
Couple tv sitcom in an
essay. I responded and showed that my writing was both different and
superior, but, of course, there are only so many ways to say that the character
of Oscar Madison was a slob, or sloppy, in just a few words. And here is where a
great caveat exists: MERE FACTS ARE NOT COPYRIGHTABLE NOR PLAGIARIZABLE!
If this was not true this essay would not exist, and encyclopediae and
dictionaries would constantly be suing each other. One of the great, of many, flaws
of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia is that they do not allow fully
researched material to be reprinted on their site, even though it is just a
collection of facts, and not a creative work.
It’s also important to note that I fought back and won. The same could be said of Dan Brown. But, what of Vice or Viswanathan, who did not, or chose not to? Are these tacit admissions of guilt? And, in looking over the Coulter case, it seems that the bulk of her ‘plagiarism’ consists not of any ‘creative writing’, but of the re-recitation of news facts that are commonly disseminated on blogs, which have also been accused of plagiarism and the appropriation of intellectual property without recompense. Does this mean that the wire services- AP and Reuters, or blogs, themselves, are daily pilfering each others’ work? Despite what one may think of Coulter’s politics and Howard Stern-like tactics to sell books, the charges of plagiarism against her seem very weak, for the side by side analyses almost always leave out context, and are selectively quoted. And, like a brief description of a tv character, one can only dryly recite the facts of a dam break or an earthquake in a limited amount of ways, so her culpability seems to be in a different realm than that of the supposedly ‘creative writing’ of the others named.
Now, let me broach the final point of this essay, Google. It was last summer when the search engine powerhouse announced its plans to scan all the books they could get a hold of; not only those in the public domain, but those that are under current copyright protection, from the libraries of three American universities- Harvard, Michigan, and Stanford, as well as the New York Public Library, and Oxford University. The last two would only allow the scanning of public domain works. This attempt, called Google Print, at circumventing the law stirred a great cry from still living authors, as well it should, for the mega-billion dollar behemoth never even offered just financial compensation for the copyright holders. A few months later its plans were delayed, but not totally scrapped, as a result. Similar plans by Google’s web portal rival, Yahoo, called the Open Content Alliance, were announced a few months later, with differences. Yahoo was willing to only scan public domain works- a noble effort. Google Print, however, is still being sued by The Author’s Guild, which represents thousands of writers, in a class action lawsuit. Google’s argument is that while they will scan the entire work, only snippets will be available online. It’s a version of the ‘fair use’ clause of the copyright code, but it’s a very weak argument since they will be merely presenting the text itself, with no mitigation of enlightenment by essay nor entertainment by parody.
The whole idea that written works, fictive or not, can be appropriated has even led to a semi-serious effort on the part of some to not copyright nor trademark basic plot ideas for stories, but to actual patent them, as if an invention, and therefore charge fees to someone using a certain plot device. The whole effort inspired a website by an attorney named Andrew Knight, of Knight & Associates, to claim that if an author comes up with a whole new plot idea, it is as patentable as the light bulb. Of course, the whole things reeks of Postmodern absurdity, for even the most unique stories and novels are heavily influenced by other works, and no plot could be totally original, and all possible plots would have their grounding in plot devices that would have to be ‘grandfathered’ in as public domain entities. This is not the silly notion of the ‘Anxiety Of Influence’ propagated by bad critics as Harold Bloom, merely an acknowledgement of reality.
But, it still does not deal with the reality that human beings far more often than not rely on similar patterns of thought and speech. Having read voluminously, classics and pop culture crap, newspapers and online, fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, I have developed an almost flawless detector for clichés, which are largely provable numerically, and is an outcome of my great pattern detection ability, which thankfully allows me to drive somewhere by sight without having to memorize street names. Phrases get worn out with overuse. But, as I have no real way of conveying my ‘proof’ without spending a lifetime doing nothing but cataloging clichés, I do look forward to the inevitable, when efforts like Google’s and Yahoo’s do bear statistical fruit. All public domain works will eventually be scanned and accessible, and many older books, still in protection will be available as well. What will be most protected are their adaptations.
But, a computer- even if not yet sentient nor quantum-based, will still
be able to be programmed to find groupings of words that are identical and/or
similar to each other, and we will really get a glimpse into the nature of
creativity. Because words are far more standardizable than the choice of hue or
brushstroke, or the inflection of a musical note, it will reveal something
startling. Just recall that you read it here first. What analyses will reveal
are a far greater rate of similarities between all published texts than anyone
has ever before imagined. It will show that the only difference between
triteness and plagiarism- be it Haley’s ‘outright theft’, Vice’s
‘homage’, or Viswanathan’s
‘internalization’, is that people do randomly stumble upon the same tired
words and ideas over and again, and also are party to the workings of Carl
Gustav Jung’s idea of the Collective Unconscious. Willfulness and degree will
become keys to discerning the difference. Most people, even in the arts, are not
that creative nor original. Of course, originality is vastly overrated. There
are original works of so-called ‘art’ that evidence clear schizophrenia and
mental illness, and great works of art that are Classical- meaning they use
familiar ideas, but in newer or higher ways. Perhaps the most unoriginal artist
of all time was William Shakespeare. Virtually all of his plays are based upon
earlier works. But, a third of them are simply better than what came before or
after. And, his sonnets are hardly original, but again, the best dozen or so are
better than the ill wrought poetastry of lovestruck swains since. What is
original is the precise phrasing, not the general thrust, of his
greatest works. The same is true with every great artist.
I have often outright encouraged young poets and writers to imitate great
writers, for only through imitation can you slip into the skin of a great
thought and its process- if the artist is able to at all, and understand it
immanently. Then, once you write and master the imitative styles of assorted
artists, that thing unique within every writer of potential will likely surface,
and an amalgam of originality plus the best ways to deploy the best techniques
of the best writers will emerge. When there is a need for profundity a word
choice in a Wallace Stevens vein may pop up. When hysteria is needed a modifier
in a Sylvia Plath vein might evince itself. Or a Whitmanian rhythm, or a Hart
Cranean airy, or a Rilkean vision, etc. But, it will all be the unique
intellectual property of the burgeoning greatness within the new artist. This
will be something that just happens without being forced, and this is properly
termed ‘influence,’ not plagiarism. Better to learn by imitating a master
than withering away in a hack professor’s classroom.
But influence does not just run from A to B. It can ophidianly coil
through many generations of artists, so that A influences B who influences C who
influences D who influences E who influences F, and so on until W is left with a
phrase or stanza, or paragraph quite similar to A’s or B’s, even though W
honestly never even read A’s nor B’s work, and may not have even heard of
them. In short, influence’s breeze sways randomly though the minds of many,
and in no way is an homage. In short, the willful intent behind negative
plagiarism and positive homage is not present in their unintentional
equivalents: negative clichés and positive influence.
The effect of this is similar to that which occurs when the repetition of facts is called ‘plagiarism’, such with my descriptions of characters from The Odd Couple, or Ann Coulter’s having some similar lines in her pieces that merely describe factual things, and do not express unique opinions; although some may insist Coulter has never had a unique thought in her life anyway. Let me use another example of my own. Some years ago I had a sonnet published in a newspaper. It was called Jenny, At Five, At Her Telescope, and its last two lines read:
as the gardens of her white eyes
echo the stars collapsing into death.
My wife, Jessica, liked the imagery so much that, a few years later, she reworked the imagery into a fictive essay of hers called Legends. The piece was in no way, shape, nor form similar to my sonnet in content nor structure, but as she willfully reworked an image from my piece someone might say she ‘plagiarized’ me. I’ll leave aside the marital issues of joint possession that might mitigate either of us actually plagiarizing each other, since they are minutia. The phrase she used in her piece was ‘white tumuli’ of eyes. I would never have even thought anything of her phrase’s source had she not mentioned it was derived from mine. Then, one day, Jessica was rereading the Sylvia Plath poem The Colossus, whose third stanza ends with the lines:
To mend the immense skull-plates and clear
The bald, white tumuli of your eyes.
Since it is a poem as famous as Bishop’s The Man-Moth, Jess decided to revise her phrasing to something else- ‘bleached tumuli’. Of course, since the Plath poem is well known, both of us have read it on many occasions. Was there a secondhand form of plagiarism going on? I did not willfully think of Plath’s poem when I wrote mine. They are far too different in tone and subject. So, was I merely influenced? Perhaps, but at a very long distance. And, did Jessica’s willful rework of my vaguely similar imagery result in her plagiarizing Plath?
No. Why? Because any run of two words has only a limited number of pairings. But, the idea behind those words’ meaning and concatenation is often repeated when lesser writers stumble upon longer runs of words. This is because lesser creativity will necessarily result in less unique phrasings and imagery. Clichés, it should be noted, are not only the order of words, but the tropes a narrative follows, or the deployment of certain sorts of images in predictable works of art. Having run a poetry group, almost every week there would be a poem by someone that had a phrase or image that reminded someone of a famous poet’s poem. I recall Jessica being told that a phrase of hers reminded them of a line from a Wordsworth poem that she had never read. Was Jessica a W, influenced by a down the line breeze, was it just an accidental similarity, or was she a plagiarist? Here are the two lines:
Wordsworth’s The World Is Too Much With Us:
The world is too much with us; late and soon….
Schneider’s Remanent Theory Of Asteroids:
A world is myth and too much….
Similarly, I recall a poem of mine that opened with a phrase that I deliberately was playing off a Shakespeare sonnet. Another poet said it sounded like a line from a Dylan Thomas poem. That night, I looked up the poem and there was a three or four word run of similarity. Had I plagiarized Thomas? Did Thomas and I both ‘steal’ from Shakespeare, and mitigate our thefts in the same way? Was it homage, or influence?
The fact is that, to beg the cliché, great minds think alike, whether it
was Thomas’s and my reworking of a Shakespeare image, or Jessica’s rework of
my image which resulted in the Plathian phrase. But, as most writers will be far
less original, their influences, homages, and reworkings will go on much longer-
meaning whole sentences, paragraphs, and even multiple instances of such will be
nearly identical- as in the cases of Vice and Viswanathan,
if we are to grant them the benefit of the doubt they apparently are not willing
to fight for. In short, lesser minds think alike, unfortunately, far more often
than even great minds, because one of the requisites for a thing being great is
So the sorting out of
willful plagiarism from redundant clichés, and homage from influence will take
alot of effort. I guarantee you this because the Google, Yahoo,
and other like efforts, will show a great similarity between works considered
classic, and even those that are barely known. Will the future hold debates over
the influence of one great poet on another, or Jane Austen on dozens of other
female writers? Or Edgar Rice Burroughs on dozens of other pulp science fiction
writers? Or will we see clear evidence of Austen’s possibly having been a
plagiarist of a little known female writer whose work is all but lost, but whose
stories were to be found in the Austen family library of two centuries ago? Will
Burroughs’ phrases and paragraphs pop up again and again in writers never
thought to have had any relation to his work or genre?
Of course, even today most readers could recognize the influence or homage of works containing phrases or sentences like ‘Call me Ishmael,’ or ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ But, bad writers, as in the cases of Brown, Vice, Viswanathan, Coulter, etc. will always fall prey to using more than just a few good lines. They will use bad lines and phrases and sentences and paragraphs to the limit. Determining the willfulness and extent of the usage is what will remain unknown, because the actual extent of the borrowing, willful or not, will be manifested by the remorseless algorithms of silicon. The fact is that of all the general arts, writing comes the closest to pure abstraction, therefore is the highest of the arts. This is because it does the most with the least. Words are just squiggles on a medium. They do not exist without referents. The visual and aural arts can far more easily affect their audiences emotionally and even intellectually because they are reliant upon hundreds of millions of years old sensory organs. Both go back at least 600 million years in the fossil record. Written language goes back about 6000 years. Those arts have quite an advantage over literature. You do the math.
Because writing is the highest art, that makes plagiarism all the more defiling, so evokes the strongest visceral reactions. And, here is the rub. This visceral reaction leads to emotions overcoming reason, thus all the accusations that are so easily tossed about. Smearing one with a name like plagiarist is far more easy to do than exposing the alleged misdeed with facts. The blogosphere thrives on this lowest common denominator ‘blood in the water’ approach. Perhaps Brown, Vice, Viswanathan, Coulter, and company are all plagiarists, and the fact that Brown and Coulter seem to have weathered their storms only points up another unfairness- the rich and famous can get away with things the poor and unknown cannot.
This is why the cool detachment of a system like Google and Yahoo are employing will be a boon, because I guarantee you, in the coming years, all that we think we know about the ‘creativity’ of the masters- at least of the written arts (although eventually music and the visual arts will similarly be quantifiable), will be turned upside down. Many of those writers in the pantheon will be revealed to have been ‘influenced’ to a far greater extent than previously thought, and quite a good percentage will doubtlessly be shown to have such similarities to other ‘lesser’ works and writers that rival or surpass those of the above named accused, that plagiarism will be the Occam’s Razor answer.
As well read as I am, I have only read a fraction of even English language literature, and much less those of other tongues, but my own inner pattern detection system is as close to flawless in sniffing out clichés as anything could be. But even I cannot discern the literal word by word similarity of whole paragraphs in books, articles, or poems I’ve read months or years apart, much less the percentage of actual ‘replication.’ What I will say, however, is that any writer who claims that they have not found themselves in a position where they have shown a piece- be it poem, story, novel excerpt, article, essay, review, etc. to someone, and had that person say, ‘That reminds me of so and so’s piece on this and that,’ is either lying, does not show their work around, or has not written nor read enough. Likely, the similarity will be the very triteness of the piece- its worst aspects, for clichés evince themselves like gnats, through countless known and unknown repetition processes. Why? Because writers are people, and people are lazy. The best metaphors, phrases, ideas, may usually come from experience, not wordplay, because most are simply not good enough to have fun with words, and push them to their ends. But, an ability to craft words in such a manner is essential to lift the work above the Ginsbergian ‘first thought, best thought’ model which rendered most Beatnik poetry among the most banal in literature.
In short, people like unoriginality, because it comforts. Just read online reviews of books and movies on Amazon to see how hungry for the banal most people are. Clichés comfort because they are numerically used so often, and humans are creatures of habit. A quantifiable index of all the works of mankind will prove definitively that clichés are clichés, but it will also show that far more many writers and works of literature are far more intimately tied to each other than previously thought. Will some of this be due to plagiarism? Doubtless. But, I suspect far more will be revealed, through a greater and more detailed analysis algorithm, that writers who write on similar topics simply fall more easily into similar tropes, word choices, and narrative dead ends. I also suspect that the truly greater the writer is the less similarity there will be shown between his and others’ works.
To end, the striving for excellence in writing, or any art form, necessarily entails hard work and individuation. By themselves, these qualities do not guarantee excellence, but they do increase the odds of it while simultaneously reducing the chances of conscious theft or of unconscious literal, not general, influence. All works are part of a continuum, in art or not. How many times have you heard a song on the radio whose tune you recall having hummed months or years before? That deja vu feeling is no aberration, it’s just that you may not have had the skill to let that pattern come forth, while the songwriter on the radio did. Works of art and artists that are the greatest are bottlenecks that are the sum of all or many prior great works of art, and the garden from which future greatness grows. Creativity is like carbonated drinks, whose bubbles of ideas fizz, rise to the top, and will burst soon if not seized. That some, if not most, bubbles are communal in nature will be shown as reality in the near future, and when that happens the very nature of what are considered acts of influence or plagiarism will shift dramatically. Let’s hope that its ‘pop’ will signal a new and better era for published literature.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice blog.]
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