It’s your part-time Whore, Jane Kindred, here, filling in for Allison again.
This week’s post is going to have to be a short one, because I decided to demonstrate taking imitation too far by damaging my C7 vertebra somehow and compressing a nerve in my spine. And I’ll tell you what: this effing hurts. In addition to the fingers on my left hand being just numb enough to feel like they’re on fire, I can barely stand, walk, sit, or lie down—which, you may notice, doesn’t leave me with a whole lot of options. And so I’m on lots of drugs. Only I’m allergic to all the really helpful ones, so these aren’t doing much.
The point of which is not to gain sympathy, but to explain why this post will be kind of discombobulated and also to say that I really feel for Allison…literally. I can’t imagine how she deals with this on an ongoing basis, and I really hope the surgery gives her the relief she deserves.
But to touch on the actual topic of the week, rather than bring up the same examples others have mentioned already, I want to briefly talk about the disturbing idea I’ve seen touted on occasion that plagiarism is somehow artistic license. There seems to be an appalling laziness and lack of understanding of what art is by certain young writers who’ve been in the news in the past few years around this topic. Growing up in an era of music sampling by other artists—and then outright music stealing (aka “sharing”)—it’s not really surprising that some writers see nothing wrong with lifting whole passages out of someone else’s work and expecting those authors to be flattered by it. After all, like music, books are just out there for the taking, anyway. And writers are supposed to be flattered by that, too. I mean, seriously, what, are we just that greedy that we expect to make a living off our hard work? Shouldn’t we be grateful that someone wants to steal it? The artist is increasingly devalued as the art is devalued, and this kind of thinking is just one of the many causes of devalued art in recent years.
This is a hard calling to have. And many of us do it because it is a calling. We couldn’t stop if we tried. We can’t stop even when it’s causing us physical pain, because the mental and emotional pain of not writing is worse. We have people and worlds in our heads that want out. And when somebody cavalierly snatches something so personal and decides to call it their own—that’s just sort of unfathomable to me.
So when does inspiration or imitation go too far? When it’s neither. It’s certainly possible for two authors to come up with uncannily similar ideas independently of one another. It happens in Hollywood all the time, or so I’m told. But the actual words of a writer are their brushstrokes. They’re individual, and a forgery stands out. Though full-on ideas can also be plagiarized. I know of a couple of writers who have actually had former critique partners take their ideas after they’d been well developed and write their own version with absolutely no qualms about it. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I don’t have any critique partners.