Thursday, May 18, 2006


A few weeks ago, right before finals, when the world was good and pure, Topper The Reader asked for my opinion on that one book by that one girl. You know, the six-figure advance one that the seventeen-year-old totally wrote herself except for the packaging service and the editorial assistance and the word-for-word swiping from another book. Bloggers looked up long enough from examining the threadcount of their boxer shorts and went absolutely apepoop over this story about a month ago, which means that I'm just about getting around to it, now that my rigorous schedule of pointing and laughing at Paula Abdul has cleared. I now have the time to formulate some sort of logical reaction.

As an educator and a writer, I have two of them:

1) How sad. She was twelve years my junior when this book was picked up and now her literary career is over. Where did we, as a society, fail this young lady? Are we so wrapped up in success that our youth is willing to go to any means to achieve? Was she pressured as a woman, a minority, a Harvard undergrad? What are the social repercussions of such a clear cry of distress? What does this say about editorial standards? Can literature be saved?

2) Ha-ha!

That's what you get for having the termerity to get a book deal before I do, you little buttwipe. Allow me to pause in my luxurious schadenfreude mudbath just long enough to point out that I am the Ipecac of plagiarism; ask the kid who last semester handed in a paragraph-long assignment--a paragraph--that was word-for-word swiped from the internet. If you can locate him. They're still trying to find the body.

When I first started teaching, I feared that I wouldn't be able to suss out the plagiarists. Turns out it's like porn, or Jason Alexander: You know it when you see it. And sure enough, all the other students had turned things with titles like "Forks Are Good" and "Why Yellow Is Better Than Blue." This kid? "The Effect Of Economic Malaise On Proto-Developed Nations."

So I was slightly suspicious. And when I typed a phrase into Google, it was the first hit. Dude, if you're going to commit academic suicide, at least have some finesse about it. I mean, the child hadn't even changed the font. Somehow that hurt more than the plagiarism; did he think I had not yet heard of the internet, here in Professor World, where I get my eight hours in a coffin that's stored Murphy bed-like in one of the classroom walls? I kicked him out of my class so fast that he achieved orbital velocity.

Now, there's out-and-out retyping, there's accidental ripping, there's "Aw $@*%, I totally thought the same thing, and here somebody else saying it too!" and then there's conversational swiping. To my knowledge, I am guilty of the last two.

As a certified Dave Barry ripoff, I absolutely freak out over committing Offense The Second. I'm in the process of building a career upon stealing his attitude, his format, his technique, and his style, but many's the night I've pulled one of his books from the shelf in a cold sweat: "That comparison between the Stamp Act and the syndication of Dharma and Greg came a liiiiittle too easily. Did he do it first?" He never has, but the panic attack doesn't know that.

There is further hand-wringing where kinda-swiping is concerned, this issue of hearing in everyday conversation, but not reading, something hilarious or perfect and weaving it into your own work. I did a lot of fretful wall-staring, for example, over the following line in a recent article:

"...the official insignia of Walt Disney World should not be a mouse’s ears, but a small child throwing a tantrum."

Okay. I typed those words, but the concept came from Country The Brother In Law's Brother, AKA Jim The Small Child Nephew's Uncle, AKA Julie The NephewMama's Brother-In-Law. The Dork Within who once reported a one-point grade discrepancy on a spelling test wants to give full disclosure. But how do I non-clunkily cite this person within the constraints of a thousand-word article due in twenty minutes? He's not technically family to me, I think he would run screaming if I called him my friend, and yet he's more familiar than That Guy Over There.

The problem is, doesn't format for footnotes. To put the brakes on the article to explain just who the idea came from would clutter the thing up, and also make people think I am hardly as clever as that line makes me appear, which, while accurate, isn't nearly so fun. Is everything else in the article mine? Yes. Do I do this often? No. Do I normally ask permission when I do? Yes. Is it time to take my OCD medication again? Yes. If I had time and space to play with, as I do here, props would have been given. (And so I do it here. Thanks, Justin. Please don't sue me.)

But here's the dirty literary world secret: Nearly every single writer is guilty of this. The fiction people? Do this all the time. Don't ever hold a conversation around a novelist. Basically there's like only one original idea left to the human race, and George Lucas just secured the merchandising rights. Like I was just telling my friend Chuck over the weekend, days like this are the best of times and the worst of times.

ETA after comments: It's interesting to read everyone's reactions to this. Plagiarism is a real OCD mineshaft for me-- I guess because I'm so tough on it with my students. So, I'm pathetically hypersensitive about even avoiding the appearance of it.

For instance, once, I was holding Jim The Small Child Nephew in a restaurant, and the hostess looked at me and said, "Would you like a high chair for the baby?" She clearly thought he was my child. I fell over myself correcting her, although I took it as a high compliment, as I think you'll all agree that he is the most adorable child ever to throw up in his own ear. But my sister and her husband were doing all the work: the labor, the feeding, the spewage, the endless exposure to Elmo's World. So it didn't feel right to enjoy the nicer aspects of parenting-- strangers thinking you've brought into the world this beautiful thing-- because my most important duty relating to him up until that point was to dry off his head after his baptism. In that moment I felt as if I were plagiarizing my sister. Jim is, after all, her creation.

Re: self-plagiarism... I do it to the extent that I will recycle things I've already written, but nothing for paid publication. For instance, elements of the Texas Ranch House post appeared in a column I wrote in college. But that wasn't for a grade or a paycheck, and it's safe to assume nobody out there had read it except for my mommy, so I think that type of thing is kosher. Kind of like a comedian using the same routine for eighty years.

This also leads to the topic of fabrication. Sometimes I "rearrange reality" to make it funnier or more interesting; for instance, the conversation JTP and I had a couple posts ago about Roger didn't go exactly like that... for one thing, I added in the line about Ewan McGregor. (I wish I could add Ewan McGregor to a lot of things.) If I actually had typed out the conversation verbatum, you'd be passed out and drooling on your keyboard by the second line. (What, you think we're actually this amusing in person?) Does this make me James Frey? I don't think so, since it remained true to the spirit of the conversation and accurately expressed our points of view.

Stupid gecko.

please don't hate me, please still read me, or at least get your own, non-plagiarized ChampagneWear at:


mini t said...

Two thoughts about this topic: I have to say that it is a bit disheartening that if this is her first transgression into plagiarism, she will be forever questioned on her future writing. Though the second thought is how stupid can you be? If you're going to blatantly copy another author's work don't use something that has sold a bazillion copies and was made into a movie. If you have found the information so wonderful that you felt the need to copy, someone else probably has too. For God's sake, you got into Harvard. I thought they had smart people there.

kredin said...

Plagiarism is unacceptable. There is no such thing as a smart plagiarist. Don’t do it, stealing is wrong. You’ll go to hell.

Now, there's out-and-out retyping, there's accidental ripping, there's "Aw $@*%, I totally thought the same thing, and here somebody else saying it too!" and then there's converstional swiping.

The first two are definitely out-and-out wrong. Thinking the same thing as someone else isn’t wrong. If you published an article without being aware an identical article was also published it isn’t wrong. It looks bad, but it’s not wrong. The last being “converstional swiping”. Is that supposed to be conversational swiping as in publishing a conversation you overheard or were actively involved in? To me, not wrong.

I’ll keep reading.

Jcat2323 said...

The strangest plagiarism idea to me is the idea of plagiarising yourself. I had a college prof who once tried to explain this when I told him I wanted to expand upon an idea from a previous paper I had written (in high school) for a current assignment. He said I had to site any statements or ideas that came from the first paper, even if they were mine. Huh? I have to site MYSELF? I understand that he didn't want me to just turn in the old paper (which I couldn't have done anyway because the focus was different), but plagiarise yourself? Can you really get in trouble for that or is it just a university scare tactic?

Anonymous said...

As a certified Dave Barry ripoff ... I'm in the process of building a career upon stealing his attitude, his format, his technique, and his style

We'll forgive you, so long as you omit mention of exploding toilets. You had us worried there with the bathroom post, but skirted disaster nicely.

Anonymous said...

Well, jcat, I'm standing here in a university classroom, on the wall of which hangs the school's honor code. To quote: "I will refrain from submitting without authorization work for one class that was obtained from work previously submitted for academic credit in another class." So really, it's about taking shortcuts. At The Womb, the English teachers swapped syllabii so they would catch on if we tried to double-submit.

Scott Arthur Edwards said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
red pill junkie said...

How interesting that in this day and age of Mix & Mash, and Cut & Paste, there are some areas where "stealing" is perfectly natural, like music and movies (Quentin Trantino is the King of rip-off and yes, he even steals from himself!), and in other areas like literature it becomes a scandal.

I believe that creativity comes not from getting this incredible novel idea, which as mb puts it's impossible, but of using an already present idea, twisting it, further develop it, and using it in a very different context. One example of this is the art of Takashi Murakami, he's using all these ideas that come from anime and mangas, and explores them to create something new.

Jill said...

All I have to say about swiping is that as an undergraduate Chemistry major a few years back, try writing a 10 page paper with ORIGINAL thought about something insane like thermodynamic equilibrium. Did I plagiarize? NO. I CITED. I'm blonde too, not Einstein.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
lina the reader said...

I wish I could add Ewan MacGregor to a lot of things, too...

red pill junkie said...

Regarding the update:

Does this mean that when you and Josh get married, poor innocent little Roger will have to leave? Will he be thrown into the wilderness to be the apetizer of some gator or mutant giant python? Will he "accidentally" recreate the trip of Pixar's Nemo? Or will he be entitled to have his own seat at the dinner table on Thanksgiving Day? :-)

topper said...

I think your right MB her writing career is probably over. It would be interesting to know who was the first to notice the similarities in the books. Was it the author she stole from, a keen eyed teeny bopper book fanatic,or an editor with a great memory. I think probably the author because who knows there work better when they see it.

Janet the Reader said...

I loved this. Especially because I find myself 'imitating' your writing style very often in my own little-read blog. Ha.

Anonymous said...

Topper, the whistleblower was Harvard's student newspaper. They were tipped by... somebody, not sure who.

And, thanks Janet :) No, no, don't rip off of me; rip off of The Barry, or humor writing, through copy after copy, will just get paler and blurrier, until we're all British.

Janet the Reader said...

mb: God forbid!

Josh The Pilot said...

Hey RPJ: I'm sad to report that Roger is no longer with us. Shortly after the bathroom episode, I unintentionally killed him while moving him outside to make room for Ewan MacGregor. It seems the stress of having a broken leg plus being caught up in a wad of tissue was too much for Mr. Geico. After I deposited him on the back porch I noticed he didn't scurry away immediately. I figured he was simply checking out his new surroundings. In the morning when I went out on the porch there was a pile of ants covering Roger's body, in the same place and position I left him, and by afternoon there was absolutely nothing left! I PROMISE I will do a better job of taking care of Tink...

red pill junkie said...

A little piece of advise Josh:

Next time you get a new gecko pet, just called him EWAN and all will be fine :-)

Joe Berenguer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Previous Tastings