The Purloined Letters

 

Marilyn Diptych 1962 by Andy Warhol 1928-1987

Marilyn Diptych 1962 Andy Warhol 1928-1987 Purchased 1980 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03093

 

As a professional editor and the product of academia spanning three countries and five colleges/universities, I’ve learned to spot intellectual stolen property from literal miles away.

I’m not talking about pirating someone else’s published work, the way so many websites claiming “free” downloads of my books, or anyone else’s, do. That’s evil, sure, but nine times out of ten, the downloader gets nothing more than a computer virus and a few ads extorting money from them to fix the problem. Just deserts, really, if you want to steal content purely for entertainment’s sake, and deprive an author or artist of their tiny royalties as you slug back your $5 mochaccino.

Any idiot can tell when someone takes a manuscript wholesale and just changes the author’s name. Any pair of eyes can spot when Walmart sells thousands of t-shirts adorned with artwork that was taken directly from the ‘net to the silkscreen factory without bothering to compensate the artist.

Plagiarism can be different, though. Plagiarism can be your theft of someone’s work, thoughts, insights, creativity with certain, deliberate alterations, and appending your name to it, pretending that you have actual ideas, visions, and thoughts of your own, while knowing full well that you stole them.

And there’s a world of difference between being influenced by someone else’s work, and absorbing the echoes of it into your own endeavours. There’s a huge difference between an homage to another writer or artist, and just lifting it complete and dumping it into your own output.

It’s difficult to put into simple terms, though.

I’ve been taught, and have trained myself, to see how it works in its subtler forms.

Any university prof can tell at a glance when someone has merely condensed a complex idea or construct into a summary, and then added it to an essay without attribution. They don’t need to know the source material to suspect that the concepts might not be the student’s own brilliant insight. Experience tells them to dig deeper.

Fiction is, in fact, no different.

I am, I should remind you, not speaking of the natural process of reading others’ work and taking in those insights and ideas and letting them take root in your own mind. If you have unconsciously absorbed some ideas or beliefs or structures from another author, your own imagination will warp and twist and morph those things, weaving them into your own ideas, and they will grow into unique new fruit that is, in the end, wholly yours.

That’s how we change and develop ourselves – that’s why you need to read, and read widely. It’s what helps you to build something new.

Plagiarism, though, is the conscious and deliberate copying and altering someone else’s work for your own gain, either financially or just for ego-boo when people remark on that incredible idea you had. And it does, I am pleased to inform you, leave a trail that some of us can follow.

One of the signs is when the style of some important passage changes abruptly. If there’s a sudden drop from an intimate tone to an impersonal one, right when a new and game-changing concept is introduced, it’s almost a blinking, neon sign that the impersonal new idea came from someplace other than the author’s head.

Another is the lack of adequate context. Stolen ideas are frequently parachuted in and made to fit existing structures. They feel grafted on and often hurried, as if the writer thinks that if they push past it quickly, no one will notice another author’s signature all over it.

But discerning readers will know, deep down. Readers will feel it, even if they don’t recognize that squirminess for what it is.

Something you create yourself will have a depth and an authority that no stolen material, reworked so that you skirt the letter of the law, can ever have. If the intrinsic details for the “brilliant idea” aren’t yours, then it will be a hollow thing, bereft of soul and heart. It will read as a summary, as a book report – it will have no flesh on its bones, no meat beneath the skin.

And if you are questioned in anything but the most superficial way, you will be floundering for replies, and answering with phrases like “I haven’t worked out all the ramifications yet” or “You’ll have to wait for the next book” – weasel words to get you off the hook.

I guess you can get away with it. Lots of people do.

But if that’s something you have done, or are thinking of doing, you aren’t a writer.

You’re just a thief.

*** Update: This is a blog. If you see it and your name isn’t actually mentioned, but you still feel it is aimed at you, my advice is to keep it to yourself. Because otherwise, people might think, as someone on my Facebook page pointed out, that you have a guilty conscience.

 

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