To the People

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or TO THE PEOPLE.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Writers Ask Questions, Have No Answers

Today's WaPo has an interview with novelist Jonathan Lethem about his new book which revolves around the theme of appropriating another's words and ideas without attribution.

Like many mediocre artists, Lethem raises interesting ideas he can't articulate, so much so that the Post writer has to do it for him:

Plagiarism is also a "rubbery" term he wanted to define as "value neutral" in order to confront the question "What's the good plagiarism and what's the bad plagiarism?"

Bad plagiarism, Lethem believes, is something we know when we see it. It doesn't add value by transforming the borrowed material into something new. It is deceptive, in that it refuses to acknowledge its influences. It can feel, particularly if the plagiarizer is a big cultural fish, like the worst kind of theft.

And good plagiarism? Think of Shakespeare's borrowing from Ovid, he says, which helped produce "Romeo and Juliet," and the subsequent borrowing by Leonard Bernstein that produced "West Side Story."

(Disclosure: my only exposure to Lethem — besides friends raving about Motherless Brooklyn — has been his novelette This Shape We're In, a wonderful conception ruined by its otherwise awfulness.)

Lethem seems to lack knowledge of Fair Use or an understanding that ideas (e.g., two members of rival families fall in love) cannot be copyrighted, only their manifestation. Putting that aside, he raises a good point: What is plagiarism? A few years ago, after a scandal at Yale in which several undergrads were caught turning in some Internet cuttings-and-pastings as their homework, my classmates and I attempted to identify the point at which scholarship crossed the line into punishable offense. Neither our professor nor our teaching aid provided a clear answer. The final conclusion took the pornography escape-clause: we knew it when we saw it but nobody could devise a pragmatic definition which covered all contingencies.

That discussion centered upon when to attribute sources in text, a topic I struggle with as I stab at a book on American history which may or may not ever see the inside of Borders. At what point do facts require attribution? When do they become so commonly known that a footnote or endnote is unnecessary? And when do ideas or interpretations — say, the idea that the United States would not have survived had Washington not stepped down after two terms — become as indisputable as the statement, "Washington was the first president under the Constitution?" When are ideas finally unshackled from their progenitor and become part of the vernacular?

In frustration I have taken the defense used by journalist William Hogeland in his notes in The Whiskey Rebellion:

I don't give references for readily acquired, noncontroversial information drawn from many cited sources. Alexander Hamilton was born on a Caribbean island. Every biography says so, in words more or less to that effect; I don't try to prove or give credit for it. I cite sources for facts not generally known and from which I've drawn ideas and analyses.

It's a comment on our quick-to-accuse times — and also perhaps on the failure of academia to satisfactorily address the matter — that a professional writer felt the need to pen such a disclaimer in 2006.

Labels: ,