Plagiarism and Elitism
|by C.J. Chase|
A little over a month ago, I wrote about mid-20th century British author D.E. Stevenson. Fellow Inkwell compatriot Deb Marvin mentioned a contemporary of Stevenson’s, Elizabeth Goudge, in a comment. Since I’d never read any of Goudge’s works, I immediately typed her name into a search engine.
Like Stevenson, she was born around the turn-of-the-(last)-century. And while Stevenson died in 1973, Goudge lived until 1984. An award-winning and bestselling author of romances in her time, Goudge has since become famous for an event that happened years after her death. The late Goudge, you see, was the victim of plagiarism.
First, a couple of definitions. Plagiarism happens when a person claims authorship over words that originated with another person. It can be a book, a movie, a poem, or even a speech. (Now Vice President Joe Biden was accused of plagiarizing a speech during his 1988 presidential run. He subsequently withdrew from the race.) Plagiarism is theft because you have stolen another person’s labor, and colleges take it seriously. (Or they are supposed to, anyway. More on that in a minute.)
Copyright infringement happens when a person (or company) misuses a work (art, fiction, photography, music, etc.) that is still under copyright protection. Copyright protections are of limited length, and the duration is established under law and varies from country to country. (Over the last century, the U.S. Congress has increased the length of time a work remains under copyright protection.) After the copyright expires, the work enters public domain and is accessible to anyone. Anyone can make a recording the Messiah without paying royalties to Handel because the score is in the public domain.
Here’s an example. Copying passages from Pride and Prejudice and claiming them as your own is plagiarism (stealing another person’s work), but not a copyright violation because the book is now public domain (published too long ago to be under copyright protection). However, copying passages from a Steven King novel and claiming them as your own is both plagiarism and a copyright violation. (It’s also pretty stupid because King is a well-read and well-established author whose words are liable to be recognized by his legions of fans.) The copyright violation is what will probably get you into legal and financial trouble when King’s publisher comes with a lawsuit in hand.
In 1993, Ballantine Books published a novel by Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen, Crane’s Morning. The book, Aikath-Gyaltsen’s second, garnered enough success and critical reviews, such as this one in The New York Times, that the publisher offered the author a 10-book contract. Alas, it was not an original work. A reader in Ontario and a librarian in New Hampshire both noticed many similarities to Goudge’s novel, The Rosemary Tree. A closer comparison of the two books revealed that Crane’s Morning was nearly word-for-word the same book, albeit with the character and place names changed. Ironically, the original had not received such rave reviews when published in 1956. The New York Times (yes, the same NYT) called its plot “slight” and sentimental.
The story reminded me of another plagiarism case from several years ago when a Harvard-bound, high school prodigy received a $500,000, 2-book deal for an ethnic chick-lit/YA mash up. Like Crane’s Morning, Kaavya Viswanthan’s first book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, got good reviews. And like Crane’s Morning, it wasn’t original. Viswanthan plagiarized passages from several other books, but mostly from two YA novels by Megan McCafferty. When the plagiarism became known, the publisher withdrew all copies from bookstore shelves. (Harvard, however, took no action, saying the plagiarism occurred outside an academic setting. Viswanthan went on to graduate from Harvard and attend Georgetown Law School.)
What fascinates me about the two cases isn’t so much the plagiarism itself, but the way people judged the original works and the copies so differently, based solely on the packaging. Because the latter were classified as “literary” works, the critics praised them and the publishers supported them with more money and marketing than anyone had given to the original works. It would seem there is a degree of elitism at work. To give credit where it is due, Washington Post reviewer for Crane’s Morning Paul Kafka kind of/sort of admitted as much. “Maybe Elizabeth Goudge is a writer who hasn’t gotten her due.” Um, ya think? Or could it be the “right” people considered Goudge’s work inferior because she wrote commercial, not literary, fiction—because they read it with patronizing eyes rather than seeing what was really there?
It does make me wonder how often we believe the “hype.” Do we classify something—a work of art or music or writing—as great or mediocre or even vulgarly bourgeois based on the opinions of academics or experts? (True confession: I shall never understand the hype surrounding Picasso. Do. Not. Get. It.)
Worse, do we treat people the same way, considering them inferior because of some subjective standard we hold dear?
Oh, and by the way, while working on this post, I learned that the movie The Secret of Moonacre was based on Goudge’s award-winning children’s novel, The Little White Horse. Novelist J.K. Rowling called The Little White Horse her favorite childhood book. If you’ve never seen the movie, well, let’s just say Ioan Gruffudd back in period garments.
After leaving the corporate world to stay home with her children, C.J. Chase quickly learned she did not possess the housekeeping gene. She decided writing might provide the perfect excuse for letting the dust bunnies accumulate under the furniture. Her procrastination, er, hard work paid off in 2010 when she won the Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Manuscript and sold the novel to Love Inspired Historicals. Her current release, The Reluctant Earl, is now available in online bookstores. You can visit C.J.'s cyber-home (where the floors are always clean) at www.cjchasebooks.com