For Those Who Care Where Evocative Expressions Were Stolen
Posted by: Keir Graff
I’m reading the new John Shannon novel right now, The Dark Streets. So far, so good–reading a favorite author can be comforting, like catching up with a friend you haven’t seen for awhile. The familiar prose is like a familiar voice.
Anyway, on page 46:
Jack Liffey had a bit of unmanageable mid-day time to kill. He snoozed for an hour, cramped in his front seat, and then drove southward on Western for a while, keeping to the surface street just to give his skull a rest from the precariously imposed momentum of the freeway1.
The footnote reads:
1. Joan Didion, for those who care where evocative expressions were stolen.
It’s an amusing aside, and timely. Yesterday’s post on plagiarism had me thinking about the difference between homage and appropriation, always a hard one to sort out. Almost everyone agrees that stealing another author’s words is wrong. But what about lifting them in order to pay tribute? We live in a sound-bite society, where movie catchphrases become the equivalent of a secret handshake, where dropping a quoted phrase into conversation lets us know whether we’re among friends or strangers. Yet we also live in a society willing to employ litigation in order to determine to whom credit (and cash) for that catchphrase is due.
(Incidentally, did you know that McDonald’s owns the phrase: “America’s Favorite Fries“?)
If Shannon had let that sentence go unattributed, would an alert reader have accused him of thievery? In my mind, it could easily be an allusion, or a clue, a little wink from the author–but if the author doesn’t call it out, then his intention can’t be judged. I found the footnote funny, but it did break the reality of the story, and so maybe it should have been left out. But these days, authors might think twice before making an uncredited allusion in homage.
While I’d hate to put myself in the position of downgrading plagiarism to a misdemeanor, I do hope that Google Book Search doesn’t fuel a hysterical hunt for plagiarists, ruining the reputation of everyone who’s ever lifted a sentence. After all, Collins’ article reminds us that the vast majority of plagiarism hasn’t really harmed anyone. Undiscovered for more than a century, it can be merely a humorous footnote, or a useful one that offers insight into the times or the minds of writers.
(And I should also distinguish between nonfiction plagiarism, in which one writer’s research or unique synthesis of ideas is stolen, and fiction, in which one writer’s stylistic flourish is copied–despite my strong feelings on the value of fiction, I can’t help but see the former as a more serious offense.)
I wonder, too, if we apply different standards for different media. When Keith Richards lifted Chuck Berry’s signature chunka-chunka riff, it’s possible that he was called a thief at the time. But now that more time has passed, we speak of it in terms of influence, and now that everyone else uses it, too, maybe it’s just like bootlegs of DVDs in China–too pervasive to get exercised about? Musical influence comes not just from style and tone but from riffs and hooks, and writing influence comes not just from style and tone but from words and phrases, too.
Anyway, I don’t have time to really finish this thought so I’m going to leave it there. I welcome your thoughts.