Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism

In case you hadn’t noticed, the publishing world is ga-ga over E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that was born as an erotica fan-fiction derivative of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series.

Take a moment to soak up that sentence, by the way, because it’s likely the last time we’ll touch on either of those series in this space. But it should work wonders on the search engines, and it does give us a timely segue into the juicy topic of plagiarism. Yes, that’s right- not even the high-brow world of classic literature is immune to charges of literary larceny. Consider the following:

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is said to have ripped off two 1920s sci-fi novels (The City of the Sun & The Honeymoon Trip of Mr. Hamilton) by Polish author Mieczyslaw Smolarski. I don’t speak Polish, but in the Slavic language I do  speak, “smola” means bad luck. Based on the relative fame and success of mssrs Huxley and Smolarski, I’d say the Polish author was appropriately named.

Oscar Wilde privately admitted to lifting from J.K. Huysman’s A Rebours, telling fellow author Max Beerbohm “Of course I plagiarize. It’s the privilege of the appreciative man.” That’s a bit like telling someone “Of course I stole your shirt. I liked it very much. You’re a man of fine taste, sir.”

Wallace Stegner found himself embroiled in a plagiarism scandal when his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Angle of Repose  was criticized by descendents of Mary Hallock Foote, a woman whose letters and memoirs inspired the novel and were mixed with Stegner’s original narrative to create it. In this case, I think I stand with Stegner, since he’s operating in a bit of a grey area. For one thing, he was working with one of Foote’s descendents, who gave him permission to do what he did. For another, he offered to let her read the full manuscript, which she refused. Now, were some of the excerpts a little longer than he originally promised? Sure. But they’re also the weakest part of the book, as I’ve observed here.

Here’s one final example, brought to our attention by Readthe100. It’s one I’ll pass on to you without judgment. (In other words, I’d love to hear what you, the readers, think about it):

Did T.S. Eliot bogart “The Wasteland” from, well… “The Wasteland?”


  1. One of my favorites, and one that would easily slip under your radar (given the authors) are The Ladies of Missalonghi by Colleen McCullough as originally written by L.M. Montgomery (The Blue Castle). The only difference is that McCullough's rendition is slightly racier. McCullough, when confronted with the egregious plagiarism declared it unintentional and an ultimate compliment to Montgomery, that her lovely little tale would impact her so.

    1. And LM Montgomery, in turn, ripped off Kate Douglas' novel _Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm_ when she wrote her best known novel, _Anne of Green Gables_.

  2. Ah, so Ms. McCullough's in the Oscar Wilde school of plagiarism.

    A good addition.

  3. "Smoła" doesnt mean bad luck, just "tar"