I‘m a so-so writer, but I’ve never been even slightly tempted to plagiarize. There’s the integrity thing, of course. There’s also the certainty of getting caught, in the age of the Internet and in the fullness of time. All in all, I’ve considered it way too much to risk for the dim promise of unearned praise.
But that was when it was still called plagiarism. Now that we refer to it as “mixing,” maybe I can rethink these stodgy principles. Why should I not stand on the shoulders of giants? Surely my next short story could benefit from a paragraph or two from William Faulkner, a bit of dialogue from Elmore Leonard, an evocative description of a sunset from James Lee Burke. Alloyed in the crucible of my own elusive genius, it might be the best thing I’ve ever done.
Or it might be just pathetic. That’s sort of how I view the case of 17-year-old Helene Hegemann. She not only lifts entire pages from someone else’s work for her critically acclaimed book, but she shrugs off any suggestion that this might be wrong: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” she says. Easy to say if your first book is being hailed as a work of staggering genius, stolen passages and all.
I don’t get this. Somehow, people see it as a mitigating factor that she stole from a writer more obscure than herself. If she’d served up a page of, say, Kurt Vonnegut or John Steinbeck, that would be wrong. But since she ripped off some poor schmuck whose royalties don’t cover the groceries, it’s OK. Message: It takes an literary lioness to place somebody else’s writing in the proper context. And then claim credit for it.
This is the sort of phenomenon we can expect with the rise of the Web 2.0 generation: Steal it, mash it up, and call it better. Fine. But what happens when there’s nothing original left to steal?