As a fiction writer, I have permission to make stuff up. This was quite the departure for me after 20 years in journalism, where making stuff up is a major no-no. Just ask Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass or Janet Dailey. Although, of course, in the weird way that America works, being a journalist who makes stuff up could get you a lucrative book or film deal, thus blurring those lines.
But this isn't about journalists who are supposed to write the truth and not make it up. This is about fiction writers who, for some reason, feel compelled to lift words from another author's books and not cite them. I just don't understand this. Writing fiction is liberating, because we can create whole worlds, characters, stories that don't exist. We can use our own words, our own creativity to do this. So why would a fiction writer need to copy someone else's words? Has that writer lost the ability to come up with his/her own words? Does he/she have a bad day and suffer from itotallysuckitis to a point where he/she just says "screw it" and pick up another book he/she admires and say, "Hey, that writer says it perfectly. I can't improve on it. And it's in the middle of this big book, so no one could possibly ever notice."
In these days of the Internets, that writer is sadly delusional. Because when bloggers like those Smart Bitches get ahold of something like this, it spreads like wildfire and actual passages are printed so everyone can see and it can ruin a writer's reputation. Is it worth that?
Plagiarism is serious, and I was taught at a young age that lifting words out of a book and pretending that they're mine is totally not acceptable. I'm teaching my daughter that, now that she's writing book reports. She's writing one now about a biography she read about Clara Barton, and when I was reading over her report, I noticed she had a sentence about how Clara Barton "bowed out." This seemed to be an odd phrase for a fifth grader to just come up with on her own, and I asked her pointedly if she'd lifted it from the text, explaining that it's wrong to do that, she needs to use her own words. (The phrase "against the law" may have come into it, too, but I don't want anyone to think I'm strongarming a 10-year-old.) She told me that she'd seen the phrase in one of her favorite "Warrior" books, a series about warrior cats (that's another blog post) and thought it would apply. This was acceptable, and we moved on.
Nonfiction writers must reference their work. They rely on other sources to help make their points. Fiction writers, on the other hand, should have no need for references because they do not rely on using the words of outside sources. We trust that they are creative enough to come up with their own words. It really is very simple. (Except, maybe, for James Frey...)
Causes Karen Olson Supports
Cystic Fibrosis Foundation