Mark my words

By —— Bio and Archives--September 22, 2007

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Kaavya Viswanathan, a 19-year-old Harvard student, created quite a stir in literary circles when her novel, for which she had received a reported $500,000 advance from publisher Little, Brown, turned out to contain plagiarized passages from two books by Megan McCafferty.

Viswanathan’s novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life was pulled off the shelves by Little, Brown, which also cancelled her contract for another one of her books it had planned on publishing. Viswanathan may well have ruined her literary aspirations by stupid cribbing.

In a lesser, but just as career-destroying, incident, the New York Times fired columnist Jayson Blair who, being too lazy to personally cover a story on the family of Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old American soldier from West Virginia, who was, at the time, a prisoner of war in Iraq, decided to invent an interview with her parents, and to lift a few other passages from a Texas newspaper, figuring no one would notice the scam. Not only was Blair fired, he took two of the Times’ top editors down with him.

A writer’s words, no less than the typewriter or computer he uses to write them are, rightfully, his private property unless he sells those rights, and anyone who claims another writer’s words as his own is courting trouble.

While plagiarism is a serious offense, it is sometimes difficult to know for sure that what you are writing for publication is truly the product of your own mind. Some cases of plagiarism, like the letter to the editor in a Toronto newspaper which turned out to have been cribbed verbatim from a Hamilton paper are blatantly obvious, while it takes experts to detect others.

We use other peoples’ words and phrases all the time without giving them much thought, but when writers knowingly use other writers’ words or phrases they are supposed to (except for well worn phrases and clich�s) enclose them in quotation marks.

Take the case of United States’ Senator Joe Biden, for example. Biden was telling the truth about his rise from a working-class background to the exalted position of United States senator in a speech he made when running for the presidency of the United States. Unfortunately, Biden, or, more likely, his speechwriters, had lifted the speech almost verbatim from a speech by the leader of the British Labor Party at that time, Neil Kinnock. And when the plagiarism was exposed in the media it spelled curtains for Biden’s presidential ambitions.

Even the most illustrious writers, however, have been known to use phrases not of their own making without so much as a nod to the real authors. Winston Churchill is usually credited with coining the phrase: “Iron Curtain,” which he used in his address at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, in May 1946 to describe the dangerous secrecy of Soviet society, and the threat to the free world posed by international Communism. The fact is that others used the phrase long before Churchill uttered it. The earliest use of the Iron Curtain phrase is credited to the German-born Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, who, shocked by the German invasion of her adopted homeland in 1914, proclaimed: “Between them (Germans) and me, there is now a Bloody Iron Curtain, which has descended forever.”

Even the great George Bernard Shaw wasn’t above a little cribbing. He re-phrased the words from Timothy: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” to: “Lack of money is the root of all evil.”

Even those literary giants, Shakespeare and Voltaire were not averse to quoting ancient writers without giving them credit. Consider Shakespeare’s line from Romeo and Juliet: “At lovers’ perjuries, they say, Jove laughs.” to the words of the ancient Roman, Albius Tibullus - c. 54 - 19 B.C. - “Jupiter laughs at the perjuries of lovers.” And the inspiration for Voltaire’s: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” is found in Ovid’s “It is convenient that there be Gods, and, as it is convenient, let us believe there are.”

We may, of course, seeing that none of us is blessed with total recall, think that the phrases we write are our very own. Still, when I consider all the stories and articles, amounting to millions of words, that I have absorbed in a lifetime of reading, how can I be sure which phrases, or parts thereof, have not lodged in my subconscious? I remember, long ago, telling a co-worker of mine that French-fries, in spite of the name, originated in Belgium. Many months later he repeated it to me, and when I asked him where he had heard it, he said he had read it somewhere.

On the other hand, I have read articles that were so close in style and content to some of my own which were rejected by various editors that I’ve often felt I’d been stiffed. Anyway, we can’t be too careful in giving credit where it is due when we use other peoples’ words for commercial purposes.

Take this article for instance, would I bet that it is completely original? Yes. I would.

Would I bet my life on it?

No. I wouldn’t.

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William Bedford -- Bio and Archives | Comments

CFP “Poet in Residence” William Bedford was born in Dublin, Ireland, but has lived in Toronto for most of his life.  His poems and articles have been published in many Canadian journals and in some American publications.

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