The strange thing about Plagiarism is that it’s almost always pointless. The writers who stand accused, from Laurence Sterne to Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Susan Sontag, tend to be more talented than the writers they lift from. The well-regarded historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, recently charged with plagiarizing, fit the profile. Ambrose denied plagiarism but pledged to correct the errors in future editions of his latest book. Goodwin’s case resulted in a private settlement and more footnotes.
Even their critics couldn’t agree on the severity of their infractions. Problem is, as concepts go, plagiarism isn’t that old. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson as the first person to use the word plagiary to designate literary theft–and he was making a joke. That was at the beginning of the 17th century, when everyone, including Shakespeare, still borrowed other people’s work and remade it.Order now
Originality had very little cred before the Romantics inflated it. The increasing prevalence of mass-produced books furthered the problem of plagiarism, too, because then there was something to steal from. The ensuing centuries have left us with no lack of cases, but clear-cut definitions are still hard to come by. “Common sense–always in short supply on this subject–has to settle the issue,” says Thomas Mallon, author of the excellent history of plagiarism, “Stolen Words” (from which nearly the entire paragraph above is lifted). “How much material is involved? How many instances?” In Ambrose’s case, literary detectives have ferreted out numerous examples of borrowing/lifting/stealing in at least five books published over three decades. Does that make him a plagiarist? Mallon again: “If there are 10 stab wounds, you’re dealing with something other than a kitchen accident.