Jan 15 2008
A lot of questions have been asked over the past week about what is and isn’t plagiarism, and what kinds of standards of attribution we should expect in fiction. While I don’t think readers are necessarily in a position to initiate this discussion, since it was readers who found the similarities between Cassie Edwards’s books and other materials, perhaps we have something to contribute to the larger discussion of what we should be able to expect when we enjoy books in the genre. So I figure that this is as good a place as any to have some dedicated discussion on this issue.
As an academic, I was trained with the highest possible standards of citation and attribution. When academics use the work of others, we must offer acknowledgment for a number of reasons. First, we are demonstrating that we have read the relevant scholarship on any particular topic. We are also honor bound to acknowledge the role that other work has played in the evolution of our own ideas and ethically bound to give proper credit to those whose work bears on, influences, or is in any way used in our own scholarship. The entire academic community operates on an assumption that all of our work is valuable, and we extend attribution to others because none of us could do our work alone. Even, and sometimes especially, it is our greatest opposition that informs a new work (it seems so much easier, that is, to make an argument against something or carve out distinct territory). In any case, scholarship is a conversation, and its participants are supposed to offer each other the basic respect of question and reply, assertion and response, acknowledgment and addition.
Fiction is different, of course, because even though it is often shaped and influenced by other texts (i.e. fairy tales, myths, famous novels, current events, etc.), we give writers of fiction the assumption of "artistic freedom," which includes a fair amount of latitude in how they incorporate the many facets of their world into the construction of their fictional works. Readers may appreciate a richly woven fictional world, but we’re not reading fiction merely to acquire knowledge or gain factual understanding. We see fiction writers in a number of fanciful metaphors – as weavers, bards, mythmakers, visionaries — and we recognize craft as inclusive of both style and content.
In scholarship, by contrast, we don’t often remark on the writing as craft, except, perhaps, when frustrated by particularly arcane ideas or clunky prose. In fiction we don’t often talk of the relevance of scholarship (i.e. did this author consider the latest research on 19th century sideboards in writing this Regency romp). But there is a point of intersection here that is relevant to the issue of plagiarism in fiction: both involve a strong element of creativity and originality, and therefore both implicate a fundamental assumption of integrity in their creation.
Integrity connotes both wholeness and honor, two concepts that are fundamental to the whole notion of intellectual honesty and the violation that is plagiarism. The plagiarist conspires against his fellow writers to claim what they have created as his own, dishonoring his own work and the professional respect among those whose reputations as writers vest in their written work – be they writers of academic scholarship, fiction, poetry, drama, essays, etc. The plagiarist’s transgression exists on a material level (conversion of another’s work) and a philosophical level – a blow against the spirit of the general community of writers and readers.
But plagiarism is merely a remote point along a trajectory of intellectual dishonesty. It is a hard word, necessarily so, because it is a strong indictment. We should use it sparingly and thoughtfully. But at the same time, we should not be afraid of talking about the values of intellectual honesty and creative integrity that we all depend on in determining what plagiarism is and isn’t.
I think sometimes we all take for granted that everyone knows what is and isn’t honest, acceptable, and appropriate in any given type of writing. But clearly that is not the case. In Romance I think this is especially important, because there is already a perception that its authors are working with a limited tableau of available characters, conflicts, and plots. This is particularly in historical Romance, where a fictional world is made richer through allusive links to secondary research. But it also applies to contemporary Romance, where a physicist heroine might know more than the average reader about quantum mechanics or quarks. If there are rules, they cannot be so steadfast as to stifle creativity nor so limp as to disrespect the originality and creativity of others’ writing.
Writing is a persuasive art. Whether an author is trying to convince me to accept her theory on the social importance of 18th century bell makers or to suspend my disbelief and fall deeply in love with the portrait she’s created of forbidden love in 18th century Philadelphia, she is engaged in persuading me to see things her way. She is persuading me, indirectly, perhaps, to defer to the authority of her voice. And I want to be able to trust that it is her voice I hear, even if she has been listening to other voices in preparation to tell her story. That, to me, is the baseline of intellectual integrity I expect from any writer of anything. Whatever rules are placed above that, all the way out to the professional transgression of plagiarism, are for the community to fashion. But I don’t see how they can effective as professional guidelines if they do not inspire mutual respect and shared trust among all members of the genre community. And that, I would hope, is where we can always begin and end, whether in discussion of these issues or in action as readers or writers, editors or publishers.
So tell me: where do we go from here?