Have you ever, while reading someone else’s novel, or poetry, or attending a new play, been needled by the notion that the author has purloined some of your ideas from a previously published or performed work of your own fair hand? It’s not a nice feeling, to recognise elements of your own work actively reworked in another’s oeuvre, yet it happens. It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, a disappointing sense that the creative world is just as much prey to corruption and ball-breaking artistic greed as any other domain in life. I’m not referring to the wilful appropriation and literal copying of your own darling sentences in someone else’s work, who then passes them off as their own. I’m referring to something more subtle and therefore, unproveable.
Within the arts, perhaps there is an unspoken understanding that artists feed off one another. Certainly within the world of painting, it happens and always has. In the world of music, Philip Glass has had his imitators. And in the case of the literary arts, it raises its head too.
But it’s important to distinguish between the unconscious material we have all absorbed through our personal reading over the years and the conscious lifting of someone else’s plot, or paragraphs from their work, or elements of their work which are then rehashed as the writers own original work.
Many of us have had a thorough exposure to writers who, even if we didn’t actually appreciate them at the time, have survived in the unconscious to the extent that the mind becomes embedded with certain phrases from this or that poem. Yeats, for example, often filters through in the work of contemporary writers. Ginsberg too, to take a very different example. Obviously the use of a phrase from another poet’s work – a couple of words that have survived meaningfully in the mind – does not amount to plagiarism.
Writers will sometimes recognise echoes of their own work in someone else’s, and this is harmless (mostly) as well as rare. For a while, everybody wanted to write LIKE Raymond Carver, but most found they couldn’t. This was not plagiarism but admiration of a master writer whose output and style was an encouraging presence in the world.
But it IS disconcerting to pick up a new novel and recognise the very themes and, more specifically, prominent elements which made up a novel of one’s own. And yet – it is not plagiarism, strictly speaking. Nor can one open one’s mouth about it without the risk of being perceived as a paranoid and embittered old git – heaven knows there are enough of them in the world without adding to the pile. It does raise the interesting question though of the strange game of brinkmanship that may, unconsciously or consciously, be played by certain authors when it comes to creating their work.
Imagine this situation: another writer (writer B) may have read your novel, say five years ago when yours was new and being reviewed. B enjoyed it, or found it interesting in spots, and perhaps made a few notes in the way that writers do. Three years on, the same scribe discovers that your novel’s elements have not quite departed his/her imagination and that, in fact, the writer believes they could put some of the elements of your novel to much better use in a work of their own. Sneaky or simply pragmatic artistic method?
No doubt the offended party would dearly love to be able to have some recourse in a situation like this, but the fact remains that it’s not plagiarism in its true sense. Writer B, who has appropriated some of your ideas, elements, and situations, is well within his/her rights unless you have an exceptional barrister who can argue his way into the more complex interpretations and layers of interpretation itself. You can deduce from having read B’s new work (which is, annoyingly, wowing the critical and popular world alike) that B may have read your original work and decided to help himself to the situations in your book, including the protagonist’s occupation, situations involving children, and certain penchants which were firmly at the heart of your book. But actually, he is free to do this, and it is not illegal. It is merely the work of a sneaky and ambitious free grazer who took your ideas and, in a manner, put them to his own use, changing them slightly, and then eventually allowing his own stylistic characteristics to dominate and bring everything to a resolution. The result will be different in the end and nobody but yourself notices.
Of course, in the arena of academic plagiarism things may be trickier. Academics of integrity are correct in their defence of their own work, of their intellectual rights in having their sentences and paragraphs referenced properly when another academic cites them in an article or essay. Academic careers are built on a stream of constant publication of the most debated, contested, relevant and original themes du jour. It is a must, if one is to advance. Mostly, this happens, but not always. The question, as ever, is: who will rock the boat? What academic is prepared to put their own reputation on the line and kick up the necessary stink at senior level in an academic department, to complain to the relevant party OR their head of department, to push it as far as possible in the event of literal plagiarisation having occurred? There is great cowardice in the world. Because of this, plagiarisation will always occur in isolated pockets of academia and within the arts. It is difficult to go the course, risking reputation, character, and the possibility of a diminishment of tenure possibilities (in academia, should this apply). Instead, a certain amount of academic bullying may ensue, but at a subtle level, and all for the want of people being prepared to go right to the top if necessary to make a case for rightful complaint.
Meanwhile, back in the world of creative arts, of books, we should attend to what’s going on. Occasionally things are not as pristine and ethical as they might seem. Be aware. If you think some writer B has used your ideas, situations, language and passed them off cleverly as his original work – let writer B know, one way or another. You don’t have to arrive waving writs on B’s doorstep, but it just might put a halt to his gallop if he is aware that you know. Provided he’s not a sociopath, he’ll get the message.