Inspired?

It was intriguing to hear first-hand about the twists and turns of the creative process; composer and songwriter Emil Adler of October Project easily kept his audience's attention on a winter night at Cambridge's historic Club Passim.

Before the band played "Bury My Lovely," Adler talked about the song's origins; how he composed the music, inspired by, of all things, the theme song from Sesame Street ("Can you tell me how to get, How to get to Sesame Street.") It was a strange but somehow fitting creative spark, Adler noted, for a song whose dark lyrics (by Julie Flanders) touch on childhood secrets.

Then, playing the keyboard, Adler recreated for us the songwriting process: demonstrating how he altered and rearranged and transformed a few simple notes into something quite original. The finished music of "Bury My Lovely" sounds nothing at all like the "Sesame Street" theme–you would never guess its origins.

Composers are particularly sensitive to issues of musical plagiarism and, Adler, mindful of the issue, joked about how "Bury My Lovely" more than met all legal tests for the borrowing of notes and bars of music from another song. (Tests failed in the past by the likes of George Harrison and Michael Bolton.)

I thought of Adler's story this past week, and the question of inspiration and originality, as more details emerged about two high profile cases of alleged literary plagiarism, those of would-be "chick-lit" novelist Kaavya Viswanathan and Raytheon CEO William H. Swanson.

Both Viswanathan and Swanson failed the originality test: there's no mistaking that the words and phrases in question came from another writer.

Little, Brown & Co., Viswanathan's publisher, has withdrawn her debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, and cancelled her contract to write a second book. Viswanathan, a Harvard sophomore, stands accused of borrowing passages from at least five other novels in her coming-of-age tale.

Swanson's book, Swanson's Unwritten Rules of Management, has also been pulled after it turned out that it contained borrowed "rules" from W. J. King's 1944 tome The Unwritten Laws of Engineering and even some management maxims from, of all people, Don Rumsfeld. (Will you think I'm too much of a wise guy if I point out that neither book actually contains unwritten rules or laws? By publishing them they become–ipso facto–written.)

Both Viswanathan and Swanson have apologized for their transgressions. Rayethon docked Swanson's pay in light of the episode (some observers calculating it as a million-dollar whacking of the CEO's ample compensation) and Viswanathan has lost her chance at becoming a lucrative literary star (and some portion of her reported $500,000 book deal.)

There was little or no question about what happened. Word-for-word plagiarism is easy to spot. The Web has allowed the alert to locate (courtesy of Google) such illicit borrowing; it has also made it easier to pirate other authors' words. You can bet that many more cases will surface in the years ahead. The Boston Globe just carried a story about bloggers finding that their posts have been plagiarised. (The Globe reports that there is even a blog dedicated to covering online plagiarism, Plagiarism Today.)

Once past word-for-word theft, it becomes harder to draw the line. Ideas can not be copyrighted. There are only so many plots ("boy meets girl") and some forms of popular fiction depend on formulaic structure (detective stories, romance novels, etc.) Writers end up sharing a lot, whether they like it or not: there are numerous books, for example, with the exact same title.

So what is originality? How much transformation is necessary to fashion a whole new work (a "Bury My Lovely" versus Harrison's "My Sweet Lord")? Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code recently successfully defended himself against a suit by authors claiming that he "appropriated the architecture" of their non-fiction book, a bizarre notion on the face of it (I guess they couldn't sue for Brown "appropriating" their "plot.") Claims of "concept plagiarism" can become quite subjective; Hollywood has seen a fair number of lawsuits over "idea theft" by disgruntled screenwriters.

There's a long, colorful history of authors who have borrowed liberally and have turned to other works for what they called inspiration. Shakespeare brazenly hijacked the themes and structure of other plays; Jane Austen modelled Northanger Abbey on Anne Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho; Ernest Hemingway urged young authors to closely "study" Conrad, Tolstory and others; T.S. Eliot once argued that "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."

On the other hand, don't we know it (originality) when we see it? Adler's story about composing the music for "Bury My Lovely" illustrates how creators can fashion a new work from the thinnest material–a few notes, an image, a few words. The source serves as jumping off point; in many cases the composer or writer or artist ends up a million miles from where they began.

Viswanathan and Swanson clearly didn't use their borrowed material as a spark or starting point–the process became more one of "cut-and-paste," where the borrowed passages were inserted, patched into, the text.

Writers with distinctive voices are less likely to fall prey to patchwork or "rush-job" plagiarism. The grafted material just doesn't read write–it doesn't have the same rhythm or cadence. I like to think that, for better or worse, if you read my stuff over time you will find something distinctive (and appealing) in the way I choose words, arrange sentences and paragraphs, and offer my "take" on what I see around me.

Having your own voice doesn't mean that you aren't influenced by others, by favorite authors and poets and often-read books. Many of those influences become part of that voice. A childhood spent with the Book of Common Prayer and the King James version of the Bible has left me prone to starting sentences with the word "and." And I had many an English teacher who fought to change that "bad habit." And they all failed.

An irony of the Viswanathan and Swanson cases is that the initial popularity of their books stemmed largely from their perceived originality (as did the success of James Frey's faux memoir). Swanson's Unwritten Rules of Management supposedly offered readers the distilled wisdom of a real-world CEO; Opal Mehta, an American success story for striving teens by a talented immigrant who lived the story. It is a further irony that if either author had delivered on that originality, their books could still be found for sale in Borders and Barnes & Nobles.


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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