QR Markham (guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/09/james-bond-plagiarised-novel-qr-markham). The writer who plagiarized his novel. Didn’t he ever listen to the Smiths’ “Cemetery Gates,” especially the line “there’s always someone, somewhere, with a big nose, who knows and who trips you up and laughs when you fall”?
But enough about the hapless fool. I’m not dedicating my blog to him, so many others are going to dig in with the big boot.
However, it does give reason to pause about what is considered plagiarism and what is considered artistic stealing or pastiche. Seriously, how many writers really know what plagiarism means?
Writing is such an unfathomable force sometimes, and its art is a bit like sleeping with your mother — except as writers we sleep with all the other writers we’ve read. I understand that including whole pages of text from another writer amounts to theft and that the pillory should be hauled out. But what about stealing words from another writer? Is this an illegal act? If Angela Carter in one of her novels uses the word “slipshod,” is it fair game for me to use it?
Seriously, where is the line between one’s own work and another’s?
What about a scene you like in another writer’s book? Is it permissible and kosher to lift it, not word for word, but lift its mood, its thingness, and then make it your own? Is this ok?
And what about ideas you stuff into your notebook that you got from another writer’s finished work? Letting the ideas knock about in your head like pugilists. Surf on your own blood. Mix with your atoms until, shock, they transform into your own ideas.
Here’s Webster’s definition of plagiarism: “The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.”
Ok, so there’s the rub. Passing it off as one’s own.
Why didn’t whatshisname just rip off what he liked about Fleming and co and then Make It His Own? Write it in his way? Do what all the other writers do!
I suppose it’s all about finding one’s voice. Although I’ve never understood what the hell this cryptic message means. It always sounds to me like some sort of papal order. Or having a sergeant-major scream in your face: “Find your fucking voice.”
My voice in my work is actually not mine at all. It’s an awful sticky mess of so many other writers. It’s really like a dandelion head that’s gone to seed.
I mean, come on, what writer hasn’t pinched another writer’s idea, theme, vision, words, tempo, plot, metaphor, etc, etc? Very few, I imagine. Like Eliot said, “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.”
I’m not saying that Mr. Markham is justified in what he did. I’m saying that maybe the creative act is more complicated than we would like to make it out to be. And it’s also more nebulous than it is finite. More shapeshifting. More uncontrollable. More of a febrile beast that devours you one word at a time.
It’s is an act of creation. And as a writer you take risks when you write.
Just be prepared to get the Death Star destroying you like Alderaan if you step over the boundaries.