Word Crimes

What does our understanding of literary transgression reveal about the culture of authorship?

by Sam Schuman
March 1st, 2015

Writers rarely suffer thieves gladly, and Edgar Allan Poe was no exception. Nearly 200 years before Boston became the center of a recent high-profile literary scandal, Poe, at the time better known as a critic than poet and a “monomaniac on the subject of plagiarism,” launched a broadside against Fireside Poet and Harvard professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Announcing a literary crime “too palpable to be mistaken,” Poe printed Longfellow’s “Midnight Mass for the Dying Year” alongside Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Death of the Old Year” in an 1840 issue of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, proclaiming that Longfellow, without poaching verbatim, had emulated the future UK Poet Laureate in both content and form. Such a theft, he declared, “belongs to the most barbarous class of literary robbery… while the words of the wronged author are avoided, his most intangible, and therefore his least defensible and least reclaimable property, is purloined.”

The censure was a shot across the bow in a conflict that Poe would soon christen the “Little Longfellow War.” A half-decade after his initial attack, Poe reviewed Longfellow’s edited collection The Waif, this time denouncing him for omitting American influences whom Poe accused him of imitating, at best. The book, “although full of beauties… is infected with a moral taint,” he wrote. One Poe biographer described the feud as “the longest, strangest, and most-publicized personal war in American literary history,” but Longfellow, like other supposed plagiarists of his time, emerged essentially unscathed. He’s presently memorialized at Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, alongside Geoffrey Chaucer, who borrowed from Petrarch; Charles Dickens, charged with filching an illustrator’s ideas and characters for Oliver Twist; and Ben Jonson, the poet and playwright some credit with bringing the term “plagiary” into the English language.

The Poe-Longfellow dispute, while somewhat one-sided, was an early installment in a perennial debate: when turning life into art, when is it acceptable to include others’ work, or even their life experiences? Like Poe’s allegation of imitation, various understandings of plagiarism or “appropriation” have abounded as long as the concept of the author, and every definition of the former assumes a theory of the latter.

Notions of textual ownership have always been culturally contingent. In asking, “What is an Author?” Michel Foucault claimed that far from threatening the ideal of the individual, independent writer, transgression is foundational to it: “Speeches and books were assigned real authors, other than mythical or important religious figures, only when the author became subject to punishment…” Once a weapon to discipline heterodox thinkers, authorship is now a tool to protect creators by punishing what one scholar called “transgressive interdiscursivity,” or the act of wrongfully adapting, imitating, or copying another’s material.

Last year, Robert Kolker’s article “Who is the Bad Art Friend?” and Alexis Nowicki’s essay “‘Cat Person’ and Me,” among other works, sparked a renewed discussion about the ethics of importing real life into fiction and what, exactly, falls under the umbrella of “transgressive interdiscursivity.” Accusations of writers stealing material or inadequately fictionalizing experiences that aren’t their own are nothing new. But the specific process by which they’re framed as literary malpractice is subjective. And inherent in these assertions of what qualifies as bona fide authorial violence lies an implicit definition of what Foucault referred to as the “author-function.” 

In Sally Rooney’s book Beautiful World, Where Are You, a successful novelist questions the contemporary author-function in an email to a friend: 

What is the relationship of the famous author to their famous books anyway? If I had bad manners and was personally unpleasant and spoke with an irritating accent, which in my opinion is probably the case, would it have anything to do with my novels? Of course not. The work would be the same, no different. And what do the books gain by being attached to me, my face, my mannerisms, in all their demoralizing specificity? Nothing. So why, why, is it done this way? Whose interests does it serve?

“Authorship” is a fuzzy boundary, an interrelated set of aesthetic, normative, and legal judgements. Rooney (or her character, at least—another fuzzy boundary) is right to ask: what, or whom, is it meant to serve?

Debates about originality and telling others’ stories most frequently implicate works of fiction or poetry, journalism and creative nonfiction having already settled this particular question, more or less. Janet Malcolm’s famous injunction that “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” controversial when it was made in 1989, has become received wisdom. David Sedaris’s essay “Repeat After Me” takes a similar tack. While visiting his sister, Sedaris tells her that his latest book has been optioned and their lives, or a version of them anyway, might soon be on the silver screen. “In order to sleep at night, I have to remove myself from the equation, pretending that the people I love voluntarily choose to expose themselves,” he admits. “Your life, your privacy, your occasional sorrow—it’s not like you’re going to do anything with it. Is this the brother I always was, or the brother I have become?” Sedaris imagines a scene from the film: in the middle of the night, he gets out of bed and approaches his sister’s pet parrot, speaking to it so that it might repeat the words, “Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me.” (The movie was never made. Sedaris told Time, “I just couldn’t do it. My sister asked me, ‘Will I be fat in the movie?’ and I thought, Wow, I’ve turned into the devil.”)  Meanwhile, moral and artistic stances toward work ostensibly created through imagination alone are less clear-cut.

More important than the question of genre, however, is the nature of the infraction committed when folding another’s work or life into art. What is the daylight between a social or collegial faux pas and an offense against art and artistry? Is the bad art friend inevitably a bad author? 

In the case of Kolker’s article, unpublished writer Dawn Dorland accused her professionally successful colleague Sonya Larson of plagiarism. Dorland had shared a letter intended for the recipient of her anonymous, nondirected kidney donation in a private Facebook group; Larson, who was in the group, wrote the letter almost verbatim into her short story “The Kindest,” in which a white-savior type all but demands gratitude from the recipient of her kidney. In addition to the allegation of essentially control-c-control-v theft, Dorland seemed offended, even artistically violated, by Larson’s use of her donation as inspiration for the story in the first place. “It’s almost as if Dorland believes that Larson, by getting there first, has grabbed some of the best light, leaving nothing for her,” Kolker speculated.  (These are the broad strokes; shortly after the article’s publication, there began a dedicated effort to highlight a bias against Dorland in Kolker’s reporting, including a misinterpretation or misunderstanding of the plagiarized letter. Nevertheless, it’s the discussion sparked by Kolker’s telling of the story that took on its own half-life.) 

A few months before “Bad Art Friend,” Alexis Nowicki disclosed that Kristen Roupenian’s viral 2017 short story “Cat Person” was a fictionalization of her own relationship with an older man whom Roupenian also knew. “What’s difficult about having your relationship rewritten and memorialized… is the sensation that millions of people now know that relationship as described by a stranger,” she wrote. 

One, a claim of outright plagiarism, accompanied by a broader discussion of appropriation. The other, a personal essay about uncomfortable and inappropriate fictionalization. Not identical cases, by any means. But both are explicitly tied to the question of authorship, and what creative or normative entitlement it furnishes to mine others’ lives for material. 

Poe, whose definition of plagiarism was far from rigorously consistent, wrote one year after the conclusion of the Little Longfellow War that “The charge of plagiarism… is a purely literary one; and a plagiarism even distinctly proved by no means necessarily involves any moral delinquency” (a reversal of his earlier admonition of Longfellow’s “moral taint”). Recent discourse, on the other hand, arguably collapses the distinction between poor craft and poor conduct. Nowicki, insisting that the relationship described in “Cat Person” was indisputably hers, wrote that “I’ve wondered a lot about the line between fiction and nonfiction, and what license is actually bestowed by the act of labeling something as fiction,” the subtle language of permission implying that such a license exists, not to be exceeded. After confirming that Roupenian had known her ex, she recounted, “I wanted to yell at her. But when I tried to imagine what I actually wanted to say, I wasn’t sure.”

Katy Waldman, in an essay on autofiction, asked, “Is moving someone down the existence scale from ‘human person’ to ‘character’ anything like murder? Is moving someone up the scale anything like art?” Whether to harm or to elevate, the ethical and artistic liberties conferred by the title of “author” have always been contextual.

Literary scholar Ellen Weinauer has noted that “the cultural conversation about the status and authority of the creating subject echoes and plays out other socio-cultural concerns about what forms of connection are legitimate and ‘natural.’” Authorship evolved, in other words, as a negotiation of contact and control. 

The modern individual creator emerged during the Enlightenment, when protecting textual ownership was often framed as a matter of enriching the commons: the only instance of the word right in the US Constitution authorizes Congress to grant authors and inventors legal title to their work in order to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Poe and the antebellum Romantics added a new layer to originality by establishing ex nihilo “genius” as a literary criterion. Plagiarism, by extension, became an aesthetic trespass in addition to a legal one. This Romantic author, an intensely individual figure, and one especially friendly to publishers and copyright litigators, has remained the dominant cultural understanding since.

With the sustained primacy of the individual author-as-genius, disputes over literary theft have only become more personal. Beyond lifting text or usurping creative ownership, or even stylistic imitation à la Poe, offenses grow to include encroaching on narrativizeable experience, thereby robbing subjects of psychological control (or, to be cynical, latent content). Nowicki, whose analogue in  “Cat Person” was sufficiently true-to-life that friends and acquaintances asked if she had written the story herself, confessed that “sometimes, to my own disappointment, I find myself inclined to trust Roupenian over myself.” At one point in her lawsuit against Sonya Larson, Dawn Dorland claimed intentional infliction of emotional distress. Weinauer has also observed that when subject and story are construed as synonymous, “it is in the domain of identity that the reverberations of the plagiarist’s separation of text and author are felt most deeply.” When our own narratives, whatever form they take, are contested, selfhood itself is threatened.

Treating art and authorship as inseparable from lived experience, the argument might go, attends to the structural dynamics of the professional writing cottage industry: whose stories are told, by whom, and why. By the same token, transgression becomes slipperier. Making art out of life becomes a zero-sum pursuit, and as the amount of money in writing continues to shrink, the locus of harm becomes increasingly immaterial. Larson, for one, reportedly received $425 from “The Kindest,” surely a fraction of the costs of the legal battle its publication precipitated.

But there’s more to it than that. The stories that touched off both debates—“The Kindest” and “Cat Person”—interrogate connection, or the failure thereof: a white savior seeking validation in the wrong places and a study of ambiguity and self-deception in modern romance, respectively. The crises of self-identification in both fictional stories are mirrored in real-life anxiety over narrative ownership, which in turn plays out publicly in Facebook posts, Twitter missives, and the occasional longform essay. The latest socio-cultural concern, to borrow Weinauer’s phrase, seems to be the increasingly fraught desire for total control over self-presentation. The definition of transgressive interdiscursivity has been taken to its logical extreme.

Far from dead, the author is ubiquitous: online, we are always already our own autobiographers. At what point does the ability to push back against any perceived appropriation or misrepresentation of the self become an imperative? The interdependency between plagiarism and authorship means that even when it comes to cribbing, there’s never just one way to tell a story. Until there is a constant definition of an author, there will never be a constant definition of a thief.

Featured Art
Painting of Evgeny Chirikov, 1904.
The Wanderer Above the Mist, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818.

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