Last week, I read a fantastic story online. For the sake of this post, let’s call that story “Body.” The story was sooo good that I emailed the link to a friend, Jenniey Tallman. Jenniey and I share the same literary sensibilities. We trade story links all the time and even wrote a story together, which is now up on The Collagist, one of my truly favorite magazines. Jenniey liked “Body” so much that she started sending links to other friends, etc.
On Friday, I went to a Kyle Minor reading here in Blacksburg, VA—which was seriously awesome. He read “The Truth and All Its Ugly,” a story which appeared in 52 Stories and in a Surreal South anthology. But the funny thing was that when he read the story’s first line, my head exploded.
“The year my boy Danny turned six, my wife Penny and me took him down to Lexington and got him good and scanned because that’s what everybody was doing back then, and, like they say, better safe than sorry.”
I thought, wow! I wonder if this’ll be anything like a story of mine that appeared online a few years back? I mean, wow, how cool would it be if, like, maybe, he might have read my story and in some way was influenced to write a futuristic child story too! Man, how my mind races. Of course, it was an irrational reach to think that, but for just those few seconds I felt seriously cool.
Needless to say however, Minor’s story was wonderfully unique and wholly original; it had nothing in common with mine.
Afterwards, during the Q&A, he explained its genesis: Pinckney Benedict, editor of the Surreal South anthology, asked him to consider writing a story that featured robots. Minor had been thinking about people that he knew who had gone through a very traumatic situation. He had wanted to write about that situation but couldn’t figure out how to effectively grapple with the subject matter in a fictional context until Benedict mentioned robots. That was the push (influence?) that Minor needed to write a damn good story.
As he read, the voice of his story reminded me a lot of two other writers I admire (Donald Ray Pollock and the seriously under-read Keith Banner). So much so that I was tempted to ask him during those few seconds when he was autographing my copy of IN THE DEVIL’S TERRITORY if he was ever influenced by those writers. But I held back, worried that given the usual clumsy way in which I pose questions, he might misconstrue my question as suggesting his voice was perhaps, um, “derivative” of those writers. Also, I think some writers might prefer that their influences be kept quiet, that perhaps Minor might hold his influences close to the vest, intimate-like.
I’m right now shopping a novel that was born after reading the first line Girija Tropp’s “Advent: A Traveler’s Tale,” which appeared online at Agni in 2008. The story’s first line:
“In the factory where I’d been sent to design a new brand identity, tired workers leant on broomsticks.”
It was strange. Something about that line, “tired workers leant on broomsticks,” just propelled me to write. And write and write, 400+ pages. The resulting novel has nothing to do with broomsticks or factories or workers, but that one line sorely influenced me in such an unimaginable way. The first line of my novel is kinda constructed like Tropp’s, but I just don’t see it as “stealing” or “plagiarizing.”
Who knows? Perhaps a jury of my peers would think differently.
I’ve been wondering what debt I might owe Tropp. There’s no doubt in my mind that that single line sparked my creativity.
As writers, we’re constantly influenced by everything we read. I look at the literary community as something like an ecosystem. Don’t we all influence each other? Isn’t that how we communicate and advance our art? We speak and respond to each other.
Last year, I read a Dave Housley story about tigers that appeared in PANK and was spurred to write my own tiger story (as yet unpublished). Sometimes, I read an image (or even a single word) and my mind just races off to entirely new directions. Am I stealing?
Yesterday, I started reading Cynthia Ozick’s FOREIGN BODIES. Although her work is much different from mine, I adore her. Her new novel opens with a description of a heat wave that baked Europe in the summer of 1952. Coincidentally, I’ve been writing a story set during a California heat wave circa 1986. While reading Ozick’s descriptions, I was saying to myself, damn, that’s the kind of tight language I ought to use. Somewhere in her description, she uses the word “miasma” and I immediately saw how I should insert that word into my own description. Of course I had seen and used that word before, but yesterday it just gripped me. Sometimes, there’s no accounting for the power of a single word in one’s imagination. But is stealing a single word, absent from the other words in her string of sentences, stealing?
So I was out most of Saturday doing things with Sebastian, my nine-year-old. When I came home, I saw an email from Jenniey. She had read a blog post via a Facebook link alleging that elements of “Body,” the story we both liked so much, was “stolen” or in some way “borrowed” from a story (let’s call it “Salt”) that was published last year. Plagiarism, of course, is a very serious allegation—an allegation that could derail the career of any emerging writer or would-be writing professor.
I was shocked. And I also felt swindled. The mere allegation immediately dampened my enthusiasm for “Body.”
But then I looked at the two stories and I just couldn’t see the similarities. Both stories are of the fabulist variety. They concern strange epidemics and end with really strange births. The first sentences are kinda similar: the protagonists learn of the epidemics via media reports, which is actually a common convention within the sci-fi/fabulist genres. Oh, and in the second paragraph of both stories, “scientists” are invoked to offer opinions about the epidemics.
Maybe the similarities are a bit deeper, but the plots, voices, and paragraph constructions just did not compare.
“Salt’s” author was deeply offended. Out of all the thousands of stories that were published last year, she was positive that the woman who wrote “Body” would have known of her story and consciously stolen from it. Isn't that presumptuous? Moreso, she wanted credit for its “structure.”
[Plot-wise, the stories were dissimilar. When pressed, even “Salt’s” author conceded that much.]
But structure? Geeze.
Don’t we owe structure to that ancient Greek dude, Aristotle? Or if not him, Gustav Freytag?
But I guess my larger concern reverts back to this whole question of influence. When is it appropriate? When is it inappropriate? Does George Saunders own the rights to every story that features a crazy-ass theme park? Does the Kafka estate, if it exists, own the rights to every story in which a man is transformed into another kind of being? Or of a man who must stand trial when falsely accused of a crime? How about Harlequin? Must every romance writer owe them acknowledgement for perpetuating the genre?
David Shields will likely think differently, but my hope is that the lifting of longer chunks of texts should always be acknowledged. But can Cynthia Ozick sue the pants off me if I dare insert “miasma” into my story?