In books and journalism, if we’re honest, everyone steals a little. Originality is literature’s most testing requirement, as Shakespeare acknowledged in sonnet 76: ‘So all my best is dressing old words new/ Spending again what is already spent. ’The flipside of imitation and theft, deliberate or unconscious, is that plagiarism lurks in the bloodstream of the book world like the unappeasable strain of some deadly virus.Damaging accusations can erupt at any moment.
Last month, Doris Kearns Goodwin, the distinguished historian and prize-winning Roosevelt biographer, found herself humiliated in the American press by the identification of some frankly inexcusable borrowings from a rival volume in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, her bestseller about the Kennedy family. In Britain, historians and biographers don’t generally acquire the profile that might attract such score-settling.Mischievous accusations of plagiarism have, however, dogged a number of successful novelists, notably, Ian McEwan, PD James and Graham Swift. Less well publicised, but equally upsetting, are those writers whose success stimulates wholly unfounded accusations of literary theft from delusional literary wannabes who convince themselves that their work has been appropriated, often for no better reason than the inevitable recurrence of stock fictional situations.There are, after all, only so many plots in the world. This sub-species of nuisance usually happens to writers who capture non-literary public attention. Jonathan Coe was plagued for years after the publication of What A Carve Up!..
In America, JK Rowling has had to do battle in the courts with Nancy K Stouffer, who believes that The Legend of Rah and the Muggles, published in 1984, is the Urtext from which Ms Rowling snitched her ideas.And if you want a glimpse of the truly bizarre fantasy world inhabited by such people you have only to call up www. realmuggles.
com. It’s not often that such cases are adjudicated by either an intelligent or a disinterested authority, so I am grateful to this month’s Harper’s for reproducing the verdict handed down by US District Judge David Hurd in the lawsuit filed by a certain Christina Starobin, a former assistant professor at Ulster County Community College, Stone Ridge, New York, against bestselling author Stephen King.Hurd opened his verdict by noting that he had read both the plaintiff’s unpublished manuscript, Blood Eternal, and King’s Desperation from cover to cover. ‘Neither,’ he said, ‘was a particularly good read. ’The good judge went on to note that the plaintiff’s case was ‘difficult’, because where she ‘has written a novel about vampires who operate a car service in the suburbs of New Jersey, King has written about an evil spirit released from a mine in the Nevada desert’.
Starobin had none the less alleged ‘correspondences’ demonstrative of ‘literary rape’, including such telling similarities as hearing footsteps on gravel (Blood Eternal) and on black tar (Desperation); a driver talking on a walkie-talkie (Blood Eternal) and an author on a cellular phone (Desperation); tooth pulp like undigested meat (Blood Eternal) and raw tissue from mouth and nose like raw meat (Desperation).The plaintiff also noted that the word ‘zilch’ had appeared in both her manuscript and in Desperation. There’s a good deal more on the same lines. Hurd was obviously trying to be even-handed, but in conclusion he cannot contain himself: ‘The plaintiff repeatedly argues that her literary credentials are superior to King’s, and asserts that this alone creates an issue of fact as to whether or not King is capable of producing a work such as Desperation.
The following quote is indicative of her arguments on this point: “Although plaintiff’s having graduated Harvard cum laude, gone on to a Masters in English and comparative literature at Colubmia [sic] and a PhD in English at New York University does not mean intelligence, it does mean a long number of hours reading books other than Grisham and other bestsellers and exposure to philosphy [sic], plot and symbolism in heavy enough doses to become queasy with the superficiality espoused by King. […She] also states that Blood Eternal […] is the product of an Ivy League education […] not the work of an untutored hack [citing in evidence] the following simile:“She could feel the long teeth at the front of her mouth growing longer like tiny little car antennae looking for blood. ” ‘You will not be surprised to learn that Judge Hurd went on to dismiss the complaint. I hope the people of Stone Ridge will erect a statue to a public official who seems not only to have his head screwed on but to possess a sense of humour into the bargain.