Friday, February 12, 2010

Plagiarism Vs. Inspiration

Helen Hegemann’s novel, “Axolotl Roadkill,” is up for a major German literary award. Just to be published at age 17 is incredible, and having that work nominated for ANY kind of award is a phenomenal feat. Yeah, except that, according to the New York Times, much of the book was plagiarized.

The article, by Nicholas Kulish, explains, "Deef Pirmasens, the blogger who discovered the passages taken from 'Strobo,' said that he could understand a few words or phrases seeping into the work through inspiration, but that he quickly noticed that there were too many for it to be a coincidence. 'To take an entire page from an author, as Helene Hegemann admitted to doing, with only slight changes and without asking the author, I consider that illegitimate,' Mr. Pirmasens said." When confronted with the facts, Ms. Hegemann reportedly claimed that, “There’s no such thing as originality.” She’s right, and she’s wrong.

George Polti claims there are only 36 basic literary plots, and that every piece of fiction ever written follows one of them. The 36 being:
1. Supplication (in which the Supplicant must beg something from Power in authority)
2. Deliverance
3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance
4. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
5. Pursuit
6. Disaster
7. Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
8. Revolt
9. Daring Enterprise
10. Abduction
11. The Enigma (temptation or a riddle)
12. Obtaining
13. Enmity of Kinsmen
14. Rivalry of Kinsmen
15. Murderous Adultery
16. Madness
17. Fatal Imprudence
18. Involuntary Crimes of Love (example: discovery that one has married one’s mother, sister, etc.)
19. Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
20. Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
22. All Sacrificed for Passion
23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
25. Adultery
26. Crimes of Love
27. Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
28. Obstacles to Love
29. An Enemy Loved
30. Ambition
31. Conflict with a God
32. Mistaken Jealousy
33. Erroneous Judgment
34. Remorse
35. Recovery of a Lost One
36. Loss of Loved Ones.
Accepting this as fact, one could argue that originality doesn’t exist.

However, within those 36 frames, a huge variety of pictures can be painted. Characters can be created, each with their own history, beliefs, motivations, strengths, and frailties. Dialogue can range from the mundane to eloquent tapestries inspiring thought. Action can be written to take readers anywhere and expose them to anything. Anyone, with a word processor, can take passages from books A, B, & C, change the names, and call it a book. The job of a writer is to fashion original prose into a compelling arrangement of characters, dialogue, and actions in order to tell an original story within the framework of a certain plot type.

That being said, there’s a difference between plagiarism and inspiration. Writers learn from other writers. We learn flow, style, structure, pace, and voice from each other. I’ve learned such things from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert B. Parker, and other mystery writers. While I’ve applied what I’ve learned from them to my work, the stories and characters have always been spawned from my own imagination.

This is not to say, writers don’t quote one another. Yet, when doing so we make it clear it’s what we’re doing. For example:


“Look,” I said. “I know how goofy it sounds.”

“Do you?” she shot back. “Do you really?”

“Of course I do. I’ve been running around like a junior g-man all damn day while telling myself how crazy it all is.”

“Then why are you doing this?”

“Because, nobody else will,” I said. “I’m all they’ve got. Besides, I know you’ve read Dickens, he explained it better than I can.”

She paused for a moment to search her brain for the relevant literary passage. Comprehension washed over Jasmine’s face as she finally clicked to my meaning. “I agree in principle,” she said. “Mankind is your business. The common welfare is your business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, are, all, your business. I get it, but Dickens was talking about day to day compassion and charity. That doesn’t that obligate you to risk your neck to help any poor slob who gets himself in a fix?”


My character, Jasmine, is quoting Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” but the reader knows that’s what’s happening, and isn’t attributing the phrase to my skill set. In the piece you’re reading now, I’ve quoted a specific newspaper article and a literary theorist, but made it clear where the quotes came from.

Perhaps the over all idea behind the book was her own, but to convey her story with other people’s prose, without crediting those other people, is theft. Thus, she needs to share her award and royalties with everyone who contributed to the book, whether their contribution was voluntary or not.

No comments:

Post a Comment