Here’s an Original Thought: How Can Anyone Steal Words?

I wanted to buy How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life by Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan, but now I will have to wait until she removes the parts she plagiarized from Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings by Megan McCafferty.

I have plagiarized twice in my life that I know of. The first time I did it was in my first book, The Outside Story, an account of the 1984 Presidential election. I was describing, in a recap, how George H.W. Bush, after winning the Iowa caucuses in 1980, had been trounced by Ronald Reagan in New Hampshire, and in most subsequent primaries. I wanted a comparison that was both brutal and amusing, and I came up with this: Mr. Bush was “crushed like a toad under a roller.” The image of the pitiful hopper versus the inexorable cylinder of metal conveyed the sense; the half-rhyme of toad and roller made a nice sound. So it went through all the early drafts. But as I read and reread, something about the phrase nagged me. Maybe it was the unlikeliness of the image: I knew what a lawn roller was, but no one in the suburban tract houses that I grew up among had owned one. Then I was paging through the Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell (he didn’t teach me socialism, but he encouraged me to use similes), and there was the toad and his roller. Just in time, I changed the elder Bush’s fate to being “crushed like a bug on a windshield.”

The second time I plagiarized was in my first biography, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington. There, I was describing one of the crises of Washington’s second term, the fight over a treaty that John Jay had negotiated with Great Britain. The uproar over Jay’s treaty was a great story: riots, demagogy, a secret debate over ratification by the U.S. Senate. I came to the moment when a Senator who opposed ratifying the treaty sold his copy of it to a foreign diplomat, who gave it to an anti-administration newspaper. Now, we would say this makes the Plame affair look simple. Then, I wrote: “The treaty leaked out earlier, however, and in the worst possible way.” Only later did I rediscover, in The Age of Federalism, by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, the father of that thought: The treaty’s “continued secrecy … was to be taken out of Washington’s hands by events, and in the worst possible way.” No imagery or assonance had tempted me here: I must have lifted the phrase, and the tacked-on sentence structure, because it seemed so right. Elkins, McKitrick and I were all in George Washington’s P.O.V., and from where he sat, the treaty’s sudden publication, by its and his enemies, was a true “Oh, shit!” moment. I found this plagiarism too late for fixing, when the hardcover was in my hands.

So I know how turns of phrase can stick to your mind like lint and find their way into your “own” words. But this isn’t what went on with How Opal Mehta Got Kissed. Megan McCafferty’s publisher found more than 40 echoes of her work in Miss Viswanathan’s book. Miss Viswanathan called the copying “unintentional and unconscious,” but her initial print run is being pulled until she scrubs it all out. The last time we went down this road was 2002, when historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose were hammered for multiple thefts in various books. Controversy raged about precisely what they had done, and what should happen to them. But Ms. Goodwin admitted (in the words of The New York Times) “fail[ing] to acknowledge scores of close paraphrases from [various] authors,” while Mr. Ambrose described his work habits thus: “If I am writing up a passage and it is a story I want to tell and this story fits and a part of it is from other people’s writing, I just type it up that way and put it [the acknowledgment] in a footnote.”

That’s not good enough, for those whom Ambrose airily called “other people.” If someone borrows a few well-chosen words, it can be a pleasant experience. You see yourself in the mirror of someone else’s prose and think, “Handsome. Smart, too.” I was once listening to Margaret Thatcher giving a speech when she repeated a joke I had used in a speech several years earlier. I swaggered a little (thank God she wasn’t George Galloway). But when acres of your prose reappear under someone else’s name, it’s as if a stranger suddenly starts parking his car on your yard.

There is another, more important way to look at these scandals. How could anyone allow himself to become such a word-schnorrer? Isn’t there such a thing as pride of authorship, and thinkership? Any high-school kid with a P.C. and a spell check can type out something or other. But serious writers should chew and worry the pixels before them, because only their words can compass their ideas. Plagiarizing is never a shortcut; it is a dead end. When you use other people’s expressions, you risk falling lamely into their thoughts. To take my own case: “bug on a windshield” lost the repeated O’s of “toad under a roller,” but it repatriated an American political event, snatching it from the lawn of an English country house, where it didn’t belong, and putting it on the interstate at 70 m.p.h.

The intelligent reader will protest at this point, saying that good writing is rife with inherited conventions and silent quotation. Genre fictions, from reality shows to pastoral poems, are as alike as loaves of bread. T.S. Eliot (Harvard class of 1910) stuffed his work with so many allusions that he turned the first generation of his critics into literary accountants, itemizing his poetical Form 1040.

But even borrowing must be done originally. Did Eliot use it for padding, or for pain? Does a genre tell us what we already know, or show it afresh? Spring is old, but it’s always new. Writing too, with luck, and sweat.