Quentin Rowan published a novel, called Assassin of Secrets, under a pseudonym last year. It had been on sale for 5 days before anyone noticed that almost every word of it was plagiarised. Half of the novel alone is made up of various extracts from Charles McCarry’s writing, and the other half stitches bits and pieces of Robert Ludlum, John Gardner, Adam Hall, and a couple of others together. As is inevitable in these cases, it soon came out that much of Rowan’s past work was plagiarised too, but Assassins of Secrets makes for an interesting case study in modern plagiarism.
Although the entire novel is plagiarised, Rowan cut and pasted excerpts from more than a dozen different novels in such a way that the finished work could almost look like a homage in the right light. It isn’t, and Rowan has been clear and apologetic about his plagiarising, but by skillfully combining the best fragments of various other novels — McCarry’s prose, Ludlum’s plot premises, and so on — he created a hybrid spy novel unique enough to fool numerous friends, authors, reviewers, and editors on its way to publication.
Rowan deserves little praise, but these ideas of cut and pasting, of intentional plagiarism, and of recontextualising predate him by a long margin. Shakespeare borrowed from Plutarch, T.S. Eliot improved a passage from from Shakespeare, and Milton even plagiarised Genesis. And William Burroughs’ cut-ups exemplify this idea. Jonathan Lethem writes about literary sharing in The ecstasy of influence, about literature, through sharing, reusing, and reappropriating, with older works forming the basis of newer works. In it, he also rails against copyright law, arguing that it threatens the creativity of future works. To prove his point, his entire essay is a patchwork of plagiarism from a variety of (cited) sources.
Lethem used much the same techniques as Rowan, combining a multitude of sources into a cohesive, compelling whole, creating a new work with its own merits. Both highlight a growing trend we face with the advance of technology. There is an unprecedented amount of text available online, and more and more advanced tools for manipulating it. More often than not, plagiarism is an act of convenience, like a remix or mashup, capitalising on easily available source material and remixing tools. Typewriters offered no such convenience to writers, but the advent of Xerox enabled Burroughs’ cutups, and although Rowan painstakingly copied every plagiarised passage by hand, broadband and modern software enable just about anything. More and more, writers and artists are concerning themselves with the idea and construction of text as much as they are with what it says, and increasingly we find ourselves trying to differentiate between originality and an attempt to add value, and what is outright lazy plagiarism.