Roger Marolt: Keeping it semi-real
What is the point of plagiarism? If it is to make money, I guess I get it. You steal somebody’s written work and sell it to The New Yorker for a big check, you get discovered, and then you sign a book deal and get a six-figure advance. Crime pays.
The problem is professional plagiarism is not sustainable. To make a living at this gig, you have to publish a lot. You have to get it out there to as many people as often as possible. In this formula of plagiarism for profit, success is sure to negate itself. Readers will figure out if you are pedaling hot sentences. The more readers you have, the sooner this will happen.
Not that I am encouraging it, but embezzlement is likely far easier to get away with and undoubtedly more profitable than plagiarism. If you are going to steal, you may as well do it wisely.
Even if you are not writing for profit or fame — just to get an “A,” for example — it’s hard to get away with using others’ works. Teachers can check students’ papers for authenticity through websites that will compare any given writing to everything on the internet. And if it’s not on the internet, it’s either not worth copying or impossible to copy because it’s locked away in somebody’s diary or, more politically correct, their journal.
So why would a local newspaper letter-writer try to pull a fast one and submit someone else’s writing as his own? It can’t be about money, since letter writers are the great, if completely voluntary, unpaid assets to any newspaper. Nor was Carl Heck trying to boost his GPA, as far as we know.
As could have been predicted, another frequent local letter submitter put Heck’s suspiciously a-little-bit-too-excellent-considering-the-source prose through a digital comparison app which easily exposed the fraud, and Aspen is suddenly short one budding local character of whom many readers had grown fond of.
I don’t get it. I hope it was an honest mistake. If Heck had intended to add an attribution at the end of the work he quoted and simply forgot in his haste to pass on someone else’s brilliant words, while still a grave error and still plagiarism, it could be forgivable. Of course, that would be up to the local readers and editors.
Nonetheless, it still doesn’t explain plagiarizing in the modern world. It’s not just Heck. Last year the Aspen Daily News let a columnist go because he stole the work of another local columnist. He could not have possibly believed he could get away with that, but he tried anyway and will not likely find work in journalism again.
Like a rich old lady who shoplifts, plagiarism is mostly sad and weird.
I hope I am not coming across as high and mighty here, but I will never, ever resort to plagiarism. While I believe that I am an honest person, I know that I am not a stupid one — at least when it comes to this.
It’s not about me standing up for writers to protect these wonderful creations of our craft that we sweat blood and shed tears over, either. On that level, it should be as much of a compliment to copy someone’s work as to cut it out and stick it on the refrigerator door. I don’t think anyone could make a fortune stealing most writers’ work, either. If the original author can’t get rich with it, I’m pretty sure the thieves can’t either. It is simply that stealing anything from anyone feels like a creepy personal violation.
I am a firm believer in the ages-old adage that it is all but impossible to express an original thought. The trillions of people living on this planet over the past 6 million years have thought and said it all — some things like “Go big or go home!” maybe a zillion times. This makes the art of writing not about saying anything original, but saying what others have said in as unique a way as you can. That is the thrill of writing; a different kind of adrenaline rush, if you will.
All said, after writing many columns over many years, I know I have written things that felt simultaneously original and uncomfortably not. I am sure I have rehashed things that I previously read or heard. My hope is that my repetition was different enough and/or my grammar use poor enough to prove that it was authentic me.
Roger Marolt thinks it is OK to say the dog ate his column if he can’t think of anything to write. Email at Roger@maroltllp.com.
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