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19 May 2006
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A Spasm Of Rectitude

Having just read a couple of news articles about the alleged plagiarism of Kaavya Viswanathan, and being guilty of placing many of my own (I think) thoughts on phosphor, I spent the odd moment contemplating the boundaries of this literary crime.  Here I mean "boundary" in a mathematical sense:  How can one tell if he is committing plagiarism?  Is there an objective standard?  And if there is such a standard for the person committing it, how can another party perhaps his candidate publisher verify it hasn't been crossed?

I have no doubt this issue has been explored, ad nauseam, in scholarly journals.  Without contravening the prime directive (no research, or as Tom Lehrer would have it, plagiarism) I suspect the following conclusions have been reached:

  • If a passage is just a few words, it isn't verifiable plagiarism because anyone could come up with it independently.
  • If it's hundreds of words and identical to something previously published then it must be since the odds of such a reproduction are preposterous.
  • In-between lengths, inexact copies, identical thoughts in different words require further study and perhaps interrogation of the alleged perpetrator.

But what of undetectable plagiarism?  What if the writer just steals a word or three?  Should he footnote every phrase he appropriates?  Give credit to every neologism?  Should any person who delivers a sililoquy be obliged to credit me if he declares it to be such?  What if he doesn't even remember the source, yet has kept the phrase with him throughout his scribbling years?  Should our novels be invested in a sea of footnotes and credits?

I don't know.  But I do admit to being a phrase thief, and of having done so knowingly without crediting the source.  Whether or not it is my obligation, I am here admitting a secret shame:  I have stolen a phrase from Jack Vance.  Vance is a highly-regarded albeit largely unknown writer consigned by most to the science fiction field, although he would not necessarily define his work as such.  I love reading Vance for the style, for the conversations among the characters, for the descriptions of strange worlds, meals, drinks.  And for his delivering himself of such phrases as "spasm of zeal," which I unaccountably appreciate to the extent that I look for opportunities to use it.  (Perhaps it's not entirely unaccountable; I may like "spasm" for the same reason that humorists use "weasel.")  And "spasm of zeal" accounts for many activities and not a few foibles far better than does imputing reason or logic to their perpetrators. 

I feel much better now, thank you.  And, having expiated my tacit guilt, I shall feel free to use "spasm of zeal" more often, knowing that Jack won't be able to accuse me of appropriation without credit.  I do not, however, plan to footnote the phrase or specifically notify people when I speak it out loud.  I hope that's the appropriate decision.

Ms. Viswanathan was given a $500,000 advance for her novel and an unwritten sequel.  This is enough money to depolarize most people's moral compass, and perhaps it was so in her case.  For the record, I myself would not consider it full recompense for the opprobrium.  However, if you have a spare $500,000 to offer, I will happily change my first name to "Riichard."  For a larger sum you get to pick the vowel placement.

2006
Richard Factor