Authors, beware plagiarism (and paranoia)

My latest Endpaper column for The Author touched upon the deadly menace of plagiarism, particularly when it is imagined…

It was a casual enough enquiry, following the broadcast of a two-part radio programme. Who, I was asked online, had been my researcher for the programme? With a small touch of pride, I replied that all the research had been done by me. And what, my questioner then asked, had given me the idea of talking to  – and she  mentioned two of the twelve or so people interviewed for the programme? Was it just a coincidence that she had happened to have written about both of them in her blog?

I began to see the direction in which she was heading. My correspondent thought that I had ripped her off. I looked at her other correspondence on Twitter, the social network site where this kind of gossip is traded, and found that she had been poking around, complaining mildly about me and asking where I had found my material. The trails led nowhere, and the backchat quickly fizzled out.

It was trivial enough episode, more a niggle than an outright accusation, but it was interesting how it unsettled me. At worst, the suggestion had been that I had taken a short-cut with my research. It was inaccurate but, even if it had been true, it was hardly the most grievous of sins.

 A tip to the vengeful: there is nothing more de-stabilising to authors, more likely to send us clean around the bend, than a suggestion that our work is second-hand, borrowed, or even stolen. Words and ideas are our only professional asset. If people begin to think some of them have been nicked, our identity as authors – a quaking, fragile little thing at the best of times  – is likely to crumble.

Plagiarism, whether imagined or real  – and this society has dealt with cases which proved to be all too real  -  is a nasty, destructive business. Writers who have come to believe that someone else has stolen their plots, characters or prose will find that the suspicion eats into the soul. If, as is often the case, they belong to the great tribe of the slightly disappointed,  and the perceived thief is more successful than they are, then his every glowing review, her every appearance in the bestseller list will be a nagging form of torture.

Authors who become convinced that their work has been plagiarised have this in common: the sense of injustice within them bogs them down and holds them back. Because the key to survival as a writer is to look forward, to treat the work currently in progress as the only one that matters, they are being doubly punished. Their grievance traps them  in the past.

I was once contacted by a man who had become obsessed – possessed, even  -   by the idea that a well-known novelist, aided and abetted by his publisher, had stolen scenes, sentences and names from his own rejected novel.

At first glance, he seemed to have a case. The carefully-typed list of alleged overlaps, echoes and borrowings which he had compiled ran to many pages. Once I began to read the evidence, though, the extent of his paranoia became clear. I felt sorry for him. Being a writer was clearly all he wanted to do but, instead of doing it, he was engaged in a futile, soul-scouring  campaign of revenge. I pointed out that, on the whole, plagiarists do not give their characters similar names to those of the original, that the references to contemporary life were common currency in our society. In the end, anyone writing a novel about middle-class Britain at a particular moment is drawing on the same small well of cultural experience. The claim made against this particularly novel, I concluded, could be just as well made against my own first novel Fixx.

It was a big mistake. Weeks later, I received a long list of ideas which I too, my correspondent alleged, had stolen from him.

In the plagiarism game, there are no winners. For those on the receiving end of allegations of theft, self-protection is curiously difficult.  Almost the worst moment in the disaster-strewn literary career of my friend Willie Donaldson was when, after the success of The Henry Root Letters, he found himself in the High Court, trying to prove that he had not stolen from a fellow-writer.

It was a bizarre claim, made by someone with whom he had once co-written a TV treatment, and the judge found firmly in his favour, but it rattled Willie more than any other of the many setbacks in his career as a writer. A master of anti-spin, he normally took a perverse delight in scuppering his own projects and blackening  his own name, but this dispute truly upset him. The problem was not that, if he lost the case, he would be bankrupt   -  he was used to that  –  but something more profound. Writing was what kept him going.  He would own up to any kind of immorality, but not  literary theft.

Another writer-friend, also talented,  peculiar and likeable,  was less lucky. In 1982, Jerzy Kosinski was the subject  of a devastating profile in the New York magazine, the Village Voice.  The article suggested that the terrible wartime experiences recounted in his  early work The Painted Bird were invented, that another successful book  Being There was based on a Polish novel written in 1932, and that subsequent novels had essentially been ghostwritten by others.

There was some truth in the claims, but nothing which should have truly threatened his reputation. If The Painted Bird was fiction, it was still extraordinary. Being There  was a novel incontrovertibly of its time. The style and imaginative power of his novels remained consistent throughout his life. The accusation of plagiarism, though, had  finished off his career long before he committed suicide in 1991.

Perhaps the accusation of plagiarism is so deadly because all authors are edgily aware of how much re-cycling is part of the writing process.  “Influence is bliss,” the American author Michael Chabon once said.  It is in the grey area between influence and something altogether more malign that  lawyers’ fortunes are made,  and authors’ hearts broken.


Other Endpaper columns about life as an author can be found in the Writer’s Shed.