Creative Plagiarism

Is imitation a form of flattery – or stealing?

By Paula Marantz Cohen (Drexel)

In recent years, I have come across something that I call creative plagiarism. Almost every time I teach fiction-writing, one or two students seem compelled to write a story that closely resembles a published work we’ve read. These students are not trying to perpetrate a deception, since the material they incorporate has been previously discussed by the class, usually only a week or two earlier.

I was able to shed light on what might be going on through an exercise I did with my creative-writing class. I asked them to read two short stories for discussion at our next meeting. I provided the stories in photocopy, with the authors and the dates removed.

The stories were “Mrs. Adis,” by the British writer Sheila Kaye-Smith, published inThe Century Magazine in 1922, and “Sanctuary,” by the African-American writer Nella Larsen, published in the magazine Forum in 1930. Larsen’s story, as those familiar with her biography will know, was quickly viewed as a plagiarized version of Kaye-Smith’s. Larsen denied the charge, claiming that she had heard the story from a co-worker many years earlier. Forum accepted her explanation, but the consensus, especially among her black literary peers, was deeply skeptical. Although she had previously published the acclaimed novels Quicksand and Passing, she never published again.

Kaye-Smith’s “Mrs. Adis” tells the story of a peasant woman who agrees to hide a desperate young man who comes to her house begging for protection. He has been caught poaching on the nearby estate and, in a panic, killed one of the gamekeepers. Knowing that her son was a childhood friend of the fugitive, the woman takes him in and does not betray him, even when she discovers that the man he has killed was her own son.

Larsen’s “Sanctuary” is set in the American South. The English peasant becomes a poor black woman, and the white ne’er-do-well becomes a black thief who, interrupted in an attempt to steal tires from behind a factory, kills a man trying to stop him. As in “Mrs. Adis,” it turns out the man accidentally killed was the woman’s own son. The mother does not give the fugitive away to the white sheriff.

Here are parallel excerpts near the beginnings of both stories:

From Kaye-Smith’s “Mrs. Adis”:

He was a big, hulking man, with reddish hair and freckled face, evidently of the laboring class, though not successful, judging by the vague grime and poverty of his appearance. For a moment he made as if he would open the window; then he changed his mind and went to the door instead.

He did not knock, but walked straight in. The woman at the fire turned quickly.

‘What, you, Peter Crouch?” she said. “I didn’t hear you knock.”

“I didn’t knock, ma’am. I didn’t want anybody to hear.”

“How’s that?”

“I’m in trouble.” His hands were shaking a little.

From Larsen’s “Sanctuary”:

He was a big, black man with pale brown eyes in which there was an odd mixture of fear and amazement. The light showed streaks of gray soil on his heavy, sweating face and great hands, and on his torn clothes. In his woolly hair clung bits of dried leaves and dead grass.

He made a gesture as if to tap on the window, but turned away to the door instead. Without knocking he opened it and went in.

The woman’s brown gaze was immediately on him, though she did not move. She said, “Yu ain’t in no hurry, is you, Jim Hammer?” It wasn’t, however, entirely a question.

“Ah’s in trubble, Mis’ Poole,” the man explained, his voice shaking, his fingers twitching.

As those excerpts demonstrate, Larsen’s story follows Kaye-Smith’s both in structure and wording to an uncanny degree, but deviations are consistently enfolded into the narrative. The setting, details of character, and social context are different. Larsen uses black dialect and also affects a significant shift in the ending. In “Mrs. Adis,” the grief-stricken mother lets the criminal slip away unimpeded. In “Sanctuary,” the criminal remains locked in the room after his pursuers leave. The implication is that the dead man’s mother will now take justice into her own hands.

My class, a lively group of 10 students around a seminar table, launched into a discussion of the stories. Although they acknowledged the similarities between them, they initially seemed more interested in the differences. Several said they found Kaye-Smith’s to be “a good old-fashioned story,” while Larsen’s seemed more modern and dramatic. Some found Larsen’s use of dialect distracting, though others thought it added texture and authenticity. I asked them if the similarities between the stories had impeded their pleasure in reading them, and they said it hadn’t. Several noted that they hadn’t initially realized the stories were so similar, and might never have noticed had they not read them in succession.

After the class had talked for awhile, I finally told them that Larsen’s story had appeared eight years after Kaye-Smith’s, and I asked if they thought Larsen had plagiarized from Kaye-Smith. The question immediately shifted the tenor of discussion. The class had been responding as readers seeking entertainment without thoughts of property, propriety, or ethics. The issue of which story had been written first had not been raised in the earlier discussion. But now they were being assigned the role of moral judges. One by one, eight of the 10 students weighed in with the verdict that Larsen had stolen from Kaye-Smith. The more they considered the issue and consulted the stories for similarities, the more convinced they became. As the discussion continued, they hardened against Larsen: Her work was a flagrant piece of plagiarism, no two ways about it.

Two students, however, did not share that view. That Larsen had borrowed from Kaye-Smith was undeniable, they acknowledged. They were sure she must have read “Mrs. Adis” and probably had it in front of her while writing. Yet they also found the stories so essentially different that they couldn’t see condemning Larsen for plagiarism. As I pressed them to elaborate, one of the two dissenters observed: “Perhaps it has something to do with our being the only brown people in the class.”

Both of the students were Indian-American in an otherwise white class. Their ethnicity had never come up before, and they had not shown any special identification with each other until now. Both students were from middle-class backgrounds, while several of the white students were from working-class backgrounds (though they, it should be noted, had voiced no particular interest in the class aspect of “Mrs. Adis”).

What seemed to inform the dissenters’ viewpoint on “Sanctuary” was the way it made them aware of an element of difference in themselves that had earlier seemed irrelevant in the context of the class. One of the Indian-American students had, at the beginning of the discussion, remarked on Larsen’s reference to “the woman’s brown gaze”—and that had precipitated speculation by the class as to whether “brown gaze” referred to the mother’s brown eyes or to the brown face in which her eyes were placed. (It was eventually agreed that the phrase suggested a continuity from eye color to complexion.)

But this student now explained that the reference to a “brown gaze” had affected her in a personal way: It had drawn her in, sparking an identification, not so much with the character as with the story as a whole. She had registered its distinctive elements—the use of dialect, locale, and descriptive material—more emphatically than had other members of the class. The trigger of the “brown gaze” had led to a greater investment in the story as a distinct entity. The other Indian-American student had been receptive to this, too, or, possibly, as he himself admitted, to the female student’s having noted it. This chain of receptivity mirrored what had worked the other way for the rest of the class in lining up in condemnation of Larsen. The two students were receptive to difference, the others to sameness, at least once the issue of plagiarism was raised.

As I listened to my Indian-American students express a view at odds with the majority opinion, I was reminded of a more recent case, one involving an Indian-American author that had aroused a similar response in me. The first paragraph of Richard A. Posner’s The Little Book of Plagiarism describes the case in question:

At age 17, Kaavya Viswanathan signed a two-book contract with Little, Brown. The publisher agreed to give her an advance of $500,000 against royalties, and she sold movie rights to the books to DreamWorks for an undisclosed sum. By the time the first book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, was published, in April 2006, she was 19 and a sophomore at Harvard. Within weeks The Harvard Crimson discovered, and the mainstream media proclaimed far and wide, that her book reproduced almost verbatim many passages from similar “chick lit” novels by an established author, Megan McCafferty. A company engaged in the heretofore obscure trade of “book packaging” had helped Viswanathan to “conceptualize and plot” her book, but there is no indication that the company shares responsibility for her plagiarisms.

I quote this paragraph in its entirety not just because it summarizes the case but also because it reveals the embedded prejudices of the news media. Posner’s summary is replete with negative assumptions: There is the reference to Viswanathan’s age, with the implication that she was too young to receive the sort of rewards she did; there is the description of her novel as “chick lit,” a term used for frivolous books appealing to young women; and there is the scorn for the book’s “packaging,” further denigrating the originality of the author. Although this suggests that Viswanathan was young and simple-minded, Posner still ends by placing blame on her alone: “There is no indication that the company shares responsibility for her plagiarisms.”

But what strikes me as most unfair about Posner’s summary is his declaration that Viswanathan “reproduced almost verbatim many passages from similar ‘chick lit’ novels by an established author, Megan McCafferty” (the emphasis is mine). That Viswanathan’s novel contained verbatim passages from McCafferty’s and other books is not subject to dispute. What can be questioned is that the books are “similar.” This is a highly subjective judgment, slipped into the sentence as though it were unequivocally true.

Posner’s statement that Viswanathan’s novel is “similar” to other chick-lit books suggests to me that he has not read Viswanathan’s novel, only perused the borrowed passages disseminated in the media. (If so, that would mean he engaged in the kind of secondhand referencing that he elsewhere notes has a kinship to plagiarism.)

I say that because McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts, from which many of the borrowed passages were taken, is a conventional coming-of-age novel, while Viswanathan’s novel pushes the boundaries of humorous realism into the realm of farce and social satire. It is a slapstick account of the dizzying heights that an overachieving Indian-American girl, egged on by her pushy immigrant parents, will go to in order to gain admission to the sacred citadel of the Ivy League.

Here are two passages, one from McCafferty’s novel and one from Viswanathan’s, that reveal both the obvious borrowing and the difference in emphasis:

From McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts:

Sabrina was the brainy Angel. Another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: Pretty or smart. Guess which one I got. You’ll see where it’s gotten me.

From Viswanathan’s How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life:

Moneypenny was the brainy female character. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: smart or pretty. I had long resigned myself to category one, and as long as it got me to Harvard, I was happy. Except, it hadn’t gotten me to Harvard. Clearly, it was time to switch to category two.

As with the examples from Kaye-Smith and Larsen, the similarity here is technically undeniable. But the borrowing neither adds appreciably to Viswanathan’s novel nor threatens the marketability of McCafferty’s. That Opal Mehta has to switch categories in order to get into Harvard is a conceit rich in satirical possibility. It sets the stage for the heroine’s father, a dotingly foolish creature, who becomes expert in rap music and jive-speak so as to help Opal “get a life”: “‘And tonight,’ Dad said, ‘don’t forget to write another three episode recaps of America’s Next Top Model!You have to be informed if you want to be down with your peeps.'” (One of the sad effects of the scandal is that Opal’s rapster Indian father may never be realized on screen.)

But this sort of originality is legally irrelevant to the case, as Posner explains:

We need to distinguish between ‘originality’ and ‘creativity,’ stripping the former of the normative overtones that rightly attend the latter. An original work is simply something that is different enough from some existing work that it could not be confused with it. From an aesthetic standpoint the work might not have been worth making. It might be unimaginative hack work. But in a commercial society, anything that fills an empty niche, however tiny, in market space has value, and that value is diminished by plagiarism.

Posner explains that derivative work that does not involve verbatim copying is permissible, indeed desirable, in a commercial society, but that the reverse—being creative but not technically original—is not. He does refer in passing to something he calls “creative imitation,” a special kind of borrowing that he ascribes to Shakespeare and which he says constitutes “a gray area insofar as it produces value that should undercut a judgment of plagiarism.”

But he has moved into circular semantic territory: “An imitator may produce greater value than an originator, once ‘originality’ is understood, as it should be if we are to understand plagiarism in properly relativistic terms, just to mean difference, not necessarily creativity.” This sentence, so at odds with Posner’s otherwise lucid style, expresses the “gray area” by virtue of its very retreat into murkiness. For if one admits that there is no absolute frame of reference in which difference can be measured, then it seems necessary to look at a range of contextual factors before passing judgment—in this case, to explore why Larsen and Viswanathan borrowed from other work in order to write their own.

Like my creative-writing students who incorporated what we had read in class only a few weeks earlier, Larsen and Viswanathan made use of work that was readily in view: McCafferty’s novel was well-known to young adult readers, and Kaye-Smith’s story appeared in The Century Magazine, which shared an audience with Forum, where Larsen’s story was published. (Century would, in fact, be taken over byForum only a few months after Larsen’s story appeared.) These writers couldn’t have intended subterfuge in their borrowing; the likelihood of readers’ having access to their sources was too great. Instead they must have felt that the similarity of their writing to the work they borrowed from was unimportant when compared with the differences—that their focus was so entirely elsewhere that the borrowing would recede into insignificance or be rendered invisible in the face of what was new. Understanding why they assumed this seems worth exploring.

Larsen’s earlier novels, Quicksand and Passing, were about well-educated, mixed-race women in a society in which they could find no comfortable place. She resembled her heroines. “Sanctuary,” by contrast, was about extreme outsiders. Using Kaye-Smith’s “good old-fashioned story” as a template, Larsen could depict such extremes: turning white to black, conventional speech to dialect, a sentimental story into a complex one about race solidarity and maternal vengeance. The story must have seemed new because it was such a radical departure from Larsen’s experience. Likewise, Viswanathan’s portrait of Indian life in America must have seemed different from the novels she borrowed from because she was diverging, through farcical exaggeration, not only from those texts but also from her own experience.

If Larsen and Viswanathan were concentrating their attention on what was different, not just from those books but also from themselves, that suggests that people who are prone to misuse sources may do so because they are exaggerating aspects of their outsider status. The pull in two directions—to the mainstream culture and to the margins of that culture—would certainly not have been so great for Larsen had she been more integrated into white society or, conversely, had she been poorer and less educated. The same can be said for Viswanathan. If she had been a Harvard legacy, on the one hand, or a struggling Indian immigrant, on the other, her novel would not have had its originality so strongly tied to its derivativeness.

For readers to see these books as original enough to make their similarities to other books recede in importance requires a special sort of perspective as well. Readers must empathize: both identify with the authors’ position and sympathize with what they were trying to do. Larsen’s compatriots in the Harlem Renaissance could identify with her sense of difference from the mainstream, but they could not sympathize with what she did. They had struggled for a certain sort of “insider” respectability that made them see the resemblance to her source more vividly even than their white peers did. Yet interestingly, in recent scholarly essays, the viewpoint among minority readers has shifted. Now more comfortable in a state of in-between-ness—and perhaps because the passage of time has altered the stakes—they are more willing to empathize with Larsen.

But shift to the contemporary case of Viswanathan, and the response changes. The majority of comments on Amazon regarding Opal Mehta are hostile. Those in a position to identify with Viswanathan do not grant her sympathy, possibly because the attitude toward achievement that her book depicts is embarrassing to them (much as the black dialect may have been to Larsen’s African-American peers). That leaves people like me—removed enough not to be threatened, but close enough to empathize.

I happen to be a novelist as well as a critic and a literature professor. My first novel,Jane Austen in Boca, was described in its publicity materials as “Pride and Prejudiceset in a Jewish retirement community in Florida.” As that description suggests, I used Austen’s plot line and perspective as the scaffold for my contemporary satire. (The description is an indication of how the publishing industry, which inveighs against plagiarism, loves adaptation, which provides a handle for marketing.) Unlike Larsen and Viswanathan, who borrowed naïvely from noncanonical works, I used a canonical work as my template and made that clear in my title. But the process that I followed wasn’t so different from theirs—nor were the results. My story, like theirs, contains extensive borrowing, but the result is nonetheless something new.

I am not willing to go as far as some theorists, who say that the term “plagiarism” should be discarded altogether. Extremism in this area seems ill-advised. As an author, I am attached to the idea of intellectual property. And yet there must be a way to disapprove of uncredited borrowing while being empathetic toward writers struggling to find a creative path through the thicket of existing expression.

Paula Marantz Cohen is a professor of English at Drexel University.

This article was originally posted in The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 22, 2012. 

Author: Brooke Allen

A social entrepreneur and retired Wall Street executive.

2 thoughts on “Creative Plagiarism”

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