Plagiarism and Persona

Everyone is a version of someone else, who themselves are copies of a copy of a copy. To create a persona is less an act of creation than of conscious theft. Even the word persona comes from the Latin word for stage masks worn by actors in a comedy of tragedy. We are all players, cobbling together a role from various plays, characters, and writers. Imagine, then, the difficulty when a writer (who is composed of various ideas and performances) sits down to write a story, which is also an act of persona. A story inhabits the world of a specific genre or style, borrowing the signposts and characters from other writers who have contributed to it, and then has to create a distinctive language which, however original, still has to sound authentic.   

Consider the following opening sentence: “Pombo the idolater had prayed to Ammuz a simple prayer, a necessary prayer, such as even an idol of ivory could very easily grant, and Ammuz has not immediately granted it.” The sentence comes from Lord Dunsany’s classic fantasy tale, “The Injudicious Prayers of Pombo the Idolater” (1913) and bears the unmistakable hallmarks of the fantasy genre. No other literary form could get away with such absurd names—“Pombo” and “Ammuz”—or write a sentence about praying to ivory idols without batting an eye. In short, this seems like an everyday occurrence within the context of the story, even if none of us know who Ammuz is or why he would refuse to grant such a “simple, necessary” prayer from one of his “idolaters.” There’s also a hint of irony here, since the very name “idolater” suggests Christian judgment; clearly we’re meant to be suspicious of Pombo’s piety and purpose.

Dunsany’s tales soon aroused a storm of interest among young readers, notably J.R.R. Tolkein and H.P. Lovecraft (speaking of persona, note how many writers in the early 20th century had abbreviated names!). Lovecraft in particularly fell in love with Dunsany’s pellucid prose, full of evocative names and mysterious imagery. By way of comparison, read the first sentences of Lovecraft’s early story, “The Picture in the House” (1920): “Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia.” While the opening is quite different—and potentially much less humorous than Dunsany—we can hear the same archaic mystery behind it. Lovecraft’s evocation of “the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of nightmare” is almost a crib from Dunsany, and perhaps a less effective one. Indeed, it reads like someone who flipped through a book and decided, “yes, that one’s mine,” and shuffled entire sentences into his coat.

In this case, most would call Lovecraft’s infraction a testament to inspiration, if not outright devotion to Dunsany’s art. He didn’t steal it, since no exact words or phrases can be found from one story to the next. And yet, the stylistic similarities are profound; there could be no Lovecraft without Dunsany, to the extent that you could call Lovecraft a knock-off brand of the original product. Is this plagiarism? Should Dunsany have objected to the younger writer’s imitation—or simply been flattered? Luckily for us he didn’t mind, any more than he minded Tolkein’s pilfering his Gods of Pegana for his more expansive Simarillion.

As the years went on, Lovecraft purged much of Dunsany’s influence, only retaining his love of ornate language and evocative (perhaps excessively so) prose. Every writer is Lovecraft at one time or another, and every writer has his or her Lord Dunsany: a writer for whom the lure of persona is so strong, and so unavoidable, that a certain amount of literary theft will occur. Sometimes characters and story lines will bear a remarkable similarity to the original; at other times, certain phrases and favorite words will creep in through subconscious imitation, much as a young child mouths words that his or her parents use in daily conversation. So where do we draw the line between imitation and influence? Do we make allowances in a younger author that would be inexcusable in old age? Can a style ever truly be purged of the persona of influence…or is style itself an artistic sleight of hand, so we don’t notice the lifting of our aesthetic wallets?

Perhaps the true distinction lies in the nature of the theft itself. I’ve often discovered a writer who uses a single word in an irresistible way; weeks or months later, I find myself reaching for the same word, slyly using it as an act of silent homage. Many readers love catching these hidden hallmarks, not to catch the writer red-handed, but as a way of mapping his or her literary DNA. The only thing better than reading the work of a favorite author is discovering that he/she has the same good taste. Lovecraft knew and deeply understood Dunsany’s idiom, which made him realize how he could write his own works. It’s like finding a friend with whom you share a common language. Soon, you both start speaking the same, using the same in-jokes and jargon. Friends can borrow all they like, and there are no thieves in art. At least, not in the brother/sisterhood of true artists.

Yet not all writers are friends, and there is a certain breed of writer that doesn’t acknowledge borrowing or influence. True literary theft—or outright plagiarism—occurs when the writer hides his or her borrowed persona. We live in the age of the brand, where a writer is supposed to be an ‘author’ someone whose likeness can be displayed on book jackets, websites, and glossy posters. Indeed, the author often usurps the book itself, since books become an act of product loyalty rather than artistic understanding. This kind of author is always looking for ways to cut corners and imitate trends, which is the surest path to the self-delusion of plagiarism.

A writer who truly loved these works would never want to repeat them verbatim; rather, he or she would capture the spirit of the work in a new way, which continues and enriches the genre rather than sucking it dry. Only the writer who scrambles for the table scraps would sully it by making its innovations into clich├ęs, and its poetry into bombast. Lovecraft took the essence of Dunsany’s wonder and unleashed the terrors that the older writer hinted at, but never explored. In short, he saw the potential in a form that had yet to be exhausted. Plagiarism, by definition, exhausts and enfeebles literature. It makes us forget what made it new and questions why we keep reading it in the first place.

Naturally, writers place great stock in being original. Every writer wants to stand for something, usually for good writing, or strong characters, or an original story. None of these, however, are endangered by a little old-fashioned influence. Writers who put too much stock in originality are, to my mind, in the greatest risk of plagiarism. An honest writer will let the seams show, as Lovecraft did, since writing is a response to everything that came before. If we didn’t borrow, we would quickly run out of things to say. Those who ignore the conversation risk making themselves obsolete, since a good reader wants more than a shopworn trend. We want stories and ideas that respond to the ones we read before, but not in the same way, not in the same voice. Making words ‘speak’ is the true challenge of art, and slipping on another writer’s persona is no short cut to success. Any good reader—and there are many of them out there—can see you’re simply wearing a mask.