Spy novelist Jeremy Duns tells the amazing story of Quentin Rowan, a young writer who based an entire career on patching together stories based on uncredited material from published authors, culminating in a patchwork job that Duns had blurbed as an “instant classic.”
Rowan did not merely plagiarize to fill in some gaps or cover some technical material that he was too lazy to rewrite; rather, he put together an entire novel out of others’ material. Rowan writes (as part of a longer passage that itself appears to be dishonest; see the November 15, 2011 5:36 AM comment later on in the thread):
I [Rowan] sat there with the books [by others] on my kitchen table and typed the passages up word for word. I had a plot in mind, initially, and looked for passages that would work within that context. People told me the initial plot was dull (spies being killed all over Europe – no one knows why), so I changed it to be more like the premise of McCarry’s “Second Sight” which was a whole lot more interesting. I had certain things I wanted to see happen in the initial plot: a double cross, a drive through the South of France, a raid on a snowy satellite base. Eventually I found passages that adhered to these kinds of scenes that only meant changing the plot a little bit here and there. It felt very much like putting an elaborate puzzle together. Every new passage added has its own peculiar set of edges that had to find a way in.
The problem is not that he cut and pasted but that he didn’t acknowledge the sources. Although if he’d done that, he might’ve been up against some copyright infringement problems.
A commenter writes:
The whole thing about this that is so sad is that, yes, writing is hard work, and sending your words into the world to be read and judged is hard. But writing also brings me great joy and satisfaction. And that joy is what Quentin has cheated himself out of because he was scared.
I don’t know about that. Putting together an entire novel out of existing scraps and pieces—that’s pretty impressive to me. Quilting may be less technically impressive than weaving but it’s a skill all its own. Similarly, rappers have stolen lots of 70s riffs but they’ve added something of their own.
Literary vs. academic theft
The commenters also discuss other literary plagiarists such as Jacob Epstein, Patricia Waddell, Richard Condon, and Jerzy Kosinski.
Based on all these examples, literary plagiarism seems a bit different than academic plagiarism. (And both are different from journalists who take from blogs without giving credit.)
Goodwin, Fischer, Wegman, Tribe, Ayres, Dershowitz, etc etc etc are doing just fine in their careers. They don’t need to plagiarize; they seem to do it out of a sense of obligation, or because they’re too lazy to figure things out themselves. (Or maybe for one of these reasons.) It’s less effort to copy than to fully read external material, incorporate it into one’s worldview, and rewrite it in a way that is coherent with one’s larger argument.
In contrast, for literary plagiarists there is skill involved in patching together complementary material from others’ published work, seeking passages that are obscure enough or bland enough to escape notice. I don’t think that even Ed Wegman’s strongest defenders would argue that he applied any wit or creativity in his ripoffs of Wikipedia and other published sources. But I think you can admire the skill (if not the dishonesty) of a literary copyist who can put together a whole novel out of others’ material.
Getting energy from the reader
I also liked this comment, later on in the thread:
Books contain energy, and when you purposefully use words found in other books, you pull that energy into your own work.
I [the commenter] think the energy comes from the author, and all her experiences and deliberations, but also it comes from the people working on the book: editors, artists, marketing, etc. I’d go so far as to say that people reading and responding to books can contribute to their energy as well.
Interesting point. I believe the reader can supply a lot, and some books stimulate this by having lots of hooks, as it were, to connect to the readers’ thoughts and experiences. Think of all those memoirs that work by reminding readers of their own childhoods. Or consider Nassim Taleb’s books. Many of my correspondents were surprised that I responded so positively to Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan, but I really enjoyed the experience of reading them with pen in hand, it was just the right book to bring out lots of thoughts that I had within myself.