Monday, August 15, 2005


To borrow and to borrow and to borrow...

The Judith Kelly plagiarism case grows curioser and curioser. It seemed bad (and odd) enough that a first-time memoirist recounting her wretched Catholic childhood would filch sentences from Hilary Mantel's comic novel Fludd. But Miller, a 61-year-old woman with an all-too-photographic memory, didn't stop there. Upon further examination, borrowed bits from Graham Greene and Charlotte Brönte began bobbing to the surface. The author has declared herself mortified; her publisher, Bloomsbury, has now scuttled plans to bring the book out in paperback. But the whole mess led me to ponder the perverse psychology of plagiarism. The most brazen offenders seem almost eager to be busted. They don't muddy the trail, transpose sentences, fiddle with key adjectives. They dare you to recognize their pilfered goods. And that brings me to Thomas Mallon, from whom I've semi-pilfered the musings above. He published an excellent study of plagiarism, Stolen Words, in 1989. Here's the review I wrote for Newsday:
In his earlier work, A Book of One's Own, Thomas Mallon examined that most private and least preening of literary creations, the diary. Granted, part of Mallon's purpose was to show just how practiced these cries from the heart may be. But even when we read a self-conscious diarist--the type for whom the labor of constructing a persona is never finished, but only abandoned--we can at least assume that the writer's words are his own.

For the subjects of Mallon's new book, however, this assumption no longer holds. As its title suggests, Stolen Words focuses on the history and practice of plagiarism. Ranging through several centuries of larceny, Mallon blows the whistle on such eminent shoplifters as Lawrence Sterne, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He collars more recent offenders from the worlds of academia and television. Halfway through the book, the reader may begin to wonder if a single writer in the history of literature has managed to avoid an occasional visit to the authorial chop shop.

Still, Mallon has more in mind than a rogues gallery. The primary concerns of his book, he tells us, are "plagiarism's psychology and its haphazard exposure and punishment." The psychology, in particular, exerts a queasy fascination, because as Mallon makes clear, the most celebrated filchers seem to operate out of compulsiveness. It's not as though Coleridge--who looted wholesale chunks of Schelling and Schlegel for his Biographia Literaria--couldn't cut it on his own. Nor did he hesitate to loudly accuse other writers of the very crime he’d just committed. Indeed, Coleridge is the very exemplar of what Mallon calls "the psychological profile of the plagiarist." He exhibits "the genuine talent that makes the need to steal seem, at least to his own readers, unthinkable; the loud abhorrence of others' trangressions and the spirited denial of his own; textual incrimination so obvious that one can only wonder if getting caught wasn’t part of what he had in mind for himself."

This perverse self-destructiveness, this will be to be caught, seems to unite plagiarists across the centuries: Mallon points out its presence in a much more recent theft. In 1979, at age 23, Jacob Epstein published a first novel called Wild Oats, which garnered considerable praise on both sides of the Atlantic. As it happened, though, this debut owed at least some portion of its success to somebody else's--namely, that of Martin Amis, who noticed several dozen sentences from one of his own published novels spliced neatly into Epstein's. As Mallon notes, the resultant flap doubtless provided a measure of spiteful comfort to other, aging young writers itching to get into print. But the brazen quality of Epstein's theft also prompts a flurry of discreet speculation from the author: "If your parents are important editors in New York [as Epstein’s were], what, after all, is the worst possible thing you can be caught doing? Your plagiarism can accomplish a sort of Oedipal slaying before, in keeping with tragic models, it becomes the instrument of self-slaughter."

In other chapters, Mallon considers the case of the former Texas Tech professor Jayme Sokolow, whose compulsive plagiarism went undetected--and then unpunished--for years, Senator Joseph Biden's oratorical borrowings, and a $101-million lawsuit over the provenance of the television show Falcon Crest. What this assemblage points to most clearly is our ultimate confusion about the crime: Mallon calls our thinking on the subject "primitive," and insists that "our fear of dealing fully with plagiarism when it’s just been exposed...leads us into bungling and injustice."

Despite its unifying themes, Stolen Words remains something of a miscellany. It rambles. It doesn’t funnel itself down to a polemical point. On the contrary, Mallon riddles his prose with footnotes and parenthetical asides, and generally meets the challenge of keeping the whole shebang aloft by sheer exercise of style. Here and there, he bends over backwards for a weak pun, or tries the reader’s patience with one too many narrative zigzags. But altogether, it's hard to imagine a more elegant or entertaining guide to the world of literary grand theft.

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