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A plague upon these misguided allegations of literary cribbing

Date: February 5 2005

By James Valentine

Lot of plagiarism about this week. The astrologer and author of Single White E-mail, Jessica Adams, had to face an allegation of ripping off Agatha Christie. If so, Adams hardly sought to profit from her alleged crime. She published her story in that highly regarded literary organ and well known stepping stone to the Booker Prize and Hollywood adaptation, The Big Issue.

In the interests of balanced and insightful reporting, let me tell you I've read neither Adams's tale The Circle nor the one she allegedly cribbed, Christie's The Idol House of Astarte, but I do know this: for writers, throwing accusations of plagiarism around is the same as accusations of wife-beating and child molestation for everyone else. And unless, like Media Watch, you've got the pink highlighter and the matched voice-over happening, I'd be wary.

If we removed everything that was a bit similar and sounded like something else from the bookshelves, the cinema, and the record store we'd be left with the Bible, Shakespeare and a didgeridoo - (nothing sounds like a didgeridoo and you wouldn't want it to).

Consider these examples of regular triteness which we've been watching for years:

 Rookie cop is teamed with grizzled old detective on the eve of retirement. One of them will take the bullet, one of them will learn some valuable life lessons.

 It's prom night and our film opens on the school ugly duckling in the library. The jocks dare their leader to try to score with her. One of them will turn out to be stunningly beautiful in swimwear and the other will learn some valuable life lessons.

 Some young Aussie knockabout-type characters with ocker accents no one actually uses go on a road trip to the outback. Along the way nothing much will happen, but the film will get critical acclaim.

Let's call the first one Lethal NYPD Training Day. The second She's That Girl from That TV Show Getting Her First Film Role. The third - I don't know, did anyone go and see it?

Go to the bookstore. J.R.R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings will have its own section. Two dozen shelves full of different editions, calendars, notebooks, fully annotated Silmarillions by the millions. Next to this is the fantasy section. Remove every book from the fantasy section that has a ring of power in its plot. Remove every book in which the evil lord's power is contained in a stone, dragon's tooth, bracelet, amulet or eyebrow stud. Continue to remove all books where young innocent character must obtain amulet or eyebrow stud in order to save world.

Result: go back to The Lord of the Rings, itself a pastiche of myth in which Tolkien was steeped and which he was trying to patch together into something that would give Britain a wellspring of myth akin to the Scandanavians. (Their god Odin had rings of power which would give its owner enormous wealth and, of course, enormous headaches as well - land tax in Norway in AD720 was a killer.)

Crime fiction, chick lit, narrative non-fiction (Longitude, Perfume, Salt, Simon Winchester's entire ouvre), fairy stories, every single thing in the bookstore doesn't just draw upon its predecessors, it pins them down and attempts to choke the secret of their success out of them and use them itself.

This is no more plagiarism than the Rolling Stones pretending to be Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan doing Woody Guthrie impressions, every jazz musician becoming a study of clammed-up cool after Miles Davis. If someone drizzles paint on a canvas do they owe Jackson Pollock a dollar? If a photographer points his Nikon at a sunbaker should he send a cheque to Max Dupain? If a dancer pirouettes, a flautist trills, an actor pauses dramatically, at what point in the show should they acknowledge the debt they owe to the dancers, flautists and actors of the past who gave us this language of self expression?

Believe me, this is not a postmodern excuse. I'm about as postmodern as Agatha Christie, and wish Foucault and Derrida were the fashion designers they sound like they should be. But there's nothing postmodern about reminding us that in all creative work, the writer, sculptor, hairdresser plugs into a tradition.

Let me not just plagiarise but blatantly steal a terrific example from the BBC TV series Walk On By, a study of pop song. "It's clear," said one critic, "Abba learnt from the Beatles and Phil Spector who studied Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Motown who knew all the tricks of Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter who cut their teeth on the minstrel shows and vaudeville musicals who were indebted to Stephen Foster who got everything he knew from now long forgotten folksters, troubadours, balladeers, doggerelists busking outside his window."

If you are going to accuse someone of plagiarism at least be as funny as Peter Cook. Let me finish by stealing his joke."David Frost," he mused on a talk show, "you mean the Bubonic Plagiarist." And by shoehorning that quote in there, I am, of course, plagiarising every article written on plagiarism which always opens or finishes with that legendary insult.

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