Watch out, there's a plagiarist about

To label the novelist Graham Swift a copycat, as an Australian professor has, is naive. But literary theft goes on; and often it signals some deep personal distress on the part of the perpetrator . By Boyd Tonkin
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The Independent Online
Graham Swift is innocent, OK. The literary world has closed ranks over the past 48 hours to defend last year's Booker Prize winner against an Australian professor's allegations that he lifted the plot and form of his novel Last Orders from William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. How silly of John Frow (the party line now runs) to fret about the game of echoes and reflections that all good writers play with their predecessors. The Russian critic Vladimir Propp even proposed that all stories could be rendered down into one of seven archetypes, with golden oldies such as Cinderella or Romeo and Juliet turning up time and again across centuries and continents.

End of story? Not quite. Swift, indeed, has nothing to apologise for save the woeful ignorance of reviewers who failed to spot some conspicuous nods towards a landmark of American fiction. But literary borrowing isn't always so benign. As John Sutherland, professor of English at University College, London, stresses, "There is a distinction between the innocent and the guilty plagiarist. The innocent ones fall into categories. There are the idiots, who can't tell the difference between meum and tuum. There are the sloppy note-takers who forget the source of ideas. Then there are writers who possess a photographic memory" - and who unconsciously splice passages from others' work into their own.

Among the "sloppy note-takers", one famous example involves the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid's political and scientific epic "The Raised Beach". Parts of the poem consist of extracts from a prose story by the Welsh writer Rhys Davies. MacDiarmid admitted the connection, but attributed the borrowings to his failure to record the source of notebook jottings from decades ago.

The unconscious memory of other works spawns even more examples of pseudo- plagiarism. In 1995, PD James had to rebut suggestions of copying after critics spotted similarities between her best-selling thriller Original Sin, and another whodunnit set in a publishing house, End of Chapter by Cecil Day-Lewis. Baroness James recalled that she had read the former poet laureate's book about 25 years before writing her own, but denied any conscious debt to it. Ian McEwan's 1978 novel The Cement Garden has uncanny parallels to a work of 15 years earlier, Julian Gloag's Our Mother's House. McEwan refuted the idea that he had knowingly taken ingredients from the earlier text, but unconscious memory may have played a part in shaping the undoubted similarities.

Authors who recklessly jump to the conclusion that they have smoked out a guilty plagiarist may sometimes come to grief. In 1992 David Lodge accused a writer of Mills and Boon romances, Pauline Harris, of stealing central elements from his novel Nice Work in a book called The Iron Master. Mills and Boon sacked her from its team of regular contributors. Harris stated that she had never read Nice Work and successfully sued for libel. Lodge eventually pronounced his rival "completely innocent of plagiarism". What made Lodge's accusation such a salutary case was the fact that both novels drew for their inspiration on Mrs Gaskell's North and South. Kinship did exist, but merely in the form of a common ancestor who died in 1865.

The truly guilty plagiarists, on the other hand, often use their thefts to signal some underlying personal distress. John Sutherland notes that, "because it involves publication, they often want to be caught. It's often a cry for help, rather like the pensioner caught shoplifting".

Soon after the young American writer Jacob Epstein published a novel called Wild Oats, Martin Amis wrote an article which identified material he claimed was drawn from his 1973 debut The Rachel Papers in more than 50 passages. Amis's subsequent search for redress never reached court, although Epstein did offer an apology. The mystifying aspect to this case concerns Epstein's background. Far from being some provincial hick without a clue about the jealous ways of the publishing world, he came from an eminent New York literary family acquainted with the Amises themselves. His father managed Random House and his mother edited the New York Review of Books. Detection and controversy were guaranteed.

In the wake of the affair, Epstein abandoned fiction and went to Hollywood. He flourished there as a producer in a trade that takes a more relaxed view of blatant rip-offs. (The affronted Amis, by the way, published his London Fields in 1989 without knowing that a novel with that title already existed.)

So real plagiarists not only fail to get away with their literary larcenies. They often seem to expect exposure and condemnation. In an extraordinary recent case, the American poet and critic Neal Bowers found himself the victim of a poetic "stalker". Between 1992 and 1994, a convicted paedophile and former primary school teacher who called himself David Jones or David Sumner passed off two of Bowers' poems as his own at least 20 times. He secured their acceptance in 19 separate US poetry journals as part of a career of literary fraud that also involved the theft of work by well-known poets such as Sharon Olds and Mark Strand.

As the Iowa-based Bowers writes in a new book about his hunt for the plagiarist, Words for the Taking, neither money nor very much prestige attached to these deceptions. As a poet, he thought himself immune to plagiarism and believed that "The poverty of the art itself was my guarantee of safety. Why would anyone steal a poem when the price it commands on the open market varies from a single free contributor's copy to several dollars a line?"

The answer might include the need to be unmasked and then to confess. Once rumbled, Sumner/Jones eventually offered his fulsome apologies. He wrote to Bowers that "In a perfect world an artist like you - a creator of beauty - should never have to come in contact with such an ugliness as me."

In the light of Bowers' later discoveries about the plagiarist's criminal record, it's hard not to see this mea culpa as a sort of transferred attempt at expiation. Acquitted in two trials on apparent technicalities, Sumner/Jones finally went to prison for six months in 1986 on sexual abuse charges, with six months' further parole. Even his parole officer called this "a very slight punishment for the crime of abusing seven-year old girls". Unable to atone properly for molesting his second-grade students at a school in Oregon, Sumner seems to have shifted his sense of guilt on to what looked like a much lesser offence. In his story - which may be typical of malicious plagiarists - the intent to deceive seems to run in parallel with the hidden longing for exposure.

As Bowers explains, the sense of violation and anxiety that his poetic "stalker" generated proved to be traumatic for the victim. But, far from sympathising with his plight, academic colleagues often mocked his quest. They came up with tricksy theoretical excuses for the plagiarist. Some even claimed that "my insistence on ownership was a denial of the communal nature of art".

Tell that to a copyright lawyer. Bowers concludes that his multiple thief "benefited from the contemporary intellectual climate" that belittles originality as a Romantic myth and hails instead the emergent culture of clones and multiples.

That climate has led some academics to assume that only the most naive reader would object to heavy-duty literary borrowing. On the contrary: genuinely aggrieved writers such as Amis and Bowers have every right to safeguard their property. The theorists may decide that there's nothing new under the sun, and that authors must never claim to "own" their words. But, as so often, the new postmodernists make a common cause with the old philistines, the scoffers who don't much care if creators are fleeced, because writing isn't proper work and so merits no legal protection. Graham Swift has no case to answer - but sophisticated critics should remember that one acquittal doesn't nullify the lawn

'Words for the Taking: the hunt for a plagiarist', by Neal Bowers (WW Norton, pounds 12.95).