In praise of plagiarism

Portraint of a Scholar

Many books, poems and art are fine, but in need of improvement by a more skilful hand, or just a different voice. Some great authors have built monuments which define style and art, but most have slips that could benefit from a brush-up or are in places a semi-tone off. Another hand could step in and make it perfect, but modern sensibilities condemn this as a cheat’s trade.

Without constructive plagiarism, we would lack several great plays by Shakespeare: Hamlet was a complete lift from Thomas Kyd’s version, which itself was from Saxo Grammaticus; the Merchant of Venice is largely swiped from Marlowe’s grim The Jew of Malta. Each was written when the original writer was barely cold in the grave, but each was turned inside out and improved immeasurably.  Bach swiped others’ tunes continually and magically transformed them into something new. A great artist need not be completely original when he can be an alchemist, performing transmutation of weak material into gold.

In the modern day though, this treatment of another’s work unless radically undone and rewritten is looked down upon as if it were a sort of theft.

We do permit radical film adaptations, because it is such a different medium. I never hear complaints against Coppola that he stole from Conrad when he made Apocalypse Now, because it is a new work of art adopted from Conrad’s work. It can be an improvement: Ray Bradbury said that the changed ending in the (original) film version of his most celebrated novel was possibly a better conclusion that the ending he wrote. (That is a curse for a writer who creates such perfect fluidity of plot – how can it end? The ending is where many great works fail.) As a book, I would count Fahrenheit 451 amongst those great works which should not be bowdlerised, of which it would otherwise be in danger because at least a shadow of it has become part of common culture, and because what was when written a work of wildly fantastical dystopian fiction is becoming, horribly, prescient. For film adaptation, changes are necessary for the medium.

Not all works deserve such reverent preservation: the books that fade out in the middle; the poems that have a couple of great lines and an idea but then turn mediocre; the film which wastes its premise; the music that find a pretty section and repeats it endlessly for want anything better – I would argue that we should be happy for an artist to improve on these.

It is part of our preconception of art and literature that it should be a single, inspired piece. That is an attractive idea, but I would say it comes more from a superstitious desire for purity than from rational consideration. As we know though, the love of purity is at odds with the creative spirit.

If a fine house is built, but the garage at the side is poorly proportioned, we do not insist that the whole house be demolished and started from the foundations:  we get a new builder to knock the poor bits down and build then better. If a good book has almost been written but goes wrong somewhere, it makes sense to let someone write it. Editors of cheap novels arrange that more than you might think: they are not daft. In the film world they understand this very well: when a film goes awry, the studio sacks the director or the scriptwriters, but keeps as much as possible of the good work they have already done. (Sometimes they get it wrong, which is why the Director’s Cut is often better than the original. There is, for a true artist, such a thing as purity of conception.)

Shakespeare did not face copyright claims, so he could do what he liked with other people’s work. Today we would need permission, and the profit of any ‘improved’ book would go mainly to the original author whose donkey-work has provided the bulk of it. That accepted, there is no other reason not to revisit works which could be improved markedly by others. I read plenty of poetry I would like to rewrite.

It is not cheating but perfecting; not dishonouring an original author, but making their hard work flower into what it deserves to be.

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Books

Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short

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