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.)