Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Little Book of Plagiarism

I just finished reading Richard A. Posner's "The Little Book of Plagiarism" tonight, and thought I'd share a few well-sourced thoughts.

I'm especially intrigued by what Posner calls a "cult of personality" (p. 67) which he describes thusly:
Each of us thinks that our contribution to society is unique and so deserves public recognition, which plagiarism clouds. Individualism also creates heterogenity of demands for expressive and intellectual products, as of physical products and ordinary commercial services; and the greater the demand for variety -- for many new things rather than incremental improvement of the old -- the greater the demand for originality.
I think he postulates that ego -- even ego supporting mediocrity -- is both the source of the plagiarist's drive and the drive of others to root out, expose, and punish the plagiarism others commit. There is a feeling, he says, that in order to be successful, one has to create swiftly and regularly, and that plagiarism aids in this process. There is also the feeling that catching those who plagiarize legitimizes, at least temporarily, our inability to e original or creative -- we say, "Look, they're not creative or original, they're thieves."

To parallel this, Posner suggests the solution may not be in strict punishment of the plagiarist -- although he acknowledges some punishment is justified -- but rather in a redefinition of originality that focuses on creativity, not necessarily uniqueness.

I look at the fantasy genre as a good example of creativity over uniqueness as strong evidence that originality, while admirable, may be overrated, and is a poor excuse for condoning plagiarism. J.R.R. Tolkein, in my opinion, owns the fantasy genre and will continue to own it for many years to come. Others who write in this genre will invariably be compared, favorably or unfavorably, to him. That's because of the nature of the genre: Unexpected heroes, journeys, pitched battles against overwhelming forces of evil, magic, mysticism, and, as Tolkein himself might put it, "the unexpected luck of widows' sons" (from The Hobbit). Finding a truly original approach or story line or characterization in the genre is, in my opinion, nigh to impossible. That does not mean, however, that creativity is impossible. That Tolkein owns the fantasy genre is a boon to those who would create in this genre as well, as Tolkein helped establish the genre as a modern phenomenon. There are few original writers in the genre. There are, however, countless creative writers in the genre, and if, by plot, setting, characterization and other elements the stories may appear similar, there is a wide forgiveness among fans of the genre. I can lionize Tolkein, but at the same time accept the works of C.S. Lewis, Terry Pratchett, Robert Aspirin, Frank Herbert, Clark Ashton Smith (though he came mostly before the Tolkein phenomenon) and Ray Bradbury, thanking my lucky stars that while they may not be original and unique, they are all ultimately entertainingly creative. That's what I look for in an author.

So, to say that originality is dead and use that as a cop out for plagiarism, patchwriting, or any other such shady writing approaches, is reprehensible. Want to re-tell the story of Silas Marner or Cyrano de Bergerac? That's fine. Look at screenwriter Steve Martin for such excellent treatment which he freely attributes to the original authors. Want to enjoy a fine parody of Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera? Read Pratchett's Maskerade. Wonderful creativity, even if the book is directly derivative of Leroux's original work.

Even the things I'm writing now are hardly original. I hope, however, to prove they are creative in the end.

Posner defends such approaches, as do I.

Anyone seriously struggling with the creative ego or pondering a delving into plagiarism would do well to read Posner's book and consider his arguments on creativity versus originality. They're well worth the read.

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