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!