Thursday, January 11, 2007

Finally, someone is doing some thinking

Meghan O'Rourke in Slate considers plagiarism, and finally draws at least some contrast between Ian McEwan and Kaavya Viswanathan.

O'Rourke's argument, in a nutshell:
Behind the talk of originality lurks another preoccupation, less plainly voiced: a concern about the just distribution of labor. In plenty of instances of so-called plagiarism, what bothers us isn't so much a lack of originality as the fact that the plagiarizer has stolen someone else's work—the time it took to write the words or do the necessary research. The cribbed student essay—which Posner views as a particularly insidious form of plagiarism, committed by approximately one-third of high-school and college students—isn't an academic crime because a C student has tried to pass himself as a Matthew Arnold in the making. It's an academic crime because the student who buys his thesis from a paper mill has shirked the labor that his fellow students actually perform.

What really bothers us about plagiarism isn't the notion of influence itself, but the notion that a piece of writing has been effortless for the thief in question. Instead of worrying whether writers who borrow from other artists are fakers, perhaps we should be asking if they're slackers. It might make it easier to decide which kinds of influence to condone and which to condemn.

I think that O'Rourke raises a good point, but I still can't totally agree that someone who buys a term paper online has only committed a sin of laziness. McEwan's borrowing demonstrates that originality and attribution in fiction are troublesome things to quantify—How much borrowing is too much? How many words in phrase? How much of the structure of a plot?—but the world of nonfiction is somewhat different. Ideas and arguments can and should be traced and attributed. It is no sin to adopt and expand upon someone else's idea unless you pass it off as your own.

1 comment:

Tim said...

I'd extend O'Rourke's argument even further. What we really dislike about plagiarism isn't lack of originality or the theft of someone else's work. It's whether or not the plagiarizer benefits in some tangible way from the theft.

I'll pick an example near and dear to my heart: badly imitative and often boldly plagiarized creative writing. Outside the context of either work for a class (where you could get a better grade without work) or publication (especially where you can get paid), juvenile plagiarism, like Walt's lifting of Pink Floyd lyrics for his high school talent show in The Squid and the Whale, is basically a victimless crime. It's psychologically problematic, and you want people to grow out of it both morally and ethically, but it's eminently forgivable.

In The Squid and the Whale, the problem stems from the fact that he wins an award, while really he just wanted to impress his parents and maybe his classmates (later, his father's student). But I still think that if Kaavya Viswanathan's plagiarism had just won her a gift certificate rather than a half-million dollar book advance, we'd all take it quite a bit less seriously. Ditto with McEwan, whose Atonement won him a National Book Critics Circle Award and a film deal. (Apparently Keira Knightley's playing Celia, and Brenda Blethyn's playing Grace -- Briony, the character McEwan borrowed, will be played by Saoirse Ronan and Romola Garai.)

This suggests that at least part of our moral outrage boils down to jealousy at unjust desserts: they got that without doing the work? But it suggests, or at least intimates, that there's a formula by which we can judge the morality of acts of plagiarism or near-plagiarism: effort divided by benefit. Viswanathan, who seems to have benefited a good deal more than the typical college freshman for a college-freshman act of plagiarism requiring very little effort, is correspondingly low on the ethical scale.

This also suggests that McEwan, who seems to have done at least slightly more work and made a more forthright (if not totally exculpatory) acknowledgement of his literary borrowing, has a clear path if he wants to skyrocket his moral score into the free and clear. If he's really serious about acknowledging his influences, and that film deal gave him serious bank, he should give that money away.