By November 28, 2006 3 Comments Read More →

For Those Who Care Where Evocative Expressions Were Stolen

I’m reading the new John Shannon novel right now, The Dark Streets. So far, so good–reading a favorite author can be comforting, like catching up with a friend you haven’t seen for awhile. The familiar prose is like a familiar voice.

Anyway, on page 46:

Jack Liffey had a bit of unmanageable mid-day time to kill. He snoozed for an hour, cramped in his front seat, and then drove southward on Western for a while, keeping to the surface street just to give his skull a rest from the precariously imposed momentum of the freeway1.

The footnote reads:

1. Joan Didion, for those who care where evocative expressions were stolen.

It’s an amusing aside, and timely. Yesterday’s post on plagiarism had me thinking about the difference between homage and appropriation, always a hard one to sort out. Almost everyone agrees that stealing another author’s words is wrong. But what about lifting them in order to pay tribute? We live in a sound-bite society, where movie catchphrases become the equivalent of a secret handshake, where dropping a quoted phrase into conversation lets us know whether we’re among friends or strangers. Yet we also live in a society willing to employ litigation in order to determine to whom credit (and cash) for that catchphrase is due.

(Incidentally, did you know that McDonald’s owns the phrase: “America’s Favorite Fries“?)

If Shannon had let that sentence go unattributed, would an alert reader have accused him of thievery? In my mind, it could easily be an allusion, or a clue, a little wink from the author–but if the author doesn’t call it out, then his intention can’t be judged. I found the footnote funny, but it did break the reality of the story, and so maybe it should have been left out. But these days, authors might think twice before making an uncredited allusion in homage.

While I’d hate to put myself in the position of downgrading plagiarism to a misdemeanor, I do hope that Google Book Search doesn’t fuel a hysterical hunt for plagiarists, ruining the reputation of everyone who’s ever lifted a sentence. After all, Collins’ article reminds us that the vast majority of plagiarism hasn’t really harmed anyone. Undiscovered for more than a century, it can be merely a humorous footnote, or a useful one that offers insight into the times or the minds of writers.

(And I should also distinguish between nonfiction plagiarism, in which one writer’s research or unique synthesis of ideas is stolen, and fiction, in which one writer’s stylistic flourish is copied–despite my strong feelings on the value of fiction, I can’t help but see the former as a more serious offense.)

I wonder, too, if we apply different standards for different media. When Keith Richards lifted Chuck Berry’s signature chunka-chunka riff, it’s possible that he was called a thief at the time. But now that more time has passed, we speak of it in terms of influence, and now that everyone else uses it, too, maybe it’s just like bootlegs of DVDs in China–too pervasive to get exercised about? Musical influence comes not just from style and tone but from riffs and hooks, and writing influence comes not just from style and tone but from words and phrases, too.

Anyway, I don’t have time to really finish this thought so I’m going to leave it there. I welcome your thoughts.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

3 Comments on "For Those Who Care Where Evocative Expressions Were Stolen"

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  1. jxshannon2@aol.com' John Shannon says:

    I don’t mind so much breaking the flow, as I have a bit of a Brechtian mischief gene (There’s a second footnote later on) but of course it could easily get out of hand. E.G. The Infinite Jest.

    It’s possible to have mixed feelings about “appropriation,” or, as the kids say now, “sampling.” Wasn’t it Twain who said, “Bad writers borrow but good writers steal.”

    But, seriously, I was devastated by the controversy that emerged around Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. It was one of my favorite books, an amazing picture of the harshness of the Western experience and what it did to people (right up there with My Antonia and Old Jules and Dalva), and to find it all based, allegedly, on uncredited diaries hurts. There’s recently been a brief tempest about acknowledgement pages in novels, which is just another aspect of the same question. A bit of showing off masquerading as erudition–at least sometimes. (Ahem…there are a lot of acknowledgments in The Dark Streets.)

    Ultimately, I think integrity has to rule–not stealing a thought from another writer without redigesting it, not poisoning the well of history by clearly signalling any changes from known reality, etc. Nothing is simple, but it’s a starting point.

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