The highest form of flattery? In praise of plagiarism

Echoes of Amlie in Guillermo del Toros The Shape of Water, traces of Nabokov in Kristen Roupenians Cat Person … Where is the line between influence and plagiarism?

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-boyfriends emails, and the various claims that Guillermo del Toros 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, Amlie and Delicatessen allegations which DelToro, 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 Gallants 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 bythe novelist and critic Francine Prose. That debt, she wrote, is a scene by scene, plot-turn byplot-turn, gesture by gesture, line-of-dialogue byline-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 Gallants fiction, went on to lament that her work isnow so unread that Shepard could claim to have written whats essentially her story and publish it in the New Yorker.

Proses post incited a war of words. Among those commenting on her Facebook page were Meg Rosoff, Richard Bausch, and Shepard herself, defending herposition 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?

Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water. Photograph: Allstar/FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

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 Roupenians 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, anearly 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 Margots 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 Margots story and the suffering is hers.

It is possible that these, and other echoes, are coincidental. If intentional, Roupenians work joins a long and honourable tradition of reworkings of earlier stories: a feminist rewriting of, or writing back against, Nabokovs story. Should Roupenian have acknowledged this? To me, the echoes of Nabokov make her story even more interesting reading acommentary not only on contemporary sexual mores, but on sex in Nabokov, in literature.

A new replica of the prehistoric paintings of the Lascaux cave, in Montignac. Photograph: Regis Duvignau/AFP/Getty Images

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. Butthis article is not a defence of that project; rather aculmination 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 awriter. I wrote, or constructed, my novel the way Idid in part to explore my relationship with those books, to make my conversation with the writers whowrote 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 Beethovens 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 didnt dedicate a poem to an earlier or contemporary poet whose work had influenced, or been reworked by, the reader.

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 asJane Smileys A Thousand Acres (King Lear) or Peter Careys 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 Swifts novel Last Orders? The novel won the Booker prize in 1996; had it plagiarised William Faulkners As I Lay Dying by repeating not only the premise of Faulkners novel a group of characters transporting a body, or inSwifts 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 thevoice of the dead character. If Swift had given any kind of nod to Faulkner in his text, the fusswould probably have been laughed away. But instead the story played out in the newspapers fordays.

Or how about the curious case of Richard Ford andWalker Percy. Writing in the Guardian in 2006, Gordon Burn told of his passion for the haunting and mysterious voice of Fords novel The Sportswriter(1986). The syntax, diction, cadence of his weirdly inflected sentences had no obvious provenance, Burn wrote, until reading Percys The Moviegoer he discovered a voice very like Fords. I could illustrate this with any number of examples And yet, I had never seen Ford make any reference to TheMoviegoer in print. Hehas been a friend for many years, and yet has never mentioned the book even in passing. Searching online, Burn found a reference by Ford toalist of books that had influenced him, one of which was The Moviegoer, though Ford claimed he hadnt read Percys 1961 book in 10 years before startingThe Sportswriter.

Mavis Gallants short story The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street was published in the New Yorker in 1963. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian

Influence on a writer is a hard business to assess, Ford said, and Im not sure I would tell the truth if I could. To list every writer Ive 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] wasnt. 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 novelists 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. Its our good luck to have two dogs rather than the single stray, howling atthe 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 Shepards 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.

Felix Culpa is published by Scribe. To order a copy for 11.04 (RRP 12.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

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