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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007 2:34 pm
In Defense of Plagiarism
Posted by: Keir Graff

I spent my whole lunch hour reading Jonathan Lethem’s brilliant essay in Harper’s, “The Ecstasy of Influence.” Well worth a week’s worth of lunch hours, I daresay.

(Do people still say “daresay”? Anyone mind if I do?)

I copied out far too many quotes for fair use, and while the author wouldn’t mind if I reproduced them, I think I’ll take pity on those who are reading this blog not on their lunch hour but on a hurried coffee break:

In the contemporary world, though, the act of "copying" is in no meaningful sense equivalent to an infringement – we make a copy every time we accept an emailed text, or send or forward one – and is impossible anymore to regulate or even describe.

And, from the final courtroom scene, the defense’s dramatic summation:

The kernel, the soul – let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. Neurological study has lately shown that memory, imagination, and consciousness itself is stitched, quilted, pastiched. If we cut-and-paste our selves, might we not forgive it of our artworks? 

At Publishers Weekly, Rachel Deahl did a quick Q&A with Lethem (“Lethem on Plagiarism“). Not too insightful (and can we please abolish the term “think piece”?), but this question-mark-free question is at least amusing:

PW: …This makes it sound like you’re, well, okay with piracy.

And if you want to listen to a free copy of Lethem speaking about the issue with some other bright folks (including Mark Hosler of the brilliant Negativland, a band that knows a thing or two about the fine line between satire and restraining orders), visit Open Source. I haven’t listened yet — maybe lunch hour tomorrow.

3 Responses to “In Defense of Plagiarism”
  1. Likely Stories » Blog Archive » Do we love him now? Says:

    [...] After careful consideration of copyright issues, Jonathan Lethem puts his money — er, make that “intellectual property” — where his mouth is. Says he: On May 15th I’ll give away a free option on the film rights to my novel You Don’t Love Me Yet to a selected filmmaker. [...]

  2. Book Blog - Likely Stories, by Keir Graff - Booklist Online » Blog Archive » Reference Books Are Full of Ideas Says:

    [...] As Google Book Search identifies more and more alleged plagiarists, the whole discussion of plagiarism is likely to become even more nuanced than it did in 2007. Or, once the number of accused authors grows large enough, accusations may elicit nothing more than yawns. [...]

  3. Book Blog - Likely Stories, by Keir Graff - Booklist Online » Blog Archive » Were Wallace Stegner’s words borrowed or stolen? Says:

    [...] In the Los Angeles Times (”A classic, or a fraud?“), Philip L. Fradkin keeps alive the ghost of Wallace Stegner’s sins, reexamining the curious case of Angle of Repose. Fradkin borrows from–but doesn’t plagiarize–Jonathan Lethem. (Although he plagiarizes other writers. Read it, you’ll see what I mean. Lethem did it better.) Criticism of Stegner’s use of Foote’s material has circulated mainly among academics and some feminists and has gone largely unnoticed by the public, even though a magazine article in this newspaper drew attention to the issue five years ago. Whether Stegner was guilty of plagiarism and slander, as his harshest critics maintain, the complexity of the act has never been completely explored. [...]


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