In the Academy, Plagiarism is the Sin Above All Sins. That’s a Problem.

Nicholas Delbanco on Criminals, Copyists, and Creative Coincidence

I want to tell three stories. In order to preserve the privacy of the people here described, I’ve changed a very few details and omitted proper names, but the storylines themselves are based upon flat fact. In each case the issue of plagiarism is the problem posed. And in each case, long years later, I’m haunted by the principals—the principles—involved. 

The first takes place in Bennington College, Vermont, in 1972. I offered an Advanced Prose Fiction Workshop, for which there were many more applicants than places at table, and I therefore asked for writing samples from those who hoped to enroll. Young writers at Bennington—soon to include such notables as Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt—had a sense of being singled out and engaged in a high calling.

The dozen I selected seemed glad and proud and nervous in nearly equal measure to come to our three-hour class. We met on Wednesday mornings to talk about the craft, submitting work in progress; the discussions were lively and the participants engaged. Every creative writing workshop has its own dynamic; this one soon enough established a shared sense of purpose, with real talent in the room. 

One young man—let’s call him X—was the exception. He seemed half asleep and wholly inattentive; when it came time to discuss his own proffered work he roused himself, a little, but couldn’t explain his artistic choices and bungled his characters’ names. Soon, X started skipping class—a major infraction in that context, and one I had announced I’d be unwilling to forgive.

In what seemed to me a clear attempt to curry favor, he came to my office and declared he’d seen Mick Jagger over the previous weekend in New York: Mick sent regards. As it happens, I did know a number of popular music stars, but Jagger was not one of them, and this put me on my guard; X might have known of my association with others in the performance world, but why would he lie? I made inquiries. 

The boy was rich. He came from the West Coast; his father was a power broker in the entertainment industry, and he had many—let’s call them—weaknesses of personal behavior. He did drugs. He sold them to other students or as an act of largesse gave the drugs away. He liked to chain his girlfriends to their dormitory beds, and if they complained he used the chains to beat them into something like submission. He kept guns.

Bennington was a permissive place, and the early 1970s were years of frank experimentation, but X went beyond the pale. If not a full-fledged psychopath, he was certainly a sociopath, and by his sophomore year he’d made large local waves. More than once he had been summoned to explain himself before the Student Judicial Committee—a committee, as the name suggests, whose charge was to pronounce upon infraction of the rules. 

Drug-dealing, guns, and rape did not engender expulsion, but the high crime of academe—copying the work of others—was unforgivable.

There were few rules. He proved agile in his own defense: the drugs were free, the girls had asked for bondage, he was a collector, and the pistols and rifles in his possession were not used. He cited the Second Amendment; the sex had been consensual; cocaine was common currency; and others were involved. Much of his activity came down to “He said/she said,” and X had the wherewithal to be litigious if expelled. So though the college imposed a form of probation upon him, he remained on campus and sometimes came to class. 

All through the fall, however, he failed to provide prose fiction other than the stories with which he had applied, and when I warned him he’d not pass the course he shrugged and turned away. A few dull pages trickled in. Then, near the end of the year, his roommate Y came to my office and said he’d like to enroll in the Prose Fiction Workshop scheduled for next semester. I told him what I told all applicants, that he should show me a sample of prose, and I’d make a decision and post the list of those accepted for the spring. He said he couldn’t do that, and I asked him why. Y said I’d seen his stories; they were brought to class by 

X.

I asked him to explain, and he said he loved prose fiction and was trying hard to improve on his own, but every time he wrote a page his roommate Xeroxed it and submitted it for workshop—which was why, not incidentally, X couldn’t discuss the motivation of his characters or even remember their names. 

We threw X out of Bennington on the charge of plagiarism. That was the cardinal offense, the one rule he could not flout. Drug-dealing, guns, and rape did not engender expulsion, but the high crime of academe—copying the work of others—was unforgivable. All these decades later (X made headlines next year for taking out a contract on his parents, hoping for an early inheritance, but the “hit man” turned him in; Y never did become a writer, since his prose was second-rate), I think of plagiarism as the line you cannot cross. Abandon all hope, ye who copy here. 

*

The second such instance arose in Ann Arbor at the turn of the millennium. At the University of Michigan, I served as chair of the Hopwood Awards Committee: a prize-giving entity that by tradition confers both cash and cachet on its award recipients. The contest—with previous winners such as Mary Gaitskill, Lawrence Kasdan, Arthur Miller, and Marge Piercy—was established in the early 1930s, with substantial funds.

The successful poets, prose writers, essayists, screenwriters, and playwrights are selected by a process ensuring anonymity; there are stringent rules. Those who enter the Hopwood competition do so under a pseudonym; their work is judged by strangers, not members of the local faculty, and the selection process is therefore double-blind. The chair of the Hopwood Committee—I held that post for nearly 30 years—honors writing students in a formal ceremony in late April; the hall is full.

When their names are announced, the winners come on stage to loud rounds of applause. Among the honorees in the several categories on that April afternoon, a young woman won the graduate poetry contest; I handed the student—let’s call her A—an envelope containing a check and a citation for the prize. Next day another poet came to see me in my office, on the verge of tears. I asked B what the trouble was, and she said her own losing entry had been plagiarized, that she and A shared a workshop, and the victorious Hopwood manuscript was based upon her work. I asked for evidence. 

We had the award-winning poems on file, and since B furnished her own original drafts, we were able to compare. 

Indeed there were marked similarities with the “losing” student’s work. It was not a word-for-word equivalence but what I’ve been calling here a variation on a theme, and—to my eye and ear, at least—the winning manuscript was an improvement on the original. In Bennington I’d conducted the prose fiction workshop where problems arose; at Michigan another faculty member was responsible for the poetry class, and I called her in and asked for her opinion. On the merits of the actual verse, we agreed. I asked for the written opinions of several other poets; they concurred: there were indeed verbal echoes, but contestant A deserved the prize. 

There remained the thorny problem of the complainant’s outrage; she told me she felt violated, robbed. In the group dynamic of the graduate poetry workshop, each student passed out samples of his or her work for close classroom analysis; A therefore had copies of B’s poems, and B insisted that her ideas and emotions—indeed, her whole artistic enterprise—had been stolen and reconfigured by her colleague in the class. Among the rules and regulations for the Hopwood contest is very specific language about plagiarism and, in the larger sense, originality; the work cannot have been previously published; it cannot be an adaptation of the work of others or a translation or revision of some secondary text. 

The committee met. We agreed that A had adapted the poetry of B and rescinded the award. Now it was A’s turn to be outraged and to lodge a protest; she demanded we reconsider the decision and restore her prize. (Interestingly, neither of the poets made any mention of the money involved; all that seemed to matter was the Hopwood award itself.) I had hoped to keep the process private and informal, but soon enough the apparatus of university bureaucracy—its committees of inquiry, its lawyers and a board of appeals—was involved. Plagiarism is a mortal not a venial sin in the academy, and A’s graduation was at stake. 

Did I have any evidence to defend myself against the charge of plagiarism; what sources had I used?

The defendant’s argument was, in effect, culture based. She was of mixed ancestry, part Japanese, part Hawaiian, and accustomed to collective utterance; her whole early education had consisted of shared and repeated stories; it was a compliment, not insult, to another author if you referred to their work. She freely admitted that B’s poetry, discussed in their classroom sessions, had struck a chord, enriching her own poems by association.

But she hotly denied any intention of theft. If you write a love sonnet, she argued, or a description of mountains and clouds, can you be accused of illegal borrowing from previous verse about romance or nature? If you use a simile that Milton or Middleton used before, is it an act of plagiarism or simply a tip of the cap? The whole point of a creative writing workshop, A said, is that you work together with your cohort; why was she being singled out— discriminated against, really—for having learned from what a colleague wrote some months before and then producing her own version of the text? 

Many years later (A has become a much-published poet; not so, to my knowledge, has B), I can neither remember the verdict we reached nor the formal disposition of the suit. It was full of legal niceties, a kind of willed institutional avoidance, and unlike the verdict reached at Bennington (that the plagiarist must be expelled), the “copyist” stayed on. Her claim remains with me, moreover, as a nuanced one, an assertion of the right to borrow, and not to call such borrowings a theft. 

*

The third case is an instance in which I myself was charged. In 2006 I published a novel called Spring and Fall and dedicated it to my long-standing agent Gail Hochman. Not so loosely patterned on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, it tracked the early affair and separation of a couple (based on Leontes and Hermione) who meet again 40 years later.

Lawrence, a music-loving architect, has health issues: trouble with his heart. Hermia’s child, Patricia (based on Perdita in Shakespeare’s play), disappears and, at the end of the action, returns. The book sold some copies, earned a respectful review or two, and soon went the way of all less-than-best-sellers, disappearing from the shelf.

But it had been noticed by a woman in Chicago who filed suit for plagiarism of her own unpublished novel, which she argued I had copied. Her protagonist played the saxophone; his lover had a hysterectomy, and these two issues—the matter of music, the matter of health—seemed sufficiently akin to her so she assumed I must have read her manuscript.

This would have been a nuisance suit, thrown out of court summarily, but for a pair of mitigating factors. First, she was indigent, representing herself against a well-heeled corporation (Warner Books was then my publisher), and the law does make provisions to shield and assist the poor. Second, she’d sent her own manuscript to the Brandt & Hochman Agency in the hope of representation; she had been refused. 

As time wore on, I read her argument: handwritten, fairly percolating with insanity. She’d not in fact read Spring and Fall but a review of it in the Chicago Tribune, and that had been enough. It was clear as clear could be, she wrote, that Gail Hochman saw the value of her novel and stole the idea and gave it to me, a recognized author, to copy out in language of my own. I thought this laughable but was told by Warner Books it was no laughing matter; by contract they assumed the first legal costs, though the process was an elaborate one and soon enough the limits of their liability would be reached.

My agent and I would shoulder the ensuing expense of a lawsuit, and it would be large. Did I have any evidence to defend myself against the charge of plagiarism; what sources had I used? Shakespeare’s late romance was admittedly in the public domain, but how could I prove that my lovers were not related to—indeed stolen from—hers?

Fortunately, I’d signed the contract for the novel before the complainant’s unpublished manuscript reached the desk of and was rejected by my dedicatee; we did have proof of the dates. There was no logical way her work in progress could have influenced my book. The lawsuit was withdrawn. But in its own improbable fashion it too raised the matter of originality and borrowing; if a character plays an instrument and falls in love, why could he not be patterned on every character since Orpheus, and if you somehow own the copyright of the word “Orpheus” why should you not file claim?

As X had learned at Bennington, plagiarism is a mighty charge, not easy to dismiss. Too, I found myself thinking about A and B, their outrage many years before; the issue is a vexed one, and it won’t go away. 

*

In terms of that vexed issue and formal full disclosure, I should acknowledge a phrase in the first sentence of two paragraphs previous. “Fairly percolating with insanity” is an unattributed quotation from a short story by Charles Baxter, “Fenstad’s Mother.” There the author has a character “percolating slightly with insanity” in an all-night restaurant called Country Bob’s. That phrase stayed with me for years. 

My substitution for the original adverb was, however, inadvertent. I used it to describe the woman’s written complaint, and only when I looked at his story again did I recognize I had misremembered Baxter’s description as “fairly percolating with insanity,” not “percolating slightly . . .” This happens, I think, often. We overhear a snatch of speech and later on repeat it; we find an expression compelling and borrow it for use.

My recollection, inaccurate though it may be, suggests I’d come to make the original four words part of a collective memory, “appropriating” another author’s fine phrase as my own. Therefore my thanks but no quotes . . . 

By contrast the last line of the first story here recounted—“Abandon all hope, ye who copy here”—is a direct reference to the words above the Gates of Hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” This is the sort of borrowing all writers traffic in, and the line from Dante Alighieri has become part of the public domain; it would defeat the point of paraphrase to cite its original source. In Charles Baxter’s case the reference was and is sufficiently personal to merit a citation. But when a phrase has fully entered into our shared lexicon, it would be pedantic to identify its origin in speech. 

So as not to be again accused of theft, let me here cite the source of the definition of the word plagiarism from the World Wide Web (Dictionary.com): 

Plagiarism: noun 

1. An act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author.

Synonyms: appropriation; infringement; piracy, counterfeiting; theft; borrowing; cribbing; passing off. 

2. A piece of writing or other work reflecting such unauthorized use or imitation. 

Here is the word’s origin: 

n. 1620’s, from—ism + plagiary (n.) “plagiarist, literary thief ” (1590’s) from Latin plagiarius, “kidnapper, seducer, plunderer, one who kidnaps the child or slave of another,” used by Martial in the sense of “literary thief,” from plagiare “to kidnap,” plagium, “kidnapping” from plaga, “snare, hunting net . . .” 

Textbooks and MLA manuals are full of much more elaborate definitions of plagiarism and instructions on how to avoid it. Even in a period of false report and baseless rumor—so prevalent in print today—there’s no more glaring error than the failure to cite quotations. The work of predecessors is a necessary precondition of one’s own original work.

Footnotes and full documentation are an integral component of any published article, and every dissertation must track and formally acknowledge its primary and secondary source material. Such synonyms as infringement, piracy, counterfeiting, theft all indicate the legal risks of plagiarism and—in order to avoid the charge itself—strict standards of behavior that the scholar must accept. 

Nor does this system apply to the apprentice only; professional practitioners are equally at risk. Off the top of my head I can think of several recent accusations of “piracy” by prominent authors: Alex Haley in Roots, John Gardner in his biography of Chaucer, Doris Kearns Goodwin in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, Jill Abramson in Merchants of Truth. There are many more.

If you admire the work of long-dead practitioners or wish to emulate a living artist it’s hard not to borrow at least a small component of their craft.

Stephen Ambrose, to take just one additional example, fell afoul of the same charge: certain paragraphs in his best-selling books had been closely patterned on the prose of less celebrated accounts. In each case the writer claimed in self-defense that the process of note-taking was a complicated one. Their research was extensive, sometimes conducted by others; there had been nothing intentional about the error of omission; after years and years of using a phrase they could not fully recollect or feel the need to cite a long-forgotten source. If you consult an old file folder and find a line you’ve copied out, must you provide the citation or exhume the original quote? 

The majority of such instances come in the non-fiction mode; it’s harder to accuse an author of poetry or fiction of unlawful borrowing. Jerzy Kosinski (of The Painted Bird and Being There) was charged with unacknowledged appropriation of the work of Polish predecessors; his suicide, in 1991, is thought in part to have resulted from that charge. Malcolm Lowry’s Ultramarine is chock-a-block with passages from Nordahl Grieg’s Blue Voyage and fear on the young author’s part that he would be accused. 

T. S. Eliot’s seminal poem “The Waste Land” is built on borrowings, but because of his footnotes and citations the writer seemed to be assessing a cultural condition (“these fragments I have shored against my ruins”) and not committing theft. Remember his assertion that “Immature poets borrow, mature poets steal,” and the aesthetic of “The Waste Land” can be in part explained. 

This sort of retroactive homage seems habitual. But familiar, too, is the way we dismiss old models, whether they be books we read as children, or movies once loved that make us cringe when watched a second time. The stages of age entail “outgrowing” youthful modes of expression the way we have outgrown old attitudes and clothes. 

Two major critical studies—Walter Jackson Bate’s The Burden of the Past (1970) and Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973)—describe the nexus, for writers, of a tradition embraced and thereafter rejected. We all remember something learned in grade school or high school or college that has stayed with us as instruction; we improve our skills by copying and then attempting to say (or write, or draw, or dance) something original. It’s the time-honored sequence of apprenticeship: you spend years under someone’s tutelage (present or distant, in the flesh or on the page), then set out on your own. 

If you admire the work of long-dead practitioners or wish to emulate a living artist it’s hard not to borrow at least a small component of their craft. Those constituent parts—this one’s use of metaphor, that one’s delight in the four-letter word, that one’s ear for dialogue and this one’s deployment of brand names—will sooner or later add up to a whole, and with luck a signature. Put it another way: take a pinch of A, a dab of B, a whiff of C, and stir well through the alphabet soup until you produce your own stew.

At the end of an apprenticeship, you should be able both to emulate your masters and to leave their work behind. The model here again is that of Dante, who—in the third part of his journey—departs from his guide, Virgil, walking on alone. To watch the young writer discover their own particular voice is to listen to them practice scales and start out often croakingly until they grow full-throated. For once we recognize a predecessor and acknowledge influence, it begins to wane. This is an alchemical process—a pattern of growth and transformation—that every teacher witnesses and all students know. 

__________________________________

From Why Writing Matters by Nicholas Delbanco. Published by Yale University Press in March 2020. Reproduced by permission.

Nicholas Delbanco
Nicholas Delbanco
Nicholas Delbanco is the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. The author of some thirty books of fiction and nonfiction, he lives in New York City and Cape Cod.





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