Appropriation or plagiarism?

William Anker, an International Booker nominee, appears to have taken some swathes of his book out of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (which I am still scarred by). Is it appropriation or plagiarism? Might come down to attribution.

Take the following passage, in which Buys leads his gang of outlaws into an attack “like a horde from Hell more abhorrent even than the fire and brimstone land of Christian Reckoning, skirling and shrieking, clothed in smoke like those phantoms in regions beyond certainty and sense where the eye wanders and the lip shudders and drools.”

Here: McCarthy, on a similar approach from a Comanche ambush: “Like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.”

To discuss the concept of plagiarism in art is to grasp for something very slippery. Most crucially, it should be noted that a wide range of intertextual manoeuvres are fundamental to creativity. Mark Twain famously wrote to Helen Keller – who stood accused of plagiarising a short story – that “substantially all ideas are secondhand”. Curiously, the application of these tactics to prose literature is frequently deemed worse than when applied to poetry, music or the visual arts. Literary genius is oddly considered sui generis. In answer, we can take Jonathan Lethem’s marvellous essay The Ecstasy of Influence, which deconstructs ideas about originality by forging an argument made almost entirely from fragments, taking to the very limit a line from Montaigne’s essays: “I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

One thought on “Appropriation or plagiarism?

  1. All fiction is a conversation with past stories, all of it, and I often find myself (this week, even) doing very nerdy things, like story-mapping a 200-page novella to see exactly where the beats and highs and lows fell, to figure out that trick– but on the other hand, if you can match a paragraph on the word-to-word level, I think you’ve moved past conversing or even engaged discussion, no? This sample feels egregious to me. And lazy.

    But also, in this case, complex: where an author and translator are working together toward this English version that mimics McCarthy; where McCarthy is attributed in the English version of the book, but not the original Afrikaans; where McCarthy has not been translated into that language himself. Unless I read Afrikaans, how can I know for sure where the line fell? I think this case is rendered far murkier by the translation aspect. I don’t think translators can be removed from this discussion.

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