Saturday, September 08, 2018

at LitHub Kevin Young writes on how plagiarists think and ... throws out a few axioms I'm not sure I take at face value

This is the first defense of the plagiarist: I only did it once, and by accident. The second defense is plagiarized from the first: I only did it once. Yet as Mallon reminds us, "Plagiarism is something people may do for a variety of reasons but almost always something they do more than once." The "unconscious stealing plea" goes hand in hand with the idea of only doing it once--not simply that I did it just that one time, but rather, in that one instance too, I was so unconscious as to be blameless.

To rewatch the episode now is to see the hoaxer plead innocence in a way familiar enough that it may seem plagiarized from some clichéd script. Indeed, all this was happening within months of James Frey, "Nasdijj," and JT LeRoy implosions. Where the fake memoirist plays at suffering, the plagiarist, like the impostor, often performs innocence. In Viswanathan’s case this doesn’t mean just "not guilty" of the charges before her, but innocence as a permanent state--one feminine, youthful, American. Such enforced innocence--gendered and often raced--may explain why, in the press material of the young author, she is regularly referred to as a "starlet," a term usually reserved for cinema. No matter her actual age, a starlet performs youthfulness--and matching beauty. Such youthfulness quickly if quietly signifies newness, freshness, and originality in turn, an approachable prodigy.

The early notices and prepress frame Viswanathan as a "girl wonder" a century after the iconic figure’s heyday. "A clever novel by a promising author. . . one of the hottest young talents in fiction," says the Boston Globe.  There’s a sense too of the author as somehow a new invention: the "young adult" (or YA as it’s known) Indian author; or more exactly, the Indian YA one. But by far the biggest suggestion of all is that the fictional Opal is true to life, a double who’s her and not-her. Opal Mehta is plagiarized from Viswanathan.

I don’t mean to substitute Freud’s couch for the Today show’s, yet we must be able to see the ways our culture’s cult of innocence and youth is also the culture of plagiarism. Newness at all costs yields pressure not just on the potential author but also on the culture that cannot be honest about its recycling, much less its trash.


Now that's an interesting proposal, if a deliberately provocative one--that our cultural cult of innocence and youth is also a culture of plagiarism. Perhaps in traditional and parochial societies the way to be wise beyond your years was to simply go to all the people who were considered wise, find out what you could from them, and share that wisdom as seemed fitting.  Ancient societies had wisdom traditions and so, for instance, in Jewish literature we have the book of Proverbs (which is necessarily best appreciated in conjunction with the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes and a few other books ... ).  Proverbs was robust enough a book that Christians didn't see much need to formulate a new non-Jewish wisdom literature and so they canonized it. 

But in our era and place to be wise beyond your years might also bring with it some obligation to not show your debts. 

But why can't this culture be honest about its recycling?  Copryight law?  That might be a variable, but I've written in the past about how we could look at Generation X as a case study in a generation that had to participate in the arts worlds in the wake of modifications to copyright law that extended effective copyright.  If you don't mind working on and with a lot of properties that are work for hire and trademarked by corporations you can get a Christopher Nolan making some, I think, pretty solid Batman movies.  But that entails being willign to play with the toys in the toybox that someone hands to you and not everyone is willing to do that.  That may be a variable that isn't being considered for a LitHub article because the rules for YA and higher brow literature are not the same as they would be for, say, comics.  That's soemthing to keep in mind as an article like this one moves along. 

To plagiarize another is to steal a bit of that person’s soul--almost as much as soul music was stolen. It is also to steal, in other words, a culture. Whether we think plagiarism a crime--the only crime in literature to some--or at best a minor offense, all depends on if we’re the ones being plagiarized. Or on whether we see writing as work. But why would Viswanathan steal her own culture? Why plagiarize in spirit and image, if not words, exactly those things that India-born Viswanathan may have actually experienced? It’s a puzzle--she seems to do so for ease, of course, but also perhaps as a way of becoming American, claiming an Americanness that, the book’s plot seems to suggest, is always at a remove. There’s a sense that Opal Mehta is somehow living a plagiarized existence, trying to own what doesn’t belong to her: Harvard, full-blooded humanity, a "life."

Opal Mehta must become a type for Viswanathan to live.

I have said plagiarism is about class, but it’s really race disguised as class. This is true of Viswanathan--not to mention Opal Mehta--who to some may come to represent the fast track that Harvard, or getting into it, has come to mean. When I was in school there, the saying went that the hardest thing about Harvard was getting in; if at all true then, getting in has become only tougher, with just over 2000 students accepted from a pool of more than 34,000 applicants for the class of 2016.

Eh ... I don't know.  Race disguised as class seems like it might not be far enough of a step, race disguised as class could still be a way to disguise the class issue.  To put it another way, when I read essays by contributors at NewMusicBox who talk about how post-genre we are sometimes those authors talk at considerable length about how just not-white they are.  The fact that they made it into prestigious schools is secondary or not something to be mentioned at all until maybe the biographical note at the bottom of the page.  There can be a set of norms and terms that can be construed as indicating class.  To pick a simple example from teh recent film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians, Rachel asks her boyfriend just how much money his family has. When he says to the effect "we live comfortably" Rachel smiles and says that she has learned that any time anyone says "we live comfortably" that's a euphemism for being wealthy.  There have been quips and jokes to the effect that the aristocrats of America aren't exactly like the aristocrats of Europe, they tend not to want to call attention to their aristocratic rank out on the street most of the time.  Perhaps I could even joke that aristocratic bearing is something to be saved for flaunting on social media, however aristocratic rank in social media terms may be defined. 

If anything in the last ten years I have begun to wonder whether a focus on race has been taken up so as to avoid class considerations altogether.  Academics have a capacity to focus on the "one percent" or the "elite" being a strictly financial elite and thereby avoid any consideration that they, too, are part of what could be called a ruling caste.  Or that's how it plays until it's time to fret about American anti-intellectualism as if it couldn't possibly be construed in class conflict terms but only in terms of the cognitive floor loathing and resenting the cognitive ceiling which ... can't really be construed in class terms, can it? 

If the axioms about plagiarism are applicable to Harvard then, frankly, they will have to be about class at every level--the classes you have to take if you get into a place like Harvard, the classes you have to be of or not of in order to get into Harvard, and even on the matter of what race you are there's still the matter of whether you have enough "class" to get into Harvard ... it still seems class permeates the matters of Harvard even if race is, obviously, a significant issue.  Whether or not admissions policies discriminate against Asians and Asian Americans or whether suits related to that have some kind of alt right deep pockets behind them (which is something I've seen mentioned in some coverage and editorializing in the last month or so) is a bit harder to say. 

But it seems relatively clear that if we're talking about people getting in as students to places like Harvard, class is going to be the big deal. I could see class disguised as race disguised as class explaining things ... but I'm not convinced that talking about class somehow becomes talking about race disguised as class.  Is Beyonce not one of the top selling artists of our era?  Was Michael Jackson not the King of Pop?  Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul.  John McWhorter has written a few times in the last few years that, yes, blacks have some bad experiences and there's a lot that can be better but that he's lived long enough to see that some things are actually better now, and he's frustrated that authors liek Coates can literally sell a narrative that things are still as bad as they were half a century ago--there's room for more nuance. 

This next generalization from the article ... not quite so sure about that, either.
While all writers fall in love with different books and writers who influence them, few are faithful; great writers tend to go beyond a singular influence in that strange alchemy of many influences that creates originality. Plagiarists tend to be monogamous. They return to one or two texts to craft their plagiarisms.

Having, ahem, been a writer who chronicled things going on in a megachurch (Mars Hill) during a period in which its former co-founder Mark Driscoll found himself embroiled in a plagiarism controversy it seems like a potentially safer way to articulate this proposed axiom might be to say that plagiarists tend to be drawn to a body of work that is, however large, still small enough and documentable enough for contemporary specialist scholars to track relatively quickly in our day.  If we modify the axiom to "they return to one or two bodies of literature ... "then that DOES seem like an accurate description of how plagiarists can behave. 

There are some observations about how from the 18th century on into our day the West has been fixated on originality and genius.  Yeah, yeah.  Oh, and the 18th century was rife with hoaxes.  Sure.  It's at these sorts of observations it seems useful to point out that Haydn became one of the popular composers in the Western world during his lifetime but he did not actually publish all that much.  Robbins-Landon has written that most of Haydn's works that were known during his lifetime were published by way of bootleg editions.  Now, when Haydn is more of a musician's composer who isn't given much attention compared to the genius mythologies associated with Beethoven and Mozart it's funny to think that Haydn was a formative influence on both composers (and a friend to Mozart), and that one of the most bootlegged popular musicians of two centuries ago can be a respectable subheading in shorter music history books that students might skim through to get a class over with. 

What seems different about our era is the capacity to annotate and cite, but also that we are living in an era in which so much of our popular culture is under copyright and trademark.  It's at this point that I confess to having little sympathy for the different sides of the issue.  I didn't feel all that bad for the guys who lost the "Blurred Lines" case because I don't like the song, first of all, and because the panic about whether or not you can copyright a genre seemed in bad faith.  Of course ... I am a classical guitarist and compose for that instrument and I might do something like arrange a movement from one of Byrd's masses for solo guitar.  That's to say that to me anyone sufficiently steeped in musical literacy to strip mine public domain literature for ideas doesn't have to worry about this or that new song being copyright protected.  If there's a reason to worry ti's about stuff like corporate juggernauts attempting to have everything under some kind f access point control.  As some writers have put it, when you have stuff on your Prime membership that streams you don't own it, you're just renting it for an indefinite period of time if you stream. 

Now maybe what plagiarists want to get that they don't have is what could be known as "authenticity".  Or maybe "authority".  The plagiarism controversy that swirled around a certain former megachurch preacher here in the Seattle area could probably be a case study of a person wanting authenticity and authority or leveraging what was perceived as being both.  A plagiarism controversy enveloping a celebrity preacher can cast doubt on whether the authority the preacher has is second or even third-hand, and that raises doubts about the authenticity of the instruction.  Unless, of course, you're a person who is set on rejecting ideas like "authenticity" or "authorship".  I've seen those kinds of cases and they are largely unpersuasive because if we live in an era of presidential ghostwriters might we want to be able to say that so-and-so's ideas, however good or bad we think they are, are that actual person's ideas? 

We live in the era of Trump and in the era of Trump polemics against authoriship and authenticity that may have made sense to readers of Barthes seem less germane now.  It may even make sense to people committed to what Theodore Gracyk has called "ontologically thick" music.  But I'm a classical guitarist.  Classical guitar, pedantic obsessions with technique and tone production withstanding, are playing some the most "ontologically thin" music around.  Go dig up a Sor etude and see whether you get much more than black dots on lines and spaces.  There's often very little by way of instruction in post-19th century terms as to "how" this music is supposed to sound. One of my friends joked that in newer scores you can see all this explicit detail and in a Haydn string quartet it will just start with "Allegro" and not much else.  The authentic master of a Beatles album and the authentic autograph of a Beethoven bagatelle are both "authentic" but the amount of information conveyed isn't the same in quality or quantity.  The former is far more specific and concrete and "ontologically thick".  In that sense we're far worse off in the age of mechanical reproduction than musicians might have been before this age. 

Why does that matter?  Well, if someone is steeped in rock or pop or hip hop or country; if someone is steeped in musical traditions in which it  matters if that country song is being played on a Telecaster or a Stratocaster in order for it to be legitimate; making arguments against an "authenticity" paradigm predicated on technological reproduction is going to mean very close to nothing for those of us whose music education is more half and half--certainly for those of us who read scores and play with invertible counterpoint the idea that the music is reducible to a set of timbres or a specific human voice is ludicrous.  In that sense I sometimes wonder whether the new musicology is setting itself against a conception of Western art music that has less to do with the actual scholarship and historiography of Western art music than with some ideals of authenticity in performance and conception that are part and parcel of popular music. 

On the whole the axioms presented by Young about plagiarists didn't really convince me but they are interesting to think about.  If we wanted to put forth a theory about what the plagiarist attempts to do by plagiarism it could be an effort to leverage a halo effect.  If the author's own halo isn't powerful enough to inspire the desired sense of awe in a prospective audience then, well, there's these other authors whose work the plagiarist can appropriate so as to attain the right level of awe and gravitas.  That seems simple enough and relatively accurate to how and why plagiarists seem to plagiarize.  Plagiarists seem to have to have an aspiration to an upward class mobility for which certain types of appropriation make sense.  You don't crib from people to ruin a literary career even if plagiarists can ruin their literary careers ... they don't set out with social mobility going only downward in mind. 

Which is another reason why I suspect it's still more than likely about class even if some authors think it's about race disguised as class. 

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