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How does commentary affect the world around us?

The Plagiarist’s Tale: Cool Commentary or Rampant Ripoff?

A recent New Yorker article covers the rise and fall of a “writer” who published numerous pieces of work that he’d cobbled together from other texts. While this sort of intertextuality might be rewarded when revealed, this “writer’s” downfall was his unwillingness to disclose his sources–his temerity, even, in pretending that he had authored what he’d stolen.

This almost completely plagiarized work was to be published (as an original) by big-name NYC house Little, Brown before the secret identities of its sentences were uncovered. Appropriately enough, the plagiarized work was a spy novel of sorts, and there are (at least) two mysteries here:

  • Why, if publishing is so important (or important at all), is a huge and highly regarded publishing house capable of putting work in front of a series of individuals (agent, editors, marketers, publicists) without recognizing blatant plagiarism evident to internet commenters?
  • What do we call the work of this “writer” who didn’t really write but instead rearranged existing content in an interesting way

You might answer the second question with “curation,” a word that’s frequently tossed around the echoey hallways of the internet as a “profession” of sorts that involves borrowing/excerpting/stealing content from other sources and repurposing it or running it in full on other sites, primarily with the intent of attracting traffic to that site rather than the originating one. Great curation creates great sites (aldaily being one of my favorites) where you can go and explore many little bits of things to see which little bit entices you to read the whole.

Is that, in a sense, what this plagiarized spy novel could have been–a way to turn readers on to obscure thriller writers of the past, shutting down the modern monotonous mystery machine in favor of getting people into libraries, used bookstores, or deeper into ebook content? Perhaps so, if it had been labeled and marketed as such. But perhaps our society isn’t yet ready for such a thing, for a “writer” who just moves around bits of other people’s work (that’s what an editor does, right?) and puts them together in the best possible way.

That type of work, in a sense, may be even harder than creating something from scratch. It requires more finesse, more tightness, more assurance that each disparate piece you’ve grabbed makes a convincing contribution to the whole.

In his essay “Ecstasy of Influence,” writer Jonathan Lethem assembled insights on writerly influence using almost exclusively the words of other writers. In response to the case of the plagiarized mystery novel, Lethem told the New Yorker that such work “is not a lazy man’s game. As someone who sort of did this, it’s an immense amount of work.” Lethem eventually turned his own borrowed essay into a book of essays. What if the “writer” of the spy novel had done the same, and credited each element? Perhaps he’d then be an anthologizer, not an author (though he’s still not the latter, and not really either).

Who knows. But the nature of the internet or the nature of modern society or both of these elements as well as many other elements are combining to turn much of our work into something more collaborative than it used to be. I feel like I was “raised” as a creative writer, to respect the identity and autonomy of the author, and to struggle to create things entirely my own. And I still do this, in some contexts. But in a professional context, almost everything I’ve worked on has featured a large element of collaboration. I’m not necessarily comfortable calling a proposal or a document “mine” when it was edited and contributed to by several others, even if I may have written the majority of the content, or assembled and edited the full document. Who owns such works?

Pair programming is a common practice for developers, and creating content in pairs is more and more often being proposed as an effective way to quickly come up with something creative and effective. So is our society killing the author, or merely reshaping conceptions of authorial identity? I’m not sure yet, but I’d like to move this blog’s scope a bit broader to incorporate that question as well as the question of commentary.

Filed under: Bookselling, Commentary,

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