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February 18, 2007


Alison Croggon

Heh. Interesting and provocative post. I look forward to your piece on authenticity, a concept I have a few problems with (it's usually linked to the "authenticity" of the artist him/herself, and I never heard of a more fraudulent idea...) The only fraudulence that causes a red mist to descend over my eyes (and maybe not so much these days, being older and more tired) is that which posits dead theatre as a living thing. That's because I think it teaches people that inner boredom is the same as being profound. But that of course is in my subjective judgement, which is of course highly arguable. Mind you, I'll argue hard...

One thing - being interested, I followed that link to the article on Frozen (a play that I can't say I especially enjoyed, but there we are). And far from being portrayed as "inexcusable" plagiarism, that article - rather interestingly - was sympathetic to the playwright, and in fact looked at some of the complexities of the issues of artistic influence. Which are very complex. I find the current hue and cry over plagiaristic work rather worrying, myself.

I use other writers' words all the time, and every text I make - perhaps especially my criticism - is larded with intertextuality. And I'd be mightily upset if it was taken to be plagiarism, because I don't believe it is. (When Bertie Wooster misquotes Shakespeare or Milton without attributing it, is he plagiarising?) Worse, having cunningly sewn into my first fantasy book a few tributes to my favourite authors, I find that some readers accuse me of plagiarising these authors. It's the only criticism I take exception to - I want to sit these naifs down and give them a long lecture on the Tree of Tales (Tolkien's phrase, don't you know) and how those those allusions are there _on purpose_ and how Catullus "plagiarised" Sappho and Joyce "plagiarised" Homer and how Tolkien himself "plagiarised" whole canons of ancient epic poetry. Naive readers, I know, go with the territory, but what bothers me with this whole issue is that there are naive readers who are older than 15. And the whole issue seems to me profoundly anti-art. Actual plagiarism - as in copying whole passages and passing them off as one's own original work - seems to me another issue altogether.

Anyway, enough of that.


Hi Alison: Thanks for the close reading & literary gloss. You're right, "l'affaire Lavery" was more complicated than a simple case of schoolroom theft, as the Gladwell article indicates. However, she did initially pass off whole lines as her own, thus, well, plagiarism. More, she appropriated another person's research into brain chemistry without giving credit. But then we get into intellectual property, a more fuzzy area. Is it okay for me to create a character who talks about the laws of gravity sans Newton but not okay to reproduce cutting-edge ideas from a scientific paper published the month before? Jonathan Lethem offers a bracingly contrarian essay in the new Harper's ( celebrating appropriation and extolling the "beauty of second use." I wasn't trying to freshly denounce Lavery (the woman suffered enough). I accept that echo, appropriation and influence are part of the creative process (and the critical process, for that matter). But, still, are we to abolish the charge of plagiarism, outside of the term paper or thesis?

George Hunka

I'm more looking forward to your comments on "authenticity" myself, David, but in terms of plagiarism (style and otherwise), it's interesting that your post on this issue comes at the same time as there's a small swirl in the classical music world about the same thing. I've written about it today, here:

(Oh, and that file name is just a file name -- I don't mean to suggest that you ... well, you know.)


Don't get your hopes up, George: I'm more comfortable anatomizing the negative than hosannahing the positive. I'll have much less to say on the subject of authenticity (or some other term, since that one is so wobbly). I could describe pornography in photorealistic detail, but about love itself, I'd have fewer words. As a professional borderline fraud (critic), I am more intimately familiar with the elaborate rituals required to disguise ego-stroking as insight. But I'll lay out five qualities one can, hypothetically, look for in genuine work.

Joshua James

What an interesting discussion . . .

I guess I'm simplistic, but to me, people can be frauds, but I don't ever view work as fraud . . . for example, the artist who claims that the important thing is the work, when in reality it's obvious the work is less important than the artist's ego . . . in other words, a hypocrite masquerading as a director, writer, essayist, what have you . . .

We've all met the actor who claims that the work is what is important . . . the writer, the director, etc . . . whose actions bely their words . . . I've always viewed folks like this as frauds . . .

When I was in college, back in the day, we had a rather famous monologist (who shall go unnamed) arrive to perform at our school and also talk to all of us theatre folk about the work . . . it became soon apparent, however, that the person in question was more interested in chasing young girls than talking about the work or even really doing the work . . . the word "fraud" was bandied about (not by me) even though the person's work was admired.

I guess up until today, to me, if work was bad, it ain't art. If it's good, it is. I've never thought about the work, in terms of fiction or art or plays, as fraudulent. Misguided, maybe (I'm thinking of the Passion of Christ) or just plain factually wrong (Path to 9/11), which, I guess, qualifies as fraudulent if it's deliberately factually wrong, now that I think about it (but can a fictionized drama be fraud, since it's already fiction?) . . . You've certainly given me cause to rethink my views on the matter.

But here's a loaded question for you, David.

Is Triumph of Will a fraudulent piece of work?

Certainly Leni Reifenstahl was a director with a lot of baggage in that way.

Alison Croggon

Straight-out plagiarism is, I believe, pretty easy to pick. That's when something is straight-out copied. Having one phrase or one allusion in a passage/work which is otherwise quite different, or which uses those tropes to transform them into something else, doesn't strike me as plagiarism. But obviously, there are no clear lines. Me, I'd rather err on the liberal side, since this kind of application of intellectual copyright is something that only benefits large corporations (Disney, for instance, legally threatening an experimental artist for using the image of Mickey Mouse, as happened to a friend of mine).

I am obviously all for intellectual copyright per se, since that's how I make my living: if someone, as happened once, set one of my poems to music and had it performed and recorded without permission, I get pissed off; same if they say they wrote a poem that I did. I saw someone claim that they had written Whitman's poem "I think I could turn and live with the animals", only instead of "animals" they had written "cats": that's plagiarism. On the other hand, I had a poet accuse me of pinching one of her lines. Luckily, my poem predated hers...but the image she accused me of pinching was, well, part of the common pot. I'm sure I pinched it from somewhere else. It all gets a bit precious. And from whence did this idea come that art springs all ahistorical and sparkling from the artist's forehead, an immaculate conception having nothing to do with any previous art?

David Cote

When does a poetic (prosaic) trope or meme cross over into intellectual property? Good question. Perhaps when a writer gets his or hands on a centuries-old cliche, then adjusts it ever so slightly with a twist & signature. I have no idea. Let the courts decide. Wait, don't!

Jeff Lewonczyk

Hi, David – I’m finally commenting on your stupid blog! (And hi everybody else – it’s been entertaining and enlightening to read your comments over the past few months.)

To jump right in, I think a lot of the issues of “fraudulence” and “authenticity” are very contextual. A big empty spectacle that might read as horribly derivative in Manhattan might be seen as dazzling to a community that isn’t so inured to live performance. Likewise, a show that has genuine integrity and originality for a rarefied audience of new Yorkers will read as pointlessly pretentious in, oh, let’s say Peoria.

I also think fellow artists – or at the very least “insiders” – are more likely to cry “Fraud!” than a hypothetical “average” viewer. Since members of a community as claustrophobic as ours can be tend to share a reservoir of education, influence, acquaintance and gossip, we’re far more discerning, sometimes too much so.

And we also all have our own personal foibles. Speaking from my own petty experience, if I start perceiving that an artist is getting a “free ride” (i.e. massive amounts of positive publicity, sold out houses, gushing word-of-mouth) for a show that seems predicated on a hackneyed or gimmicky premise, my nervous system sends jealous impulses to my brain that closely resemble intimations of fraudulence. Of course, if I don’t see the show, how will I know if these feelings are justified? But paying for a ticket will just play right into their greasy hands!

As you can see, I feel that this is a rather subjective issue. I think David is right in that there is not, in art, any infallible yardstick for fraud. Artists are neither doctors nor snake-oil salesmen; generally, they’re a little bit of each, offering from the back of their rickety wagons not a product you can hold in your hands, but rather an ephemeral experience, which will prove more efficacious to some constitutions than to others. And whether it’s brewed in bad faith or in painful sincerity, experience is ultimately the province of the experiencer.

David Cote

Hi Jeff! Thanks for posting! Now get your own god-damned blog. I know you could post at elephantine lengths like the best of 'em.


Dear God! Lose the blogs and get some hobbies. Better yet go volunteer for some worthwhile charities… Ones that aren’t fraudulent.


just a thought: doesn't the hucksucker think his work is really important too, only that he's referring to a different canon than the one you like to call art? a bit fuzzy and ivory tower if i may say so myself. not that that's a huge problem, but it seems this is rather pretentious and presumptuous.
it also seems to me that these questions are rather new, due, in part, to copyright laws and intellectual property.
a conundrum: is rauschenberg's 'erasing de koonig' fraudulent? or is it because he's honest about what he's referring to that it's ok. so if i write a large work with footnotes explaining everything i take (and mind you, we'll regard the work as 'commenting upon' the work it 'steals' from), is this ok?


even a congenital mediocrity can produce a single work of lasting value.

Bram Stoker came immediately to mind here, before Dracula (and later, Lair Of The White Worm) his work was on the level of Victorian Era Harlequin romance novels (though I have personally never read one of them).

Great post.

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