Take It From Me

Plagiarism has been much in the news lately (I wonder how often "much in the news" gets used–to the point it is cliche), since Kaavya Viswanathan, author of the novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, has been accused of plagiarism by another novelist, because of similarities. I won’t go into this issue much, because I haven’t read Viswanathan’s novel.

New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell addresses the issue in his blog. In his entries on the plagiarism case he directs readers to an article he’d published in the New Yorker on the subject. I recently read that article, fascinated by what he terms "plagiarism fundamentalists," folks, including Harvard University, with a zero-tolerance for plagiarism. Theft is one thing. Writing something and claiming it as your own without any attribution is wrong. But influence, and Gladwell addresses this, is different, as is art, when art takes an old idea and tries to make something new with it.

Gladwell takes up the case of a psychiatrist who discovers a playwright has basically lifted parts of her story and placed it on the stage. Further complicating the issue is that the playwright lifted phrases from a profile Gladwell had written of the psychiatrist. Interestingly, Gladwell isn’t offended by the playwright’s plagiarism. The psychiatrist, however, is.

What seems to disturb the psychiatrist is how details of her life have been transformed by art into something completely different. Gladwell catches something very important here: "Lewis [the psychiatrist] is upset not just about how Lavery [the playwright] copied her life story . . . but about how Laverty changed her life story. . . .She’s upset about art–about the use of old words in the service of a new idea–and her feelings are pefectly understandable, because the alterations of art can be every bit as unsettling and hurtful as the thievery of plagiarism. It’s just that art is not a breach of ethics."

Gladwell notes that one of the main characters in the play is a psychiatrist who has an affair with a colleague. The psychiatrist Lewis, he says, is taking an imagined thing as fact. Which to me is significant, because it signifies something our current culture seems to suffer: A lack of imagination.

Our information-age culture has, as the Police say, too much information running through our brains. We’re a culture that devalues the imagination, preferring a nonficition view of the world, in which art is deconstructed so much that the mere fact of its existence is rendered meaningless. Artists take the facts of actual, and transform them, and we sit picking our asses looking for "just the facts ma’am."


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