Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sample, Mix, Allude: How to Handle Originality

I’ve been thinking about plagiarism lately. Not that I’m planning to commit it. It’s not like I’m hoarding quotations in some rooftop bunker and planning to unleash them in a spree of improper citations. It’s just that, as I listen to songs with bass lines borrowed from older hits, or watch movies with scenes structured to allude to classic films, or think about David Shields’ recent manifesto, I wonder about the limits of originality in our creative culture.

I’m a fuddy-duddy about this, I know. In fact, one of my last jobs in academia was informally titled Plagiarism Czar; certain students charged with academic dishonesty were sent to me for re-education. I would show them how to cite and how to achieve the combination of deference and individual assertion that defines the American approach to intellectual sources. Whether my students were bumblers or connivers, I always tried to convey the fact that citing your source properly actually makes you sound smarter than if you simply borrow without telling. You get to drop the name and sound like the intelligent guest at the cocktail party—while still touting your own idea. Originality with the sheen of tradition.

The rules continue to be clear for scholarly work, sure. In music, remixes are so obvious that they announce their borrowings with panache. Imogen Heap is never too far removed from Jason Derülo’s “Whatcha Say”. But music has the benefit of using different sound quality within a song to alert you to a sample. B.B. King is unmistakable in Primitive Radio Gods’ "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand". Even if you don’t recognize King’s growl, you know it’s Someone Important singing the refrain.

But what about fiction? What kind of borrowing can we, should we, do if we still want to claim to be original?

If we stick something in that isn’t ours, we can give our borrowings the high-falutin name of literary allusions. But allusion requires some sort of wink-wink tone that lets the reader know that you know that they know what you’re doing. The reader who misses the memo is also pretty much guaranteed to miss the allusion, too. Consider the case of The New Yorker reviewer of Andre Aciman’s Eight White Nights who mistook a passage from Keats as an example of Aciman’s style. This would have been fine—except that she didn’t like the style.

What I struggle with is a writer like Helene Hegemann, the German teenager whose novel Axolotl Roadkill (I can’t be held responsible for her title) includes numerous unacknowledged borrowings from a novel by another German writer. Writing, she says, is not about originality. It’s about authenticity. What she was doing in copying from the writer Airen was creating “intertextuality”. I’m sure that makes plagiarized writers everywhere feel all better.

Actually, I don’t struggle at all with this issue. My mind is made up: it’s cheating and unoriginal. It’s coasting on someone else’s hard creative work. In fact, it’s plagiarism. And what makes me, I admit, indignant and Czar-ish about this is the fact that it can so easily be avoided. Want to use something from Ian McEwan (and who wouldn’t)? Just allude to it. It’s a kind of literary two-for-one sale, when you think about it: the words and/or ideas you really like and the points for looking so erudite. The alternative is to kidnap someone else’s ideas (which is what plagiarism literally means). Allusion seems a small price to pay to avoid committing a creative felony.

To go back to Aciman. His letter to the editor clarifying whose line it was anyway explains that unattributed quotations are “more or less standard procedure in my novel”. Interestingly, the letter’s stated purpose is a humble one (that wasn’t me, it was Keats, and it’s also, in other places, Yeats, Arnold, Joyce, Wordsworth). But what it does is signal that Aciman knows his stuff. (He adds another level of allusion-dropping—not a bad thing—by pointing out that his borrowed line from Eliot’s The Waste Land is in itself a borrowing from Spenser).

Is Aciman being elitist, here or in the novel? And, if he is, is he out of touch with contemporary literary life? What if there are only a handful of readers who nodded sagely when they recognized the passages from the Dead White Men of English letters? Should he have handled his allusions differently so as not to mislead his readers who are, as he puts it “uneducated”?

And then the real question: how is Aciman different from Hegemann? One claims she’s mixing. The other is alluding. Are they both right?

Writers, what’s your view? Do you borrow? How do you borrow? What do readers think about it?

This post first appeared on Beyond The Margins.

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