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Plagiarism? Let's just call it postmodernism

An alarming double standard is at work here. One writer is commended, another becomes a pariah

Terence Blacker
Monday 17 June 2002 00:00 BST

It is now 20 years since the New York magazine The Village Voice destroyed the literary reputation of the novelist Jerzy Kosinski. The terrible events described in his famous book The Painted Bird had not, said the Voice, been based on the author's wartime experiences in Poland at all but had been invented. Furthermore, all Kosinski's subsequent works, including Steps, which won the National Book Award, had been written with more than a little help from assorted ghostwriters and hirelings. Being There, the novel which was adapted into an Oscar-winning film, was based on a plot stolen from another Polish novel. This was not a writer, the argument went, so much as a word-thief, a literary con-man.

Kosinski wrote one more book, but he was pretty much finished as a novelist and, as it turned out, as a man. He committed suicide in 1991.

Every time plagiarism hits the news, as it has in the past few days, I remember Kosinski, whose books I published and whom I liked. The most recent row has vague similarities to his story in that it also concerns an autobiographical novel, The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts. Written in the 19th century, the manuscript was unearthed by the eminent Harvard academic Henry Louis Gates who claimed that, although the writer's identity had not been established, hers was the first novel written by a female, black slave.

Publication rights were sold, an extract run in The New Yorker. At that point, a well-informed reader spotted that several passages had been lifted wholesale from Bleak House. Further investigation revealed that Dickens was not the only author represented in the novel – liftings from 13 other writers, including Walter Scott, Charlotte Brontë and Harriet Beecher Stowe were there, as were extensive, uncredited quotations from mid-19th century editions of Scientific American.

Yet, interestingly and oddly, Gates was unfazed by any of this. Deploying a modishly postmodern reading of the novel, he defended the integrity of his author by explaining that she had been "seeking a relation to a canonical tradition". She had not plagiarised but merely "emptied out a rhetorical template and filled it with particulars of her own".

Either times have significantly changed our attitude to such matters, or an alarming double standard is at work here. One author builds her novel around borrowings from the classics and is commended for her efforts by a Harvard professor. Another is alleged to have invented incidents in his life and used other writers to help him with his work and, almost overnight, becomes a pariah in the literary world.

For the charge of plagiarism is the most intimately devastating of all accusations that can be levelled at a writer. You can write a bad book, or do something terrible in your private life, and at least your past works are still there. But once it is thought that the only true capital which you have – words, sentences, ideas – is not in fact yours at all, but filched and dodgy, second-hand, then everything becomes retrospectively contaminated. So, after The Village Voice, it became clear that Kosinski's career was over.

Maybe today, the literary world would have been more understanding. Thanks to the highly coloured and novelistic memoirs of authors like Frank McCourt and Dave Pelzer, the frontiers between fact and fiction have become less pronounced. In a golden age for ghostwriters, news of a little creative editing might now seem less shocking. And the idea that no serious novel can rework a plot that has been previously used is now rightly seen to be absurd.

The significant point about Jerzy Kosinski was that, whether or not others helped him, his books – now, of course, languishing out of print and out of fashion – had a vision and a voice consistent with one another and with the man himself.

The problem was perhaps that he was a successful, worldly author who played polo, moved in fashionable circles and even appeared as an actor in Warren Beatty's Reds. He seemed to have had an adventurous and rather kinky sexuality which, to many, made him all the more suspect.

All in all, he was a perfect candidate for the snarling pack of literary hangers-on to turn on. There is something about a storyteller becoming rich and having a reasonably full private life that has a powerful potential to irritate so that, when things go wrong, it causes a very special kind of joy. Writer's block, financial failure, inter- author bitchiness or marriage problems tend to be reported with more eagerness than the latest vast advance.

But plagiarism is the biggie. When journalists can make that one stick, they know that the writer is finished. Unless of course, she happens to be a female slave who lived 150 years ago in which case she was not stealing, but merely seeking a relation to a canonical tradition.

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