I guess I’m the last person on earth to have noticed the new plagiarism scandal. I actually found out about it from Mrs. Demonspawn, the comic book/graphic novel writer, believe it or not.
Anyhow, my reaction is a bit different than many I’ve seen. First, yes, it’s bad to take words verbatim from any source unless you’re engaging in a bit of literary allusion, even if it’s a nonfic research source. Second, you just can’t take other people’s fiction…unless it’s allusion, again, and not simple hijacking.
But I’m beginning to get scared. I’ve never used a phrase from a research source of any sort, but I’m wondering if I should start having several pages of every single source I use or quote to keep from being caught up in a witch hunt.
Let’s see. I’ve quoted from Shakespeare and the Bible in just about every book. Thomas Jefferson and Donne have done their time. I have one four-word phrase that’s a winking homage to a specific Terry Pratchett book. I have a line from Star Wars in my latest one, out in March. I have an entire scene that’s a tribute to Bleak House by Dickens in Voices. Oh, and I use the name Pegoty, which was in David Copperfield, too. And I’ve used information from nonfic that ranges from 19th century muckraking journalism to some rather mediocre but lively 21st century publication on the Victorian age. Oh, and Mrs. Beaton, of course. Recently, I’ve read a lot of books and articles on cold reading and psychic frauds for my latest WIP, the results of which have become an integral part of my next novel. Oh, and I pore over 19th maps. And I did all sorts of research about Brighton for Shadows, quite a bit of which ended up in my book. (Should I cite the website where I found a picture of Brighton that clearly showed that the beach had pebbles and not sand? How about where I got pictures of the Pavilion? Or the history of it, so I knew when it had gas laid on?)
Not only that, but I have completely ripped off and turned on its head the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, Shaw’s Pygmalion and its vast copycat literature, quite a bit of Shakespeare (including The Tempest), and a lot of Dickensian conventions, along with the sacrifice-self-for-daddeeeeeeee romance plot that goodness knows who wrote first.
I’m beginning to wonder, though, if there is going to be a time that someone’s going to pop up and declare that my Othello reference in Veil means that I am an evil plagiarist who Must Be Stopped. See, this scandal didn’t start with the discovery that the author in question had lifted passages from another work of fiction–it started with the uncovering of some clumsy and badly integrated research, done in a verbatim way which makes it fall into the Bad category but otherwise unremarkable for anything except its awkwardness. So even that shades to the gray because YOU DON’T WRITE FICTION WITH A WORKS CITED LIST. Seriously, now. It is not a research paper, no matter how much research is in it. Footnotes are neither expected nor desired–but this might change. Artistically, this would be disastrous, as there is no surer way of pointing out the fakeness of your book than to start peppering it with references to sources. Way to break the fourth wall, there.
When things go this far, it makes me wonder, where will the line be drawn? And when will it stop?
Should I live in terror that next week someone is going to “uncover” the whole laundry list of allusions in my books and my career will be over because I employed a recognized, well-respected literary device?