"THE originals," wrote Emerson, "are not original." Byron took a similar line: "As to originality, all pretensions to it are ludicrous - there is nothing new under the sun." Kipling repeated the thought in verse:
When 'Omer smote 'is bloomin' lyre
He'd heard men sing by land an' sea;
An' what he thought 'e might require,
'E went an' took - the same as me!
That Homer stole, that the first ideas weren't the first ideas, that all writers are condemned merely to repeat: this is both depressing and consolatory. Depressing, because few artists can happily accept the role of clone or copyist: if we can't be original, should we be in the business at all? Consolatory, because it seems our predecessors - even the greatest among them - laboured under the same disadvantage. The same few stories get told and retold, the same ancient saws are rehearsed. Plus ca change.
In our own age, the inevitability of repetition has become a kind of aesthetic. A myth had grown up of cheerful promiscuity and cross-pollination, of everyone living in each other's pockets. If all property is theft, can plagiarism - the theft of someone else's intellectual property - be a crime? Is theft the right metaphor, anyway? Theft means A taking what belongs to B; but when A plagiarises parts of B's book, the book still remains B's. Many modernist works - The Waste Land and Finnegans Wake, for example - are collages of allusion and quotation. Post-modernist theory wants to banish the author and create a world of intertextuality where books are read only in relation to other books and every seeming innovation springs from the same anonymous primal source.
In such a climate, plagiarism becomes perfect homage - parody and pastiche taken to their logical extreme. Borges imagined a kingdom where it is "uncommon for books to be signed" and "the concept of plagiarism does not exist" since "it has been established that all works are the creation of one author". His Pierre Menard, "author of Don Quixote", reproducing Cervantes word for word, is an originator in his own right, since the same words used several centuries later acquire subtle ironies and ambiguities.
Plagiarism itself - borrowing plot, structure, and so on - is not something you can be sued for, but breach of copyright - the actual use of a substantial number of words - is an offence in law, and rows about unacknowledged borrowings of all kinds regularly erupt. Whether as the burglar or the burgled, whether the case is proven or not, most contemporary authors of note become involved in some such scandal sooner or later: Ian McEwan, D M Thomas, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Norman Mailer and David Lodge to name but a few. Last year, a prizewinning French novelist was thought to have stolen words from Ben Okri. And last month, a letter in the Australian Review of Books claimed that the 1996 Booker-winner Graham Swift - success often seems to spark such accusations - reused the plot of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, as if Faulkner, but not Chaucer, had some perpetual copyright on a story involving different voices heard along a journey.
The charge of copying makes good copy, but is often ill-informed. There is a world of moral difference between reworking an old plot (standard Shakespearian practice) or incorporating a sentence from a major writer (as Julian Barnes did, in Flaubert's Parrot, with Joyce's "A pier is a disappointed bridge"), and, on the other hand, passing off whole poems or passages written by others as your own. The pasticheur, paying homage, hoping his or her allusions will be recognised, wants to be found out. By contrast, the plagiarist, who seeks to take credit for a text by suppressing all trace of its prior origin, fears being found out. Discovery of the original makes us admire the one, deplore the other.
Authors may take what they need, but they're also by nature proprietorial: they don't like being the seeds for other people's flowers. There seems to be a quaint notion that before the Copyright Act of 1709, and the Romantic invention of individual genius, authors happily grazed in the same common field, careless of the enclosure of intellectual property. Such an idea does not survive a reading of Ben Jonson, who is credited with the first use of the p-word in the English ("the ditt is all borrowed: tis Horace's: hang him plagiary"), nor indeed of Horace himself, who, along with other Latin poets, had a clear sense of the difference between creative appropriation, servile imitation and outright theft. Martial wrote a series of epigrams attacking a man he called "Fidentius" for having ripped him off. Aesop's crow in borrowed plumes was an emblem commonly used to deride the practice. The test lay in the re-making. "He who writes last comes off best," said Seneca, but it wasn't enough merely to follow in someone's steps: your own footprints had to be visible, and the path you wove must be prettier. Why bother to copy if you weren't improving the original? As Eliot was to put it much later, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."
Despite the extensive theorising on the subject, few writers have expressed what it feels like to be the victim of plagiarism. I can think only of Julian Gloag's Lost and Found, a novel inspired by the (misplaced) belief that the plot of Gloag's earlier Our Mother's House (children bury dead adult in garden) had been pinched by Ian McEwan for The Cement Garden. Now, though, comes Words for the Taking: The Hunt for a Plagiarist, a fascinating account of one man's experience of plagiarism, a book which goes deep into the psyche of abuser and abused alike.
IN JANUARY 1992, Neal Bowers, a middle-aged poet and professor living in a small town in Iowa, picked up an unusual message on his answering machine. A fellow poet in California had spotted a poem in a magazine which she felt certain must have been written by him, though published under somebody else's name. Bower's first reaction was to feel flattered: he hadn't realised his voice was so distinctive that other poets might recognise and even want to copy it. But as the poem unspooled from his fax machine, these feelings turned to indignation and outrage.
The poem was called "Someone Forgotten", its author was David Sumner, and it began:
He is too heavy and careless, my father
always leaving me at rest-stops, coffee shops,
some wide spot in the road. I come out,
rubbing my hands on my pants or levitating
two foam cups of coffee, and I can't find him
anywhere, that beat-up Ford gone ...
Bowers had published a poem called "Tenth-Year Elegy" some 15 months previously:
Careless man, my father,
always leaving me at rest-stops,
coffee shops, some wide spot in the road.
I come out, rubbing my hands on my pants
or levitating two foam cups of coffee,
and can't find him anywhere,
those banged-up fenders gone.
So the similarities ran on, for a dozen or more lines. Sumner's only "improvements" were to introduce awkward line breaks, hapless cliches ("beat-up" instead of "banged-up") and clumsy metaphors (the over-obvious "black highway like a funeral ribbon" instead of the stark "black highway like a chute"). Bowers felt all the more violated because his poem had been personal and deeply felt, a memorial to his father, who had died suddenly, of a heart attack. It was as if a stranger had gatecrashed the funeral.
Shocked, Bowers showed his poem and its clone to academic colleagues, who merely grinned and shrugged. At home, his wife Nancy took a sterner view and instigated a search through all the poetry magazines they had about the house, at once turning up another Sumner plagiarism, this time of a more famous poet, Mark Strand. At least Bowers was in good company.
But it wasn't much consolation. He began to fantasise about confronting his enemy and warning him off. Friends sensibly advised him against it: suppose the man wasn't just mildly kleptomaniac, but dangerously psychotic? Everything seemed to argue for aristocratic cool: just let the thing go. What's this big deal about ownership, anyway? Doesn't everyone create his or her own text in the act of reading, and wasn't Sumner simply extending (or playfully foregrounding) this process? We're all post-modernists now.
Bowers wasn't persuaded by this Theory. Even so, he might have been big and forgiving had not he found the elegy for his father in yet another magazine, again published under Sumner's name. A biographical note suggested that Sumner, allegedly born in Northern Ireland and now living in Aloha, Oregon, had published widely. Bowers now felt he was up against a shrewd self-marketeer.
Stepping up his campaign, he wrote off to numerous magazines, warning them that an imposter was at large. Back came proof of further Sumner plagiarisms, including his version of another Bowers elegy to his father, "RSVP". Sumner had evidently saturated the market with these two father poems, publishing them in 11 different places. He used other pseudonyms, too: including (more intriguingly) one female name. But the editors of the relevant magazines were mostly indifferent to Bowers's protests. It was as if, as whistle-blower, he was himself tainted with something ugly and corrupt.
The initial enquiries indicated that Sumner had scarpered to Japan, address unknown. Disbelieving this, and set on reparation, Bowers employed the services of a lawyer, who in turn, making little headway, hired a private investigator called Anne Bunch. Almost at once, Sumner was located, and a tape made of a telephone conversation in which he denied all knowledge of the offence. Later, though, came a letter addressed to Bowers himself, in which Sumner apologised for any hurt he had in- advertently caused (silly him: after attending a writers' workshop, he had mistaken Bowers's work for his own) and enclosed a $100 money order. A second faxed apology and further $100 followed soon after. Bowers's lawyer assumed his client would now be appeased.
He was wrong. The abject and obsequious tone of Sumner's letters (in one he described himself as "an ugliness", while another was placatingly addressed to Nancy, who "as a woman" would, he hoped, be more forgiving) served only to inflame the already burning Bowers. What he felt he lacked still was a forthright acknowledgment of responsibility, a signed admission. In fact, Sumner went some way to meet what was demanded, even sending Bowers a box of his juvenilia. But being weak, pathetic, impoverished and by now much besieged, he was also precisely the sort of person who'd fear making a signed confession of his misdemeanours in case legal action might ensue. Bowers, imagining a wily opponent rather than a saddie, couldn't see this and wouldn't call it quits. Even a $4,000 bill from his lawyer (surely not excessive, given how much work had been put in) didn't give him pause.
A novel about all this would surely have ended with a dramatic showdown. The reality was different, if hardly less fantastic. Through his detective, Bowers discovered that Sumner, aka Jones, had lost his job as a teacher after sexually molesting a number of seven-year-old girl pupils: acquitted at two trials, he had been found guilty at a third and sentenced to five years in a state penitentiary (although he was released after a mere six months). Bowers's reaction to this discovery is complex. On the one hand, he feels poisoned - why should this loathsome paedophile have felt such affinity with his work as to want to appropriate it? On the other, he feels vindicated and triumphal - to find that he has indeed been dealing with a deeply degraded human being, a sociopath, is a smack in the face to those who doubted his crusade.
Bowers sums up: "learning of his past was part of my experience as his victim, and his actions in regard to me made a different kind of sense once I knew the worst about him. Insofar as Jones's behaviour can be understood, paedophilia and plagiarism seem to be expressions of his need to control, especially in a secretive way."
So there we have it. Having come through the ordeal, Bowers writes of himself as a "victim", as if having a poem plagiarised in a small magazine were an experience in the same moral realm as the sexual molestation of a young girl. I doubt he thinks that it is. But he does believe he has suffered violence and abuse, and has had to write this book as a catharsis, "not to get even but to even out my life".
PLAGIARISM as a form of paedophilia? Perhaps it isn't as ludicrous as it sounds. Plagiarius, in Latin, meant kidnapper as well as literary thief, and some writers, thinking of their works as offspring ("all my little ones", to use Gavin Ewart's phrase), seem to resent the theft of words they've written as bitterly as they might the abduction of a child. Sir Fretful Plagiary, a character in Sheridan's The Critic, speaks of writers who "serve your best thoughts as gypsies do stolen children, [and] disfigure them to make 'em pass for their own". Two centuries on, Neal Bowers is making the same complaint.
His book, quite aside from telling an interesting story, shows how emotive the matter of literary ownership can be. A life and death matter, indeed. In 1989, the much admired literary editor of the Toronto Star, Ken Adachi, killed himself with a drug overdose days after being accused of plagiarism (sharp-eyed readers had noticed that an article of his had been lifted from one in Time magazine published seven years earlier). Adachi was of Japanese extraction, and there was a feeling this explained the violence of his self-recrimination: shamed, he did the honourable thing. In the Bowers-Sumner case, no one died, but you do get the sense of two blighted, almost destroyed lives.
What Bowers's book doesn't acknowledge is that the distinction between what's mine and what's yours isn't always so clear-cut. "An author may not know," wrote Tennyson, "when a verse buzzes in his head, whether it is a bee from his own hive or no." Jung spoke of cryptoamnesia and "heightened unconscious performance". And Michel Tournier makes the point that even when writers know a particular paragraph has already been written by someone else they can feel such a sense of true predestined authorship that they will steal it none the less: "Common sense says, 'Think of something else'. But stubborness says, 'Do it anyway'."
David Sumner, aka Jones, may still be doing it. It seems (certainly a handwriting expert believes it) he may already have branched out and become a certain fiction writer who replicates work by, among others, Ethan Canin. Only Jones himself knows the answer. So far he's keeping his head down, but one day, perhaps, he'll tell his story, in words, for once, that are his own.
! 'Words for the Taking: The Hunt for a Plagiarist' by Neal Bowers is published by W W Norton at pounds 12.95.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies