Copycats

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The one-day Wikipedia blackout last week put plagiarism in the news. The know-it-all website takes the conventional line of frowning on people who pass off the work of others as their own. The protestations of the site’s managers notwithstanding, the paradox is that pilfering was never easier than with Wikipedia. By chance, the temporary suspension took place in the same week that Independent columnist Johann Hari declined to accept the paper’s invitation to return to the fold following accusations of plagiarism last year: a self-confessed transgression followed by the writer’s retreat to the privacy of book-writing.
For writers, accusations of plagiarism stick. The Cornish novelist and poet D. M. Thomas became as well known in the early 1980s for ‘The White Hotel’, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, as for the charge that he owed the passages in the book on the 1941 massacre of 33,771 Jews at Babi Yar in Kiev to the Russian writer Anatoly Kuznetsov. In the same period, the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper came unstuck when he authenticated newly discovered diaries which appeared to have been written by Adolf Hitler. They turned out to be forgeries – plagiarism with criminal intent. The historian was not alone in being deceived: a fellow historian and two handwriting experts were ensnared by the forger as well.
But the pond of plagiarism isn’t always a murky one for writing and writers. Among the books I was given for Christmas was P D James’ ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’. The Austen purist in me stiffened – imperceptibly, I hope – as I peeled back the wrapping paper on Boxing Day and contemplated the pollution of my bookshelves by pastiche. Two weeks later, my scruples overcome, I embarked on the prologue, which is an impressive and immediately engaging 12-page synopsis of the plot of ‘Pride & Prejudice’. Throughout ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’s’ 300 pages, I have been reflecting on the idea that writing in the style of others can lead writers in the direction of their own voice.
From Austen, there is much for other writers to learn: how to provide a pithy commentary on social behaviour in a small community; when to employ the efficient technique of reported indirect speech to equip characters with the means to reflect on their own actions; which personality traits to highlight and which to underplay to deepen characterisation whilst avoiding satire. When Sir Walter Elliot from ‘Persuasion’ makes a guest appearance as a temporary employer of Wickham and Harriet Martin wanders in briefly from ‘Emma’ to tie up one of ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’s’ plot strands, we see how P D James’ delight in emulating the style of an admired writer extends to a playfulness that delights both writer and reader.
Plagiarism is, after all, merely imitation, that greatest form of flattery. Writers tempted to engage in it must do the work of deconstruction before they reconstruct, demolish before they build back. They need to think how vocabulary, idiom, sentence structure and characterisation uniquely combine in the writer in whose footsteps they intend to follow. Then there is the question of what will be transferred wholesale and what modified. In ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’, Elizabeth and Wickham are Austen’s creatures, she as lively a mother as she was a bride and he the scoundrel he always was – although in the later novel, there is hope of redemption for him and Lydia.
So how successful a plagiarist is James? Let’s find out. Which of the following four quotations are from ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ and which from ‘Pride and Prejudice’?
1. ‘No-one, of course, was so ill bred as to make their curiosity apparent, but much can be learnt by the judicious parting of fingers when the hands are raised in prayer, or by a single glance under the protection of a bonnet during the singing of a hymn.’
2. ‘He was surely not unaware that he could not enter a room without every woman present turning her eyes towards him.’
3. ‘They were in fact very fine ladies; not deficient in good humour when they were pleased, nor in the power of making themselves agreeable when they chose it, but proud and conceited.’
4. ‘Elizabeth expected to get nothing of interest from Mr Collins’s letter except the reprehensible pleasure of relishing his unique mixture of pomposity and delight.’
I would like to ask PD James, an experienced and successful writer, what were the most difficult aspects of writing in the style a writer with such a distinctive voice. I would like to know too which other writers’ styles she is tempted to try out.
Have you experimented with writing in the voice of another writer? If so, which writers did you take as your model, and why did you choose them? Was it more difficult than you expected? If not, do you think plagiarism could be useful developing your own writing skills? Responses, please – in the style of a writer of your choice, of course!

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7 thoughts on “Copycats

  • Plagiarise: to take and use (the thoughts, writings, inventions, etc of another person) as one’s own… Oxford concise dictionary. There have been many instances in art where artists have been inspired by a theme, a novel, a painting and used that as the basis for their work. To walk in the footsteps of someone else and find, as part of that process, a destination that is your own. It is, surely, an entirely different thing to take someone else’s work and pass it off as your own. Wicked pedia.

  • In an interesting parallel to the issue of plagiarism in Literature, is the question of copyright as applied to the reproduction of photographs. In what I feel is a rather sinister judgement for art, a judge just ruled that a photo taken in a “similar” style infringed copyright:
    http://www.dpreview.com/news/2012/01/25/Imitated_Image_Copyright_Case
    In this case a photographer reduced a picture of Westminster bridge with a red bus on it to monochrome leaving the Bus red. Another photographer used the same processing style on a different photograph, but was deemed to have breached the copyright of the original image.
    Does this mean that in future anyone influenced by another artist or attempting their style is at risk of prosecution? Strange world we live in.

  • The Hitler diaries were a forgery, not plagiarism.
    P.D.James has written a sequel, an homage – a work of fan fiction. But again, this is not plagiarism.
    Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but plagiarism is theft. Is this really what you wanted to suggest the Baroness James has done?

  • Interesting about the colour red. Edgar Reitz (apologies for the spelling) used that technique throughout episodes of Heimat. Spielberg used it in Schindler’s List – the little girl in the red coat. Are these inspired choices or influences? Neither film replicates the other in any way, not does one film maker pass off the technique as solely their own.
    Integrity is a most important thing. Honesty, too.
    Surely, we are all old enough to know what we are doing, what we are about.

  • As a tutor myself who regularly checks Wikipedia as my students lift many chunks from this I have strong views on plagiarism as a whole and particularly from Wikipedia.
    When I suspect a student of copying text, simply to Google the test normally brings up around 10 different websites all with the exact same text on it, I can’t work out who the originator is or whether this has been taken from a book. I think Wikipedia needs to build in automated systems to check for plagiarism in its own text or a way to force contributors to fully reference their work (which doesn’t constitute plaigiarism).
    On the plus side there are many useful links at the bottom of Widipedia articles, which are well work following up.

  • Good to see this post has got people thinking about the definitions of categories of copying and what they mean for the inspiration of creative practitioners in all disciplines. Not for a moment am I suggesting P D James is guilty of plagiarism in ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’. Her book does raise interesting questions about how to draw the boundaries between one artist and another, though. Darcy and Elizabeth are not ‘her’characters but she has developed them in ways that are hers. As Michele’s post suggests, there would be no debate if it were straightforward.

  • I wonder about “in the style of”. I wrote a sequel to a play I had directed many years ago. Writing a sequel is, I imagine, a lot easier than writing a new play as some of the characters are already fully formed and have their own voices. Does the original author own the characters?

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