Laura Dzubay: In defense of plagiarism

Sunday, January 28, 2018 - 4:46pm

I know, I know. I know what it sounds like.

Let me start off by saying that no, I’ve never straight-up copied somebody else’s work and tried to pass it off as my own. I’ve never, for instance, meticulously unearthed some obscure passage from Joyce Carol Oates or Katherine Anne Porter and turned it in for a fiction workshop and been like, I hope it’s good, it’s only a first draft! (Which I’m realizing now probably sounds like a weirdly specific example. I haven’t. I promise.)

But let’s take the fact that most of us aren’t conniving schemers and set that aside for a moment, shall we? Barring the fact that we all rock, I think there’s a little more here to explore. And I think that when we say we’re only here for original ideas, there’s a hidden truth there that we’re not really telling.

Maybe it would help if I strip away the word “plagiarism” . It’s understandably kind of a buzzword. There are a million other words I could use that would make it easier to get behind this argument: “Riffing.” “Reworking.” “Reimagining.” Even words as harmlessly vanilla as inspire and influence have their place on this list.

My dad is a composer, and a couple of days ago, I went to a concert where one of his pieces was being performed by the Orion String Quartet. The piece was a string quartet, “Astral.” The second movement was called “Starry Night,” inspired by Van Gogh’s painting of the same name; the fourth was called “Wintu Dream Song,” and was based off of a Native American funeral song text from the Wintu tribe of the west coast. This is something I’ve noticed my dad, and some other composers, doing a lot in their work: setting their music against ideas borrowed from poetry, stories and other forms of art. One of the other pieces performed that night, Brett Dean’s String Quartet No. 2 (“And once I played Ophelia”) did the same thing with scattered lines from “Hamlet.”

That concert got me thinking, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that “riffing” on other people’s work is a trademark of nearly every type of art, including literature. The first example that comes to mind (perhaps a problematic one) is Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles: Volume One,”which came under criticism for appropriating a wide variety of sources without attributing proper credit. When I brought this up to my friend who loves Dylan, she said yes, she knew it didn’t look good, but this is what Dylan does — he’s a folk singer, he borrows old lines and ideas and rearranges them and finds a way to make them his own. I think that this is fair up to a certain extent, but if I were one of those people whose words Dylan had used, I might feel differently.

But then again, there is a definite tradition, in folk music and in folk literature — in all literature — of borrowing. “Borrow” is the word that we often use because it sounds a lot nicer than “steal,” which after all means “plagiarize.” But isn’t stealing what it is? It’s not like we give anything back, right? There’s a famous quotation attributed to Pablo Picasso: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

I’ve been writing since I was very little, but even back then, it never came completely naturally; I paid attention to the way it looked on the page, the lengths of sentences and the distribution between paragraphs and dialogue, and mostly just copied the way that I saw other people doing it. These days my writing style is a little bit more specific to me, but I still borrow extremely heavily from other people. Just within the last year or so I’ve written one short story based entirely on the lyrics from a John Prine song, and another with a narrative voice that I basically shoplifted from John Updike’s story “A&P.” The stories are independent creations, of course, but I still would have written them very differently — or not at all — if it weren’t for Prine and Updike.

But “plagiarism” is indeed a sharp word for this sort of thing, and one that’s inherently negative. Of course, it’s negative for good reason, and it’s not up to me to try to figure out where the line is between the bad kind of stealing and the good kind. For instance, one could argue — and many have — that fan-fiction is also a form of plagiarism. I personally think that, like any other type of writing, there is value in fan-fiction as a writing exercise, but that’s a topic for another time. Maybe the line is between acknowledging your source and leaving it out. Or maybe it has something to do with the division between what you’re saying and how you’re saying it — and as long as you’re doing one of those things in a new way, you’re doing something right.

Obviously, I’m not going to defend people who straight-up copy other people’s work and try to take credit for it. But on the other end of the spectrum, I’m not sure that I entirely believe people when they say that their work is completely original. I think the truth really exists in some middle ground, one in which reworking other people’s ideas — as long as you do it in an original way and acknowledge their influence — is one of the best-established and most time-worn traditions in any art form. It’s not really for me to say either way, but I think it’s at least worth thinking about.

And yes, I know I’m not the first person to say that.