"Using" the Work of Others

The recent incidents concerning Fareed Zakaria and Jonah Lehrer have brought all sorts of issues to mind–far beyond the simplistic tsk-tsking for failure to provide attribution (accidental plagiarism?) and the making up of quotes. Though these shouldn’t happen, they are commonplace occurrences. These writers just happened to get caught.

Careers are made on such things, and have been for generations. One of my favorite novels is Budd Schulberg’s 1941 What Makes Sammy Run? It contains this passage:

“I read it,” I said. “Maybe you’d like to know he copied that first paragraph from Somerset Maugham?”

“Maybe that’s where you need to go for your stuff,” he said….

The funny part of it was the kid’s stuff wasn’t bad. He was just smart enough never to crib from the same writer twice….

He even found a way of turning… retractions into a good think. For instance, if some bigshot happened to demand a correction, Sammy would call him by some private nickname and say, “Sorry, Jock,” or “Pudge” or “Deac, thanks for the help.”

I remember reading a biography of Elizabeth Taylor a couple of decades ago that was filled with quotes that exhibited exactly the style and cadence of the author. Usually, I have to take a breath when entering into a blockquote, reminding myself that the “feeling” was going to be different from what I had been reading. Not in this case. A person who had been a researcher for the author confirmed to me that much of the source material had been made up.

All who write base their work on those who have written before, and all bring work of the past forward, making it new (to paraphrase Ezra Pound). Many biographers do ‘make up’ conversations out of scanty information, doing so to make vivid what their research has shown to be true. Personally, I am not sure they should do that, even when it is clear that they are not taking the words from any one recorded source but are extrapolating from other information, but it has become something of a standard practice The problem is in knowing when one has gone too far, when one has reached Sammy-Glick status.

Personally, I don’t think Zakaria did. His mistake seems to have been honest, and he admitted to it immediately. Lehrer? He tried to cover it up. Plus, he did something a little different from providing what is, in most cases, clearly a reconstruction. The way he used his Dylan “quotes” gave them a much more direct link to the source than an imagined conversation has. The same was true in that Liz book.

The thing isn’t really to pillory either Zakaria or Lehrer, but to work to establish new tools for writers and researchers, tools that allow them to ensure that the words of others that they are working with don’t get intermingled with their own, and new standards for sourcing what we are writing. Only when these become commonplace will it be possible for these–and the hundreds of other unnoticed incidents–situations to disappear.

Update: After posting this, I came across this piece by David Carr in The New York Times. He says it all better than I.

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