03/06/2006, Volume 011, Issue 24
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what is plagiarism? The least sincere form? A genuine crime? Or merely the work of someone with less-than-complete mastery of quotation marks who is in too great a hurry to come up with words and ideas of his own?
Over many decades of scribbling, I have on a few occasions been told that some writer, even less original than I, had lifted a phrase or an idea of mine without attribution. I generally took this as a mild compliment. Now, though, at long last, someone has plagiarized me, straight out and without doubt. The theft is from an article of mine about Max Beerbohm, the English comic writer, written in the pages of the august journal you are now reading.
The man did it from a great distance–from India, in fact, in a publication calling itself “India’s Number One English Hindi news source”; the name of the plagiarist is being withheld to protect the guilty. I learned about it from an email sent to me by a generous reader.
Here is the plagiary:
JE: “Beerbohm was primarily and always an ironist, a comedian, an amused observer standing on the sidelines with a smile and a glass of wine in his hand. G.K. Chesterton said of him that ‘he does not indulge in the base idolatry of believing in himself.'”
TP (Tasteful Plagiarist): “Beerbohm was primarily and always an ironist, a comedian, an amused observer standing on the sidelines with a smile and a glass of wine in his hand. G.K. Chesterton rightly observed of him that ‘he does not indulge in the base idolatry of believing in himself.'”
In 30 years of teaching university students I never encountered a case of plagiarism, or even one that I suspected. Teachers I’ve known who have caught students in this sad act report that the capture gives one an odd sense of power. The power derives from the authority that resides behind the word “gotcha.” This is followed by that awful moment–a veritable sadist’s Mardi Gras–when one calls the student into one’s office and points out the odd coincidence that he seems to have written about existentialism in precisely the same words Jean-Paul Sartre used 52 years earlier.
In recent years, of course, plagiarisms have been claimed of a number of authors themselves famous enough to be plagiarized from. The historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin were both caught in the act. The Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe has been accused of the crime. The novelist Jerzy Kosinski, a man who in some ways specialized in deceit, deposited chunks of writing from Polish sources into his books without attribution. Some years ago there was talk of plagiarism in Martin Luther King Jr.’s doctoral dissertation. Schadenfreudians are usually much pleased by the exposure of plagiarism in relatively high places; to discover that the mighty have not fallen so much as cheated on their way up excites many who have never attempted the climb.
I have myself always been terrified of plagiarism–of being accused of it, that is. Every writer is a thief, though some of us are more clever than others at disguising our robberies. The reason writers are such slow readers is that we are ceaselessly searching for things we can steal and then pass off as our own: a natty bit of syntax, a seamless transition, a metaphor that jumps to its target like an arrow shot from an aluminum crossbow.
In my own case, I have written a few books built to a great extent on other writers’ books. Where the blurry line between a paraphrase and a lift is drawn–not always so clear when composing such books–has always been worrisome to me. True, I’ve never said directly that man is a political animal, or that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Still, I worry that I may somewhere have crossed that blurry line.
In the realm of plagiarism, my view is, better a lender than a borrower be. (You can quote me on that.) The man who reported the plagiarism to me noted that he wrote to the plagiarist about it but had no response. At first I thought I might write to him myself, remarking that I much enjoyed his piece on Max Beerbohm and wondering where he found that perfectly apposite G.K. Chesterton quotation. Or I could directly accuse him, in my best high moral dudgeon, of stealing my words and then close by writing–no attribution here to Rudyard Kipling, of course–“Gunga Din, I’m a better man than you.” Or I could turn the case over, on a contingency basis, to a hungry young Indian lawyer, and watch him fight it out in the courts of Bombay or Calcutta, which is likely to produce a story that would make Bleak House look like Goodnight Moon.
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