The age of the internet, where everything is connected, has made plagiarism both easier to commit and more difficult to hide, as many a student has discovered. It has also exposed writers to new levels of examination, such as the recent allegations that Emma Cline, author of the best-selling novel The Girls, took ideas for the book from her ex-boyfriend’s emails, and the various claims that Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar contender, The Shape of Water, is based on a 1969 play, Let Me Hear You Whisper, or has copied scenes from two French films, Amélieand Delicatessen – allegations which Del Toro, or his representatives, have denied.
Two short stories published in the past few months also raise contemporary, as well as age-old, questions about influence and debt in works of fiction. Where exactly is the line between homage, reference, fair borrowing, and plagiarism? And is acknowledging such debts enough – or necessary?
“Foreign-Returned”, by Sadia Shepard, published in the New Yorker last month, tells of a professional Pakistani couple working and socialising in America. In an interview published online to accompany the story, Shepard acknowledged the “great debt” her story owes to Mavis Gallant’s “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street”, itself published in the New Yorker in 1963, which tells of a professional Canadian couple working and socialising in Switzerland. “Ice Wagon” is a story she returned to “year after year”, Shepard said. In doing so she thought “this feels so Pakistani” and was excited by the idea of applying its “universal” truth to “a completely different context”.
Not different enough, according to a series of barbed Facebook posts by the novelist and critic Francine Prose. That “debt”, she wrote, “is a scene by scene, plot-turn by plot-turn, gesture by gesture, line-of-dialogue by line-of-dialogue copy – the only major difference being that the main characters here are Pakistanis in Connecticut during the Trump era instead of Canadians in post WW-II Geneva.” Prose, a devotee of Gallant’s fiction, went on to lament that her work “is now so unread” that Shepard could “claim to have written what’s essentially her story and publish it in the New Yorker”.
Prose’s post incited a war of words. Among those commenting on her Facebook page were Meg Rosoff, Richard Bausch, and Shepard herself, defending her position – a defence Prose described in reply as “naive”. By the logic of those supporting Shepard, Prose went on, “I can take anything ever written, no matter how complex, reproduce every scene, and simply change the names and ethnicities of the characters and it will be ‘my’ story. Seriously? Then why should we even bother having copyright laws?”
The second story, “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian, published in December, is the tale of an unhappy sexual episode between a young woman and an older man. Surprisingly, given the tidal wave of attention the story has provoked, what no one seems to have noticed – other than my student daughter, Leah, who like many young women was entranced by Roupenian’s story, and also happened to be writing an essay on Nabokov – is that “Cat Person” is, or appears to be, a reworking of Laughter in the Dark, an early Nabokov novel.
The parallels are not on the scale of those Prose points to between the Shepard and Gallant stories, but are still striking. In both a young woman named Margot meets an older man while working at a cinema and ends up in bed with him. There are similar details. In the Nabokov, the man tries to kiss Margot “but she ducked and his lips met only her velvet cap”. In the Roupenian, “she thought he was going in for a kiss and prepared to duck” and he kisses her “on the forehead”. In the Nabokov, the man wonders over Margot’s perfect nudity. In the Roupenian, Margot imagines the man wondering the same thing. The difference is that the Nabokov is told mostly from the point of view of the older man, who ends up suffering at the hands of the young woman, while “Cat Person” is Margot’s story and the suffering is hers.
It is possible that these, and other echoes, are coincidental. If intentional, Roupenian’s work joins a long and honourable tradition of reworkings of earlier stories: a feminist rewriting of, or writing back against, Nabokov’s story. Should Roupenian have acknowledged this? To me, the echoes of Nabokov make her story even more interesting reading – a commentary not only on contemporary sexual mores, but on sex in Nabokov, in literature.
The truth, of course, is that no writing, no artistic creation exists in isolation. You only have to see photographs or film of the cave paintings at Chauvet in southern France, made over hundreds, even thousands of years, some 30 millennia ago, the newer paintings imitating, overlapping, remaking, the older ones, to appreciate that art has been from its earliest origins a conversation between artists.
Confession time: I have myself written a new novel, Felix Culpa, which draws deeply on other works of fiction – is, in fact, composed mainly of lines taken word for word from a hundred other books. But this article is not a defence of that project; rather a culmination of the thought processes that were part of the impetus for it. Most of those hundred books are the novels and other works that have shaped me as a writer. I wrote, or constructed, my novel the way I did in part to explore my relationship with those books, to make my conversation with the writers who wrote them more open.
“Art is theft,” Picasso famously said. The “magpie genius”, as one art critic has called him, openly borrowed from and reworked earlier and contemporary art, both on a large scale, such as in his reimaginings of paintings by Goya and Delacroix, and in smaller ways. “Shown a portfolio of old drawings,” Picasso said, “I have no qualms about taking anything I want from them.” Sampling has been a dominant form in popular music over the past quarter of a century, but musicians have always reworked old music. When Brahms was accused of using a theme from Beethoven’s Ninth in his own first symphony, his response was that any fool could see that. “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” wrote TS Eliot, another magpie genius. I recently came back from a writing residency in America where there were readings every night, and it was seldom that a poet didn’t dedicate a poem to an earlier or contemporary poet whose work had influenced, or been reworked by, the reader.
Writers of fiction can be more coy, less willing to own up to their debts, than other artists
Yet fiction seems to have an uneasier relationship with influence than other art forms. One novelist at the residency did speak about her debt to another novel before her reading, but she was the only one. There are the open rewritings or responses to earlier works, such as Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (King Lear) or Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (Great Expectations). But with smaller, more nuanced borrowings, imitations, influences, writers of fiction can be more coy, less willing to own up to their debts, than other artists.
Remember the allegations about Graham Swift’s novel Last Orders? The novel won the Booker prize in 1996; had it plagiarised William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying by repeating not only the premise of Faulkner’s novel – a group of characters transporting a body, or in Swift’s case, ashes – but also its form? In Last Orders brief alternating chapters are told by the members of the transporting party; the chapters are titled with the names of the speakers; one chapter consists of a numbered list, another of a few words, another is in the voice of the dead character. If Swift had given any kind of nod to Faulkner in his text, the fuss would probably have been laughed away. But instead the story played out in the newspapers for days.
Or how about the curious case of Richard Ford and Walker Percy. Writing in the Guardian in 2006, Gordon Burn told of his passion for the “haunting and mysterious” voice of Ford’s novel The Sportswriter(1986). The syntax, diction, cadence of his “weirdly inflected sentences” had “no obvious provenance”, Burn wrote, until reading Percy’s The Moviegoer he discovered “a voice very like” Ford’s. “I could illustrate this with any number of examples … And yet, I had never seen Ford make any reference to The Moviegoer in print. He has been a friend for many years, and yet has never mentioned the book even in passing.” Searching online, Burn found a reference by Ford to a list of books that had influenced him, one of which was The Moviegoer, though Ford claimed he hadn’t read Percy’s 1961 book in 10 years before starting The Sportswriter.
“Influence on a writer is a hard business to assess,” Ford said, “and I’m not sure I would tell the truth if I could.” “To list every writer I’ve learned something from would take me hours,” Jonathan Franzen has written. But he has also said that if he were “labouring in the shadow” of another writer he “would certainly be at pains to pretend [he] wasn’t.” So why this reluctance among fiction writers to acknowledge what Picasso was so happy to embrace? Is it a macho thing? In no other art form is there so grandiloquent a concept as the Great American Novel. Or is the novelist’s cult of originality a product of the relative youth of the novel form, when compared to art, music, poetry: something still adolescent in fiction? Or is it simply the demand for novelty contained in the name?
Burn went on to make clear that he was not criticising Ford for borrowing from The Moviegoer: “Both are wonderful novels. It’s our good luck to have two dogs rather than the single stray, howling at the moon.” I second that emotion.
While I am confident, as my publishers are, that my new novel follows the tradition of fair usage – my borrowings are short, mostly fragments; I have put them to new use – I would not deny that there are lines in literary thievery that should not be crossed. Is Shepard’s story in the New Yorker a breach of copyright? Or plagiarism? My own reading would be more generous. I think she has made a new story out of an old one, something that has value in its own right.
And what about “Cat Person”? Should Roupenian have acknowledged her debt – if it is indeed that – to Nabokov? My answer would be that she has no obligation to do so. As Antonya Nelson, another writer of short stories, said to me at the residency in America, it is part of the fun of reading to discover for oneself echoes of older stories in newer ones. I would also argue that writers could do themselves a favour by liberating themselves from the straitjacket of originality. As Picasso and Eliot exemplified, conversations between artists should be celebrated, not hidden.
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Mimicry can be found in many different aspects of life. Animals use mimicry for protection and survival, humans use mimicry to express emotion and respond to events and comedians use mimicry as a technique to familiarize their audience with their topics of discussion, in order to establish comfort.
Mimicry is defined by Merriam Webster as “the activity or art of copying the behavior or speech of other people: The activity or art of mimicking other people” (1).
We can accredit the first forms of mimicry to be found and recorded by Bates and Müller during their time working in Brazil. What they noticed was that many butterfly families had very similar colored wings but not exactly the same. They discovered that these butterflies mocked poisonous species that were undesirable to birds and lizards in order to protect themselves and survive. Around this same time, Darwin was exploring the idea of natural selection in his book “On the Origin of Species.” Müller then wrote a response to his book which spoke in support of his theory and added this form of mimicry under a technique used for natural selection. (2)
Years after Müller’s findings, the term “Müllerian mimicry” was coined. Before it was thought that the butterflies were mimicking the poisonous species, but it was later discovered that they were actually mimicking each other’s warning signs of other butterflies. Butterflies will adopt the features of butterflies that are able to survive and be avoided in order to survive. (3)
Mimicry is not limited to appearance, it extends to senses as well. For example “snakes share the same auditory warning signals, forming an auditory Müllerian ring” (3). These signals can expand to closely related species and even species of different decent that have the same predators. This form of mimicry can be found all throughout different ecosystems dating back to the beginning of time.
What most people don’t know is that we use mimicking in our mannerisms to achieve certain goals. Just like butterflies, we are constantly adapting and changing in the presence of other human beings. We mirror and mimic one another to express emotions and increase likeliness of a positive feeling resulting from an interaction.
Subconsciously, we take each other’s posture or behavior. For example, a classic interview at a professional business firm. Beginning with the attire: An interviewee will most likely dress in accordance to what they think the administrator of the interview will be wearing. By mimicking dress code the interviewer has established a sense of familiarity with the employer. Let’s say, the interviewee shows up in a T-shirt and cargo shorts. Automatically, they have set a distinction between the two parties. This divide will not result in a comfortable setting and will lead one party to be superior over another one. To avoid awkwardness and to assimilate two parties mimicking of an outfit can change an entire situation.
Body language and gesture will also change during an interview. A firm handshake at the beginning of the meeting will signal a professional welcome automatically setting an expectation for the rest of the interview. From this point on, the interviewee will mirror the administrator of the test exactly. By sitting up straight, placing hands on the table or lap and even by matching the attitude of the room will be crucial to the interviewee’s success.
We, as humans have all of these techniques in order to try and succeed. The above scenario is an extreme example of how mimicking can be used to get ahead, but what about a simple uncontrollable yawn?
Mimicking can go as far as body movements such as yawning. Scientists have found that yawning can stem all the way to human empathy for one another. In a recent study, 40% of people will yawn at the site of another person yawning. Dr. Platek believes that this is an “evolutionary trait that benefits our species.” Our ability to replicate body behavior has helped to “bind social groups through their feelings for each other.”
As early as four years old, a child will pick up the trait of yawning. For reasons that are not quite explainable yet, we use yawning to bond to one another. It is suspected that yawning occurs between groups of people to help send a sense of calmness through a group and break social barriers. It rarely has to do with tiredness or being bored.
From a formal interview to yawning, mimicking is found in different forms of physical and emotional behavior in humans. Both of these examples result in the advantage of our species and that advantage is always the same. By mirroring body language we break down barriers between people and gain a mutual understanding and trust. Human complexity comes from our ability to pick up emotional and social cues from one another. Our constant use of mirroring and mimicking adds to our emotions and feelings and it is what makes us human.
So now the question comes is how do artists such as comedians use their knowledge on mimicry to their advantage? In my essay discussing Tina Fey’s role as Sarah Palin I take a look into how each detail of her mannerisms represent a new image. Tina Fey copies Sarah Palin’s appearance, accent, and even behavioral mannerisms.
All of these tendencies together help create a sense of familiarity with our subject that is being made fun of. We can tune in to Saturday Night Live and automatically recognize the familiar figure on the screen. However, what we are seeing it not what we expect. It is a mockery of the real deal and that is what generates a laugh. Tina Fey uses her uncanny resemblance and a few techniques to trick her audience into believing something that isn’t real and once the audience realizes this discrepancy a laugh is formed.
In the opposite manner of a butterfly, Tina Fey attracts her audience towards her using mimicry as her main technique. As evidence listed above, there are many different ways that mimicry is used in nature. From warding off enemies to breaking social barriers mimicry is a natural phenomenon occurring in many stages of life.
A simple yawn can share an individual’s emotional side and the way a person acts in an interview can determine whether or not they will get a job. Lastly and most importantly, the main use of mimicry is used to assimilate together. Butterflies assemble together to protect themselves from predators while humans assimilate together to generate a positive feeling within. Recognizing these different forms of mimicry reveals how a small tendency to band together can go very far. It is important to show how these behaviors effect our population every day in order to advance.
mimicry | the activity or art of copying the behavior or speech of other people : the activity or…
Define mimicry: the activity or art of copying the behavior or speech of other people : the activity or art of…www.merriam-webster.com
Solving the Puzzles of Mimicry in Nature
Perhaps no destination has attracted and inspired more great naturalists than Brazil. Charles Darwin, on his epic…www.nytimes.com
Müllerian mimicry is a natural phenomenon in which two or more poisonous species, that may or may not be closely…en.wikipedia.org
Yawning is a chain reaction
by JAMES CHAPMAN, Daily Mail It is a human chain reaction that can set off a roomful of people in a matter of moments…www.dailymail.co.uk