Beg, Borrow, or...

While plagiarism accusations fly, the crime gets harder to define

Published July 22, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

What airline disaster stories are to pilots, articles about plagiarism are to most working writers: secular-sacred texts to be studied, worried over, and picked apart for ominous clues. (Could this happen to me?) Like disaster stories, too, tales of plagiarism can be oddly cathartic. Not because there's a whiff of schadenfreude involved -- but simply because the rest of us working stiffs get to lean back in our chairs afterward, have a second cup of coffee, refold the morning newspaper and thank our lucky gleaming stars that (unlike Ruth Shalit) our computer files haven't begun mysteriously swapping our own sentences with David Broder's.

Plagiarism, in its various guises, is certainly nothing new -- instances date back to Lawrence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy" (1760) and beyond. Nor is it a particularly endangered intellectual trick. As Christopher Hitchens put it in his Vanity Fair column a few months ago, "An enterprising editor could probably appoint a special correspondent to cover plagiarism, and see the poor guy or gal worked to death."

Over the last several months, however, cases of alleged plagiarism have been sprouting up so rapidly that it would probably take an entire SWAT team of agile reporters to keep tabs on them all. Among those recently accused -- of very different forms and levels of theft -- are such disparate talents as Deepak Chopra, novelist/editor Jay Parini, Shalit, David Leavitt, Julio Iglesias, and (in the current Altlantic Monthly) Jay McInerney. It is impossible to tell, in most of these instances, whether lasting harm has been done to careers or reputations. But one thing is clear: When accusations of plagiarism are leveled in public, the resulting crashes can be spectacular.

Entire careers are often left in the smoldering rubble. When Jacob Epstein, a promising young novelist -- and the son of Random House editorial director Jason Epstein and New York Review of Books co-editor Barbara Epstein -- was found to have skimmed large sections of his first novel "Wild Oats" (1979) from Martin Amis's "The Rachel Papers" (1974), he was all but permanently exiled to literary Siberia. When Janet Cooke confessed to fabricating her 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post story about an 8-year-old heroin addict -- not plagiarism exactly, but something akin to it -- she was remaindered to a different kind of Siberia. A GQ writer recently caught up with her in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she is working for $6 per hour in the Liz Claiborne boutique of a Hudson's department store.

Plagiarism isn't homicide, but as Michael Arlen once put it in a New York Times Op-Ed piece (quoted in Thomas Mallon's fine 1989 study of plagiarism, "Stolen Words"), the consequences can be nearly as steep. "Each day, citizens bludgeon other citizens with ballpeen hammers, or set fire to seniors, or whatever," Arlen wrote, "and in return often receive the most modest of penalties." But unlike plagiarists, he continued, such delinquents rarely "have their faces plastered on the front page of The New York Times."

While plagiarists aren't violent felons, however, most editors and media critics tend to speak about their crimes in absolutist, zero-tolerance terms. ("If you're a soldier, you don't desert," James Fallows barked in the Columbia Journalism Review last year. "If you're a writer, you don't steal anyone's prose. It should be the one automatic firing.") But with stories about literary and cultural theft increasingly in the news, it's worth taking a closer look at some recent examples, if only to uncover what we're really talking about when we talk about plagiarism. This is particularly true in this slippery postmodern era, where "sampling," "collage" and "homage" are handy cultural tools, where thinkers like Roland Barthes question the very notion of an author's ability to "own" a book or essay, and where the Internet is tinkering with our most bedrock assumptions about intellectual property.

"Our thinking about plagiarism is really quite primitive," says Thomas Mallon, whose "Stolen Words" explored alleged cases of plagiarism from Coleridge to TV's "Falcon Crest." "We're still asking ourselves: 'What exactly is it? Is it twenty words here, or fifty words there?' And there is no sliding scale. People are often punished very disproportionately, particularly in academia. Some professors have their careers killed for offenses that are somewhat mild, compared to offenses by others that have been let slip by."

The Case of the Pilfering Poet

Some cases of plagiarism are more clear-cut -- and wackier -- than others. One of the more outrageous sagas of literary theft in recent years is detailed in a forthcoming book titled "Words for the Taking" (Norton), by the poet and Iowa State professor of English Neal Bowers. Subtitled "The Hunt for a Plagiarist," the book details Bowers' discovery that someone was copying many of his poems, pasting new titles on them, and successfully (re)submitting them to literary magazines. In all, nearly two dozen of Bowers' poems, under a variety of pseudonyms, found their way into print.

As anyone who's published in small magazines knows, this kind of forgery is no route to riches. But for Bowers, that fact made the thefts no less disconcerting; the personal nature of having one's words -- particularly, perhaps, one's poetry -- appropriated by another "writer" left him feeling queasy.

"I wasn't the only one he was stealing from," Bowers says. "He also took poems from Mark Strand and Sharon Olds. But I was his favorite. It has been very eerie to realize that this obvious sociopath is drawn to my work. He is not exactly the kind of fan I would hope for."

With the help of a hired detective, Bowers has put together a virtual FBI file about the plagiarist, who nonetheless remains at large. (Bowers believes he is currently living in Germany.) Most recently, Bowers adds, the same man has been submitting Ethan Canin's well-known short story "The Emperor of Air" to various magazines under a pseudonym, but without bothering to change the title. "Some editors told me about this, and we tried to lay a trap for him and get him to come out," Bowers says. "It didn't work."

Canin feels more sanguine about the attempted theft. "The bottom line is that it doesn't bother me much. It's flattering. No one died. As problems go I'd rank it pretty low on the list."

Like many victims of plagiarism, however, Bowers feels somewhat sullied by the entire experience. "I find him fascinating," Bowers says. "But it's like he's pulled me into this dirty tunnel. I keep crawling along the bottom with him."

And Bowers has another fear, one that Thomas Mallon says prevents many victims of plagiarism from coming forward at all. "Years later," Mallon says, "all anyone tends to remember is you and the word 'plagiarism.' People just don't remember which side you were on."

The Five-Finger "Homage"

If instances of literary plagiarism go back to Coleridge and "Tristram Shandy," they're not showing any signs of abating now. In the last few decades, among the many novelists who have been accused of plagiarism are Alex Haley, who paid $650,000 to two writers who sued him for using their work in "Roots," and D.M. Thomas, whose career has fizzled since he was accused of using plagiarized material in his novel "The White Hotel."

Similarly, Julian Barnes recently took some hits for dropping a smart line from James Joyce's "Ulysses" -- "A pier is a disappointed bridge" -- into his novel "Flaubert's Parrot," and the writer Alexander Theroux was accused of borrowing passages of his acclaimed nonfiction book "The Primary Colours" from an earlier, out-of-print book called "Song of the Sky," by Guy Murchie. (That revelation also brought out earlier accusations -- as these cases often do -- against Theroux, notably that he had taken unattributed material from Gail Levin's book "Hopper's Places" for a 1990 piece about painter Edward Hopper in Art & Antiques, and that he had borrowed from Newsweek writer Steven Levy's book "Hackers" for a 1986 piece about nerds for the now-defunct New England Monthly.)

More notably, perhaps, the young novelist David Leavitt was put in the center of a swirling lit-world scandal when the English writer Stephen Spender objected to the liberal use Leavitt made, in his novel "Leaving England," of Spender's autobiography, "World Within World." (Spender particularly resented Leavitt's added sex scenes.) As the critic Alain De Botton put it in The New Republic, Leavitt's book is a "shameless copy" of Spender's story -- and Leavitt has since issued a heavily edited version of his novel.

And in this month's Atlantic Monthly, Charles Thompson takes a mighty swat at Jay McInerney's new novel "The Last of the Savages," accusing it of containing "an uncanny series of likenesses [unacknowledged in McInerney's text] to Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel 'All the King's Men.'" While Thompson stops short of calling McInerney a plagiarist, he picks up quite a rolling head of steam anyway:

Occasionally. . . a work comes along in which the motivation for literary cap-tipping seems less straightforward. In such a work, references and passages found in a previously published volume are echoed so insistently as to leave the reader wondering whether the similarities constitute a deliberate though unacknowledged homage -- or not.

Thompson goes on to note the multiple similarities -- mostly in terms of plot, not actual language -- between McInerney's novel and "All the King's Men." "Was nobody supposed to notice?" he asks. "Are the parallels a matter of sheer coincidence -- just one of those things?"

Thompson clearly doesn't think so, but ultimately, like so many plagiarism hunters who smell mendacity in the air, he stops short of a firm j'accuse. His piece merely ends with a few remarks about McInerney's prose, which he finds has "all the sparkle of a parking ticket."

For many readers, Deepak Chopra's self-help tomes are kid's books of a sort already. But they've clearly left some playground denizens feeling burned. As a recent article in the Weekly Standard pointed out, the self-styled guru was accused last year of plagiarizing portions of his book "Ageless Body, Timeless Mind" from Dan Georgakas's book "The Methuselah Factor." Chopra has blamed editing errors, and says correct attribution will appear in new editions of the book. Now, according to the Standard, Chopra "appears to have plagiarized a second time" in the same book -- from a textbook titled "Behavioral Endocrinology" by Robert M. Sapolsky. Sapolsky is said to be considering litigation. Deep trouble for Deepak.

My Computer Made Me Do It

In the journalistic world, plagiarism can (almost) seem like a shrewd career move -- particularly if Mallon is correct when he notes that, a few years down the line, people have forgotten which side you were on. Consider the example of the 25-year-old New Republic writer Ruth Shalit, whose fame has grown exponentially with each revelation -- there are now five known examples -- that she has borrowed from unattributed sources. Her name now percolates through the culture so freely that you wonder if plagiarizing won't soon be referred to as "pulling a Shalit."

The very talented Shalit has blamed inadvertent computer miscues for her troubles; she claims she has confused files of her own notes with files of notes taken from other sources. (In a late-breaking development, the San Francisco Chronicle has been using a similar explanation in response to questions about a

new plagiarism flap:

new plagiarism flap:

How did twelve paragraphs from a Washington Post Book World review of a biography of Jesse Jackson end up in Chronicle editor Dean Wakefield's later review of the same book?) The odd thing about the sentences Shalit has ripped off, however, is how banal most of them are -- it's clear she didn't need to borrow them.

Mallon, who won't comment directly on Shalit's situation (both he and Shalit are under contract at GQ), does note that "one element of the crime of plagiarism is that often the person does not need what he or she steals." Mallon compares this kind of plagiarism to Bess Meyerson's kleptomania; it's an upscale crime, a kind of suburban pathology. Compulsion comes in many forms; as often as not, the plagiarist is as accomplished a writer as the person he or she steals from.

For many observers, one of the most interesting questions journalism has to offer in what's left of the 1990s is whether Shalit can or will be successfully rehabilitated. She remains on the masthead at The New Republic and at GQ, where editor Art Cooper has a quixotic commitment to throwing life rafts to accused plagiarists. After his magazine ran a riveting profile of Janet Cooke in June ("I want my life back," the chastened Cooke said), Cooper made some public noises about how he'd consider giving her assignments in the future.

Many other accused plagiarists have been able to get on with their lives. Elizabeth Wurtzel ("Prozac Nation") went on to become music critic for New York magazine and The New Yorker after being fired for plagiarism from The Dallas Morning News. And at The New York Times, Boston bureau chief Fox Butterfield was given a mere one week suspension after plagiarizing several paragraphs from a Boston Globe article about -- irony of ironies -- a Boston University Dean who was caught plagiarizing in his commencement address.

Unlike Wurtzel, Butterfield, who is a gifted reporter, wasn't exactly wet behind the ears when caught with his hand in the journalistic cookie jar. Should we be more willing to give a young writer a second chance? According to National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg, the answer is yes. When Totenberg was in the spotlight for her revelations about Clarence Thomas during the Thomas-Hill hearings, a writer in the Wall Street Journal unearthed plagiarism charges against her that dated back to 1972. (Totenberg had allegedly lifted several paragraphs from a Washington Post story and dropped them into a piece she was writing about former House Speaker Tip O'Neill for the now-defunct National Observer.)

"I have a strong feeling," Totenberg later told the Columbia Journalism Review, "that a young reporter is entitled to one mistake and to have the holy bejeezus scared out of her to never do it again."

Those Pesky Gray Areas

It's tempting to believe Florence King, the den mother of Southern-fried conservatives, who quipped in her National Review column last year that "Academic plagiarism is the easiest to pull off because bad writers stick together." (Maybe that's why it took decades for anyone to figure out that Martin Luther King had significantly plagiarized his doctoral dissertation at Boston University in the early 1950s.) In truth, however, colleges and intellectual journals have provided some of the more perplexing accusations of plagiarism of late.

Take the case of Middlebury College professor Jay Parini -- with whom, I should mention, I (happily) took several courses in the late 1980s -- recently accused of what the academic journal Lingua Franca terms "anthological plagiarism." The charges stem from an article by Eliot Weinberger, a fellow anthologist and a translator of Octavio Paz, in a small journal called Sulfur. Weinberger claims (somewhat convincingly) that Parini's new "Columbia Anthology of American Poetry" was largely cobbled together from existing anthologies -- in other words, that Parini did relatively little original research, instead selecting poems that others had already plucked from the woodpile.

"I kind of chuckled when I read the piece," Parini told Lingua Franca's Emily Nussbaum. "My response is basically, mea culpa, but I don't consider it a sin." Apparently Lingua Franca doesn't consider it much of a sin, either. As Nussbaum asks at one point: "What's the big deal?" Nothing, maybe. And Parini's certainly shouldn't be a career-squelching crime. Editors (as well as writers) cannot simply pretend that earlier work did not exist; the question is perhaps more of proper attribution. In an academic arena, however, where students are routinely expelled for lifting work from other sources, Parini's "mea culpa" does perhaps seem a little too breezy.

It's going to become increasingly difficult, one suspects, for college students to get away with the sloppy, "Cliffs Notes R Us" variety of pilfering many have grown used to. While bogus term-paper "research" services are proliferating (check the classifieds in Rolling Stone), and many professors fret that students won't acknowledge material they download from the Internet, companies such as Glatt Plagiarism Services in Sacramento have begun offering something called "computerized plagiarism detection."

Similarly, Donald Foster, professor of English at Vassar, has used a computer program to identify -- to the satisfaction, thus far, of most experts -- an unattributed poem of Shakespeare's. And at New York magazine's request, Foster ran a program that sniffed out Newsweek columnist Joe Klein as the probable "Anonymous" behind the best-selling novel "Primary Colors." (Last week Klein finally admitted that he was indeed Anonymous.) If Foster's computer can "out" Joe Klein, you can bet his students will think twice before lifting paragraphs from such notoriously easy-to-pilfer library volumes as "Twentieth Century Literary Criticism." Here comes the academic robocop.

Making Things Up

Sometimes, as in Janet Cooke's case, writers are accused not of plagiarism but simply of Making Things Up. Most often, this takes the form of fabricating ("piping," in the lingo) quotes -- as Janet Malcolm was famously accused of doing in her New Yorker profile of psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson.

One of the most interesting recent manifestations of writers Making Things Up has been watching some of the classics of the so-called New Journalism of the 1960s and '70s begin to unravel. In a recent New York Times article, the writer Nik Cohn admitted to a reporter that he'd made up his famous 1976 New York magazine cover story about a Brooklyn disco -- the story that later became the basis for the movie "Saturday Night Fever." (Cohn called the article's protagonist, who became John Travolta's Tony Manero in the film, a "total fabrication.") Similarly, the Times noted that New York magazine's food critic, Gael Greene, had been caught making up a composite prostitute character in a 1971 story she wrote for the magazine. Give New Journalists an inch, you can almost hear James Fallows intoning already, and they'll take a yard.

I've Heard That Song Before

Plagiarism is clearly a hotly debated issue, and not only in the literary world. Among the musicians who've recently been accused of creative theft are Julio Iglesias, the band Offspring, and Luis Bacalov, who won an Oscar for his music in the film "Il Postino." Although each denied the accusations, Iglesias recently agreed to pay another musician $350,000 just hours before, according to a Rueters account, Argentine authorities were due to enforce the public sale of his million-dollar ranch. (It's a case that harkens back to that of George Harrison, who had to hand a wad of cash over to the Chiffons after a court deemed that his 1971 hit "My Sweet Lord" owed a bit too much to the earlier group's "He's So Fine.")

Perhaps charges of plagiarism are so much with us now because we've simply become more tetchy and litigious. Or maybe it's that, as Mallon observes, the cultural ground is rapidly shifting beneath us. "With the technical and online revolutions," he says, "the issues are getting muddier. Our sense of vagueness is increasing."

Mallon calls for "common sense and flexibility" when it comes to punishing convicted plagiarists. "I mean, if you rip off an entire production -- someone else's column, let's say -- I don't see why you should be given a second chance," he says. "But there are a lot of gray areas before you get to that level." And those gray areas are expanding.

In any event, the current spate of highly publicized plagiarism cases has a lot of writers watching their backs -- probably a healthy phenomenon. Because as Mark Twain once put it, "Adam was the only man who, when he said a good thing, knew that nobody had said it before him."

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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