“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” T.S. Eliot.
One of the things that is intriguing about what is taught in creative writing programs is how similar the advice is for would be novelists. For example, the structure of the novel can be broken down in to the following eight elements, as defined by Nigel Watts in his book Teach Yourself Writing A Novel:
2. The Trigger
3. The Quest
4. The Surprise
5. The Critical choice
6. The Climax
7. The Reversal
8. The Resolution
I wonder how many people, using that structure, write novels that are, to all intents and purposes, identical to someone else’s.
Songwriters have to be careful of this all the time. They have to be on their guard in case they inadvertently use someone else’s tune. And like the Elizabethan sonnet, the contents of a modern popular song have a limited number of phrases. A girl is not remarkably well-put-together, but “so fine.” There is no persistent application of affection, but love “to the end of time.” And similarly you don’t love someone sincerely, but “from the bottom of your heart.”
And so it is with novelists. At the lower end of the market books blend into one another. If you’ve read one romantic encounter, you’ve read them all. Shootouts á la OK Corral are ten a penny. Churned-out coming-of-age novels rely on the same hackneyed tropes you find in almost any book in that genre. It stands to reason then that someone somewhere is going to produce a novel or short story that is almost identical to someone else’s, even if they have never even heard of that other author.
Of course, some writers deliberately try to write like other writers. Sherwood Anderson’s novel Dark Laughter was parodied unmistakably in Hemingway’s book The Torrents of Spring (1933) and his literary views as well as his personality were parodied in Faulkner’s novel Mosquitoes(1926).
On the other hand, some writers take it too far and simply copy other people’s work. Why anyone would want to do this is a mystery, when you consider that editors everywhere have access to Google and it would take a matter of seconds to check the origins of any passage that looked suspicious.
For example, the huge book, “Roots,” by Alex Haley won a Pulitzer Prize for its account of several generations of an African-American family living in America, a family which Haley said was his own. Haley was sued by the author Harold Courlander, who said that passages of “Roots” were taken from his novel “The African.” Eventually Haley had to admit that some parts of his book were taken from that novel, even though he refused to concede that he had plagiarized.
T.S. Eliot’s statement that “mature poets steal” is borne out by his own writing. The Waste Land, his long poem on the state of Western civilization, where he quotes directly from many sources including the French symbolist poets with whom he was so enamored, became a classic of twentieth century literature and is still read today in colleges and universities all over the world. Nobody complained about his plagiarism at the time. Nor has anyone thought to since.
So when is it all right to plagiarize? Apparently, only when you make a virtue of it like Eliot did. Why it’s okay to plagiarize poetry and not novels is anybody’s guess, but it worked for Eliot. For the rest of the millions of merely mortal writers, there is the looming specter of lawsuits and court battles to contend with… provided you can actually get published and achieve a level of fame that alerts you victims to the burglarious nature of you literary output.