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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit