I have to pass on some choice bits of an essay by Charles Isherwood in last Sunday's New York Times, occasioned by the flap over Ian McEwen having included some phrases on hospital life in his novel "Atonement" that were similar to those used by romance novelist Lucilla Andrews. (Letters in support of McEwan from heavyweights Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Updike, Zadie Smith, Martin Amis and Thomas Pychon have recently been published in the London Daily Telegraph. They point out that Shakespeare, Petrach, and Tolstoy also "stole" material from other sources.)
Isherwood wonders how long a phrase has to be before it becomes actionable: "Oh, dear! Looking back I must apologize for my use of the phrase “best-selling novel,” the very same words Mr. Cowell employed in describing “Atonement.” I am aghast. I should have said “Mr. McEwan’s novel ‘Atonement,’ which flew off the shelves like a massive flock of birds heading southward in the gloaming over the windswept moors.” Or something like that, to differentiate my description from Mr. Cowell’s. A grave mistake....Wait a minute. “Grave mistake” sounds eerily familiar. Egad! So does “eerily familiar.” I must get back to you in a few hours, after an exhaustive Google search that will doubtless allow me to credit any and all authors who have used those phrases."
"The string of scandals seems...a symptom of a shift in cultural attitudes toward the meaning and uses of personal experience. We are living in an age marked by a heightened sensitivity to the idea of one’s own life, and one’s own words, as a commodity with prospective commercial value. In earlier times, it was only writers and other artists who were expected to make profitable use of their everyday experience; the rest of us couldn’t hope to make a dime from the upheavals of existence...How things have changed. With the rise of so-called reality-based entertainment and the surging popularity of the memoir as a literary form, it now seems that everybody’s life is a yet-to-be-developed television property or a memoir waiting to spring from the laptop, uncontaminated by the greedy depredations of the artist. The rush for self-fulfillment and self-expression that characterized the “Me” decade of the 1970s has evolved into a desire for maximum self-exploitation and self-commercialization in these early years of the 21st century, which might be dubbed the “Buy Me” decade. We’d be fools to let someone make a profit off our own backs, and so as a culture we become exercised at the idea of a writer making money by making use of experience or words not entirely his own."
Isherwood quotes Malcolm Gladwell: “The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of small differences,” he wrote. “Because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.”
Isherwood: "It’s easy to see how such continued enforcement could create a climate antithetical to the kind of free ferment that artists need. Fiction writers are treasured precisely because they can transmute the unruly dross of daily experience — whether it is their own or that of a guy they once knew or a figure from tabloid headlines — into narratives that have a pleasing shape and pattern and give us insight into our lives. If our lives — and dare I say even our words — are to be our sovereign property, how many of us will really be able to make meaning from them that enriches the world?"