“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.” T.S. Eliot.
One of the things that is intriguing about what is taught in creative
writing programs is how similar the advice is for would be novelists. For
example, the structure of the novel can be broken down in to the following
eight elements, as defined by Nigel Watts in his book Teach Yourself Writing A Novel:
The Critical choice
I wonder how many people, using that structure, write novels that are, to
all intents and purposes, identical to someone else’s.
Songwriters have to be
careful of this all the time. They have to be on their guard in case they inadvertently
use someone else’s tune. And like the Elizabethan sonnet, the contents of a modern popular
song have a limited number of phrases. A girl is not remarkably
well-put-together, but “so fine.” There is no persistent
application of affection, but love “to the end of time.” And similarly you
don’t love someone sincerely, but “from the bottom of your heart.”
And so it is with novelists. At the lower end of the market books blend
into one another. If you’ve read one romantic encounter, you’ve read them all.
Shootouts á la OK Corral are ten a penny. Churned-out coming-of-age novels rely
on the same hackneyed tropes you find in almost any book in that genre. It
stands to reason then that someone somewhere is going to produce a novel or short
story that is almost identical to someone else’s, even if they have never even
heard of that other author.
Of course, some writers deliberately try to write like other writers.
Sherwood Anderson’s novel Dark Laughter was
parodied unmistakably in Hemingway's book The
Torrents of Spring (1933) and his literary views as well as his personality
were parodied in Faulkner's novel Mosquitoes
On the other hand, some writers take it too far and simply copy other
people’s work. Why anyone would want to do this is a mystery, when you consider
that editors everywhere have access to Google and it would take a matter of
seconds to check the origins of any passage that looked suspicious.
For example, the huge book, “Roots,” by Alex Haley won a Pulitzer Prize
for its account of several generations of an African-American family living in
America, a family which Haley said was his own. Haley was sued by the author
Harold Courlander, who said that passages of "Roots" were taken from
his novel "The African." Eventually Haley had to admit that some
parts of his book were taken from that novel, even though he refused to concede
that he had plagiarized.
T.S. Eliot’s statement that “mature poets steal” is borne out by his own
writing. The Waste Land, his long poem on the state of Western civilization,
where he quotes directly from many sources including the French symbolist poets
with whom he was so enamored, became a classic of twentieth century literature
and is still read today in colleges and universities all over the world. Nobody
complained about his plagiarism at the time. Nor has anyone thought to since.
So when is it all right to plagiarize? Apparently, only when you make a
virtue of it like Eliot did. Why it’s okay to plagiarize poetry and not novels
is anybody’s guess, but it worked for Eliot. For the rest of the millions of merely mortal
writers, there is the looming specter of lawsuits and court battles to contend
with… provided you can actually get published and achieve a level of fame that
alerts you victims to the burglarious nature of you literary output.
Labels: Alex Haley, Dark Laughter, Elizabethan sonnet, Faulkner, Harold Courlander, Hemingway, Nigel Watts, Roots, Sherwood Anderson, Teach Yourself Writing A Novel, The Torrents of Spring, the Waste Land, TS Eliot