The art of copying

Dame Jane Goodall’s use of Wikipedia is part of a more decisive shift in authorial culture.

In the 21st century, a writer facing allegations of copying is in for a distressing time. The veteran naturalist Dame Jane Goodall certainly discovered this for herself several weeks ago, when she admitted that her forthcoming book Seeds of Hope lifts passages verbatim, without proper attribution, from several internet sources including Wikipedia. Goodall, known for her pioneering primatology work in the 1960s, has seen the publication date of her 25th book put back as well as finding herself the subject of intense media scrutiny.

I was immediately reminded of the literary self-destruction last year of another science author. The New Yorker's young star Jonah Lehrer’s  suicidal fabrication of Bob Dylan quotations for his book Imagine aroused the suspicions of the Tablet’s Michael Moynihan. Lehrer had already been caught out for "self-plagiarising" and inevitably he was forced to resign from his position at the New Yorker. In a similar move earlier this week, Moynihan turned his critical eye on Goodall, riffling through Seeds of Hope to uncover not only instances of borrowing but also her disturbing "embrace of dubious science". )
 
The kamikaze tendencies of Lehrer and Goodall, who both had big intellectual reputations, are bewildering at best. What drives such writers to run the risk of forever tainting their stellar careers? In a startling assessment of Lehrer, the New Statesman’s Yo Zushi found that Dylan’s actual sentiments and Lehrer’s pseudo-quotations were far from mismatched: "Lehrer could easily have used bits from real interviews to make his point," Zushi observed. "The perplexing thing is that he didn’t." )
 
It is unsatisfactory to dismiss Lehrer and Goodall as cases of creative burnout. What is particularly interesting about the two science writers, with Lehrer truly a child of the digital age and Goodall surely embedded in print culture, is that both have fallen victim to more powerful obsessions with intellectual property that run through 21st-century western society. Such extremes have been criticised by the journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who recalls being asked to "match" stories from other newspapers. "The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of small differences," he damningly writes about the nature of news copy, "because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence." ).
 
Several years ago, the French novelist Michel Houllebecq was pushed into making a spirited defence after facing accusations that his book La carte et le territoire had lifted passages from Wikipedia. Instead of denial, Houllebecq turned round on his critics and pointed out that the whole ethos of his literary style was premised on incorporating the derivative into an act of transformative creation. "This approach, muddling real documents and fiction, has been used by many authors," Houellebecq argued. Creation and copying exist in a state of symbiosis.
 
The truth is that this century has been littered with such stories. As we invest ever more in the construction of copyright and the possession of intellectual property, violations of such emotionally charged boundaries have surged. But do authors deserve to see their careers ruined in the process? As Houllebecq suggests, artistic plagiarism can be imbued with aesthetic qualities. And ultimately, does it really matter if banal sources such as Wikipedia are plundered in the quest for creating something greater? Wikipedia itself is subject to the Creative Commons licence which demands proper attribution. But the open commonwealth of knowledge that fills the virtual world is often hazy, frequently messy. Who and what exactly were Goodall and Lehrer violating?
 
Attempts to distinguish "good" and "dishonourable" acts of literary poaching are missing the point. In the digital age, we are all plagiarists. There are also powerful geographical forces that point to a different future. We need only look a little further east. The gold rush fever that infects the Chinese cultural world has turned global attention onto a new set of artistic entrepreneurs. China has carried a long classical tradition of pedagogical copying. Enforced by the Maoist rejection of private ownership, this ideology has exploded in the reform era into outright "plagiarisms". This has been most persuasively expressed by the Chinese novelist Yu Hua, writing on the "copycat phenomenon".  Yu describes his encounter with a pirated edition of his seminal novel Brothers. “No, it’s not a pirated edition,” the street vendor informed him, “it’s a copycat”.
 
Whether or not we choose to accept the unceasing stream of ideas that inundate the creative landscape, China’s cultural scene heralds a new age of unabashed artistic emulation.

 

Jane Goodall pictured earlier this year in Nairobi (Photograph: Getty Image)

En Liang Khong is an arts writer and cellist.

Follow on twitter @en_khong

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage