Philip Hensher: There's nothing wrong with plagiarism

Not everyone does it, but a lot of writers do; after all, you learn from your predecessors
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So one of the most recent examples, Judith Kelly's Rock Me Gently, was doing quite well after its publication by Bloomsbury. It claims to be a story of the author's experiences in a school run by Catholic nuns in Sussex in the 1950s. There is some good writing in it; here, for instance, is a paragraph about the beginnings of religious doubt:

"'But you believe, don't you?' I implored her. 'You think it's true.' 'Of course it's true. What else could there be?' she went on scornfully. 'Because it's the only thing that fits ...' 'And Heaven too,' I said with anxiety."

Certainly good writing: but it's not by Ms Kelly. It is, almost word for word, a paragraph from Graham Greene's Brighton Rock - an incredibly famous paragraph, too.

Ms Kelly's borrowings came to light when Hilary Mantel gave a reading at the Cambridge Literary Festival. An astute member of the audience asked her if she had read Ms Kelly's book. Mantel had not, but went away and did so. She was alarmed to find 10 points in Kelly's book which, in her view, were taken directly from her own books Fludd and Learning to Talk.

They are certainly strikingly similar sequences. From Fludd: "'I could drink sleep,' she said, 'I could eat it. I could roll around in my dreams like a pig in mud'." From Rock Me Gently: "Now I could drink sleep. I could eat it. I could roll around in my dreams like a pig in mud."

Patient readers have discovered other, very direct, borrowings from Jane Eyre and Antonia White's Frost in May. Mantel wrote in complaint to Bloomsbury, who said that Kelly was a writer with an exceptional memory, who had inadvertently included passages she remembered. Mantel thought this inadequate, and drew the case to public attention. At present, Bloomsbury has abandoned plans for a paperback edition of the book.

It seems quite a straightforward case of plagiarism. And, certainly, it is wrong for Kelly to acquire passages from works of fictional literature and present it as her own experience. When Kelly writes that at one point, 45 out of 60 girls had fallen prey to a virulent infection, we may doubt that it ever happened, since the paragraph appears to be lifted straight out of Jane Eyre.

But is it always wrong for a writer to purloin a good phrase, or to draw consciously or unconsciously on predecessors? Martin Amis has written of his embarrassment when a reader complimented him on a brilliant phrase, when he wrote that his "eyes were smarting in the mineral wind". In fact, he'd borrowed it from Saul Bellow.

It's a very common thing for writers to do. Pride and Prejudice, as a phrase, is not Jane Austen's invention; she swiped it from Fanny Burney. There are passages of Paradise Lost which are basically patchworks of great literature, or, in the technical term, a cento. Some of Oscar Wilde's bon mots were, notoriously, taken straight from things Whistler had said. Evelyn Waugh complained loudly when Henry Green's Doting lifted the device of little Lord Tangent's death from Decline and Fall; he had perhaps forgotten how much his own novel had borrowed from Firbank.

I've certainly done it, though never with the intention of passing a borrowing off; I always thought there was a pleasure for the reader in spotting an allusion, though it's sometimes been embarrassing to have to explain to a reader that a touch in a short story they particularly admired was, in fact, a minor theft from Tolstoy. And the process goes on; I was amused to read some original phrases by me in a much-admired novel published last year, and didn't mind at all.

Not everyone does it, but a lot of writers do; after all, you learn from your predecessors. And Bloomsbury's original response to Mantel's complaint has a lot of plausibility about it; striking phrases do have a habit of sticking in the mind. Indeed, it's no criticism of Mantel to remember that 10 years ago she published a novel, An Experiment in Love which, when I read it, struck me as a deliberate homage to Muriel Spark's The Girls of Slender Means. She didn't borrow phrases in the way Kelly has done; but the echoes, the setting and the atmosphere were unmistakably close.

Stravinsky was right when he said "Talent borrows: genius steals." A composer, whose craft rests on borrowing and recasting material, would find this case strange. How many composers before Mozart had used the theme of the Jupiter symphony's finale? We are forgiving, too, of the borrowings poets make; no one has ever seriously complained about the thefts, obvious and covert, in The Waste Land.

Prose is slightly different, and particularly anything claiming the virtue of truth. Doubts are cast on the value of reportage when it turns out to be someone else talking about a completely different situation. Kelly's mistake was in using her borrowings to make exactly the same point as the original author did. It just looks abject and dishonest to pass off moments of brilliant imagination as personal experience. Had she had the wit to write a novel, not a memoir; to use her favourite sequences perversely, not faithfully; well, there's no reason why such a book couldn't be extremely good.