Plagiarism Symposium Part I: Whose Own Words?

A scandal has broken out over at InfiniteSummer.org. I should stress that this scandal is entirely personal—everyone else has known about this for years.

Last December, I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest for the first time, and it instantly became one of my favorite novels of all-time, if not my outright favorite.

When I read it, however, I was not aware of something Kevin Guilfoile points out at the Infinite Summer website. At one point early in the novel (actually, it’s page 139,but that’s early when the book is over 1,000 pages long) Wallace includes a transcript of an insurance claim made by a bricklayer after an unfortunate accident. The story is quite humorously told. Apparently, though, not only is the story not original to the book, but it’s practically folklore.

Now, this isn’t the only example of an urban legend that Wallace includes in the novel; it’s just the first one I didn’t pick up on while reading. In fact, I enjoyed Wallace’s inclusion of cultural memes as, essentially, oral history. It seems to me that stories like this are like old jokes: They don’t belong to anyone—you keep the essential elements and you make the story your own in the details.

Guilfoile points out, however, that Wallace doesn’t even change many details; he includes a version of the story that was circulating on the Internet before the publication of the novel that is about 90% identical to the version in the novel.

This bothers me slightly because I remember reading this passage of the novel and being impressed, not by the story, but by the language used in it. In fact, I recall thinking that the language seemed incredibly unique, ironically. I can’t help but feel somewhat betrayed. But I’m not really sure why.

I’ve often maintained that people are too concerned with plagiarism in creative endeavors. The entire concept of “owning” words or notes of music seems silly: Language and music are inherently communal phenomena. So it’s pointless to talk about “stealing” when someone realizes that this chorus sounds an awful lot like this chorus, or when this guy’s jokes sound like this guy’s jokes. The real “crime” in situations like this is unoriginality or parallel thinking, not theft.

In this particular case, Wallace is not even guilty of that: He obviously knew the material wasn’t original to him and was including it precisely for that purpose. The phony insurance claim serves absolutely no plot function, and it is even presented as a chain e-mail, which, it is not unreasonable to assume, is how Wallace had first encountered it. Wallace is neither trying to trick us nor impress us with this bit.

So why does it bother me at all? I think it’s because we look on the works of writers, musicians, comedians and really any creative individual as some reflection of their personal individuality. This is what we mean when we talk about “expressing oneself.” There is a sense in which an individual “bares his soul” through a song, book, etc. And when something turns out to not reflect a particular personal expression and instead turns out to be essentially an inside joke (which, granted, I appear to be alone on the outside of), we are disappointed.

But this is largely unreasonable. After all, if I had been “in” on the joke when I first read it, I would have been fine with it, particularly if he had altered the details like it was his own version of “the Aristocrats.” But then how much would he have to alter to make the story sufficiently “his”? 10%? 50%? What if he put two extant versions of the story together? At what point does something become “original”?

And, now that I think about it, this kind of confusion was probably Wallace’s point.

But I think Josh may have something to say about this….

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One response to this post.

  1. […] plagiarism bad? People have discussed it before, but I can’t exactly tell you what they said, now can I? I guess I could, if I put it in my own […]

    Reply

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