PLAGIARY.

I was reading Lizzie Widdicombe’s sad and funny New Yorker piece about the hapless plagiarist Quentin Rowan, a/k/a Q. R. Markham, “author” of the spy novel Assassin of Secrets, which immediately upon publication was revealed to be a Frankenstein’s monster of chunks of other novels (and nonfiction works), busily stitched together by someone who badly wanted to be a writer but didn’t actually know how to write. While I intensely dislike plagiarism (being an old fuddy-duddy), I admire this guy:

The peculiar thing about Rowan’s case is that he could have obtained a degree of social permission simply by being honest about borrowing from other writers—by doing what Jonathan Lethem did, or by claiming that he was producing a “meta” work. We live in an age of sampling, from “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” to Skrillex remixes. “We love remakes. We love makeovers,” the literary theorist Avital Ronell said, when I asked her about the case. She suggested that Rowan “could have used a dream team of literary theorists to get him out of trouble.” But Rowan told me that he’d never considered selling his novel as a mashup, even though, after news of the plagiarism broke, there was even more interest in reading it. (Its Amazon ranking jumped from 62,924 to 174.) “I honestly wanted people to think that I’d written it,” Rowan said.

He could have played the get-out-of-jail-free card of postmodernism, but no, he owns up to his desire and his sin, and good for him. Now let him find an honest way to make a living.
At any rate, I was discussing this with my wife, and she asked me where the word plagiarism comes from. So I looked it up in the American Heritage Dictionary, which told me to see plagiary (and how come the peevers don’t complain about the replacement of this fine old term by the clunky newfangled plagiarism?), which said: “Latin plagiārius, kidnapper, plagiarist, from plagium, kidnapping, from plaga, net; see plāk-1 in Indo-European roots.” So now we know: a plagiarist is someone who throws a net over other people’s words and kidnaps them.
Update. See Michael Hendry‘s comment below for the origin of the metaphor in Martial 1.52: “literally plagium is the stealing of someone else’s slave, or the forcing of a free man into slavery. This is the only passage in classical Latin where the word, or any of its derivatives, is used (even metaphorically) of literary theft.”


(For another take on plagiarism, see this seven-year-old LH post.)

Comments

  1. Like much “postmodern” stuff this has an ancient ancestor, the cento.

  2. There’s some harmless fun to be had from P D James’s Pemberley novel, for those interested to know what Lizzie and Mr Darcy did next.

  3. There’s some harmless fun to be had from P D James’s Pemberley novel, for those interested to know what Lizzie and Mr Darcy did next.

  4. Dearie, you plagiarised that second comment, I’ve seen it before.

  5. Bravo!

  6. Kidnapper! That will get my college students’ attention.
    Thank you. Also liked the “get-out-of-jail-free card of postmodernism.”
    Kidnapping is kidnapping.

  7. John Emerson says:

    Speaking of his own career, Quentin Crisp said something like “It’s hard be successful in the art world if you have no talent”.
    The Naked Civil Servant is recommended for anyone who thinks they’d enjoy an almost event-free autobiography made up mostly of one-liners (often in bad taste).

  8. John Emerson says:

    “There is no need to do any housework at all. After four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.”

  9. I was recently reading about someone who went to interview Quentin Crisp at home and they said the smell in the kitchen was pretty bad.

  10. Well, this is the man who said “After four years, the dirt [in the apartment] doesn’t get any worse.”
    He lived until his death about a block from me, and I used to see him parading around the neighborhood, one of the Stately Homos of England (his phrase, not mine).

  11. There’s more to it than the American Heritage Dictionary says. The metaphor has a known author, Martial the epigrammatist. The text and a (not very perspicuous) translation of Martial 1.52 are here).
    Peter Howell notes in his very full commentary on Book I of Martial (Athlone Press, 1980), “literally plagium is the stealing of someone else’s slave, or the forcing of a free man into slavery. This is the only passage in classical Latin where the word, or any of its derivatives, is used (even metaphorically) of literary theft. In fact, the modern use of the term seems actually to originate in this passage: K. Ziegler [ref.] points out that the next author to use the word plagiarius in this sense, the humanist L. Valla, has taken it directly from M. . . . . Ziegler argues that the fact that in a slaveless society the original sense of the word was irrelevant made it easier for it to take on its new sense.” He also notes that Horace (Epistles 1.20) had treated his unpublished books as slaves, and publication as emancipation. Martial develops Horace’s metaphor further by treating his plagiarist (in the modern sense) as someone who has kidnapped Martial’s freedmen-poems and reenslaved them, claiming them as his own. There’s some appropriate legal jargon in the poem. See Howell if you want to know more.

  12. Thanks for a most enlightening comment!

  13. I was recently reading about someone who went to interview Quentin Crisp at home and they said the smell in the kitchen was pretty bad.
    That may have been the famous meeting between Pinter and Crisp sometime around 1955, which according to Pinter was his inspiration to write The Room. In an interview, Pinter said:

    ‘He welcomed us in, gave us a cup of tea, discussed philosophy and metaphysics, literature, the weather, crockery, fabrics. The little chap was dancing about cutting bread and butter, pouring tea and making bacon and eggs for this man who remained quite silent throughout the whole encounter… We left after about half an hour and I asked the woman what the little chap’s name was and she said Quentin Crisp.’

    The Naked Civil Servant is a must-roll-in-the-aisles read. I could have fancied myself as a Stately Homo. It’s very hard on the nerves unless they’re made of steel, which Crisp’s were.
    That’s why I admire him, or rather his persona. In real life we would be trashing each other something terrible.

  14. and how come the peevers don’t complain about the replacement of this fine old term by the clunky newfangled plagiarism?
    I will not answer a rhetorical question, but I will make sure its assumptions are correct. They are. Garner doesn’t use plagiary once in his tome.

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    “Plagiary” sounds like an archaic toponym, rather like Tartary, or “In Bethelem in Jewry / The blessed babe was born” or “Than do high deeds in Hungary / To pass all men’s believing.” (Yes, I know there are arguments that “Hungary” is not technically archaic . . .)

  16. Wow, an Ezra Pound poem I actually like. Wonders will never cease.

  17. Set to music by Aaron Copland. There are a couple of performances on YouTube, but the microphone placement is so bad in both that you can barely make out the vocalists.

  18. That’s one of the winning things about Pound; just about everybody can find something he wrote that will appeal to them.

  19. I was just reading about the Barbary Wars, and then there’s Scungry, one of the Hesperonesian Islands out in the North Atlantic, not too far from the Azores and down some from the much better known Livagia (which Hat would insist on calling “Livagy”, I suppose).

  20. And then there was Araby. Indy, though, never worked, as far as I know; but it shortened to Ind (or Hind). Both Araby and Ind are Shakespearian of course, but don’t ask me where he used Ind.

  21. Turkey actually reverses the trend. I have seen it as Turquia on what are called antique maps. But perhaps they weren’t in English.
    Can you imagine Indonesy? Ought we go on?
    Blame J. W. Brewer.

  22. Sure Indy worked.

  23. And here I thought you were talking about Indy.

  24. To me, plagiary suggests a professional plagiarist, perhaps on the lines of apothecary. I had thought it was a good name for the likes of Ed Dante, but it’s not really he who plagiarizes; his students plagiarize him (with his permission conditioned on payment).

Speak Your Mind

*