A Week Late

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In last week's New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell defends a playwright's right to plagiarize Malcolm Gladwell. From the piece:

We accept the right of one writer to engage in a full-scale knockoff of another—think how many serial-killer novels have been cloned from "The Silence of the Lambs." Yet, when Kathy Acker incorporated parts of a Harold Robbins sex scene verbatim in a satiric novel, she was denounced as a plagiarist (and threatened with a lawsuit). When I worked at a newspaper, we were routinely dispatched to "match" a story from the Times: to do a new version of someone else's idea. But had we "matched" any of the Times' words—even the most banal of phrases—it could have been a firing offense. The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of small differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.

In the same issue: David Denby's interesting appreciation of Pedro Almodovar.

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  1. Almodovar’s films are the Zippy of film: Usually incomprehensible and seldom entertaining.

  2. The words “Denby” and “interesting” can never appear in the same sentence. Fowler and Strunk & White are in full agreement on this point.

  3. It’s one thing to be “highly derivative” and therefore unoriginal, and quite another to copy passages of others’ work and therefore be a thief/plagiarist.

    Certainly we’ve had a number of knockoffs of “Silence of the Lambs,” as Gladwell claims; Hollywood (and to a large extent the publishing industry) thrives on reproducing successful formulae. The standard book/script pitch goes something like this: “It’s like ‘Silence of the Lambs’ only with a FEMALE serial killer,” or “it’s a cross between ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Maltese Falcon’.” Popular entertainment is, almost by definition, derivative. Hell, sources indicate that Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is derived in part from an earlier version written by Thomas Kyd.

    The problem is that Gladwell’s claim tries to erase the distinction between derivative hackery and passing off significant portions of copyrighted work as one’s own. His whining about his newspaper work does not prove his point that plagiarism “has also become disconnected from the broader question of what does and does not inhibit creativity.” In support of that claim he introduces Kathy Acker. Bad idea.

    Courts have regularly (though not unanimously – see “The Wind Done Gone”) ruled that parody allows one author/artist to use even large pieces of material from another. Had Kathy Acker’s work been a parody of Harold Robbins’ work, rather than a political satire, then she probably would have been fine. In fact, an article at salon.com states that “Kathy’s whole art was based on the idea of plagiarism — the appropriation and reworking of existing texts” (http://www.salon.com/media/1997/12/03media.html). So to prove that we’re too prudish about intellectual property rights, he uses as an example an “artist” who regularly violates intellectual property rights and who expresses shock when the original artist chooses to exercise his rights to his intellectual property.

    Fucking brilliant.

  4. The words “Denby” and “interesting” can never appear in the same sentence.

    Thanks, Prof. Paradox…

  5. Professor Plag: I don’t think Gladwell is using Acker “to prove that we’re too prudish about intellectual property rights.” He certainly doesn’t “express shock” that she was sued.

    You should read the rest of the piece. He writes about a playwright who directly plagiarized one of Gladwell’s own articles, but was not engaged in “derivative hackery”; she used his words to build something new. Same goes for Acker: Whatever you think of her fiction, she’s taking other people’s work and radically transforming it, the way an artist might use a photograph in a collage.

    I’m usually no more likely to recommend a Malcolm Gladwell piece than a David Denby piece, but I think this one makes some significant points.

  6. professorplagiarism,

    As I recall, the Circuit Court found for the defendant in “The Wind Done Gone” case.

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