Sunday, January 13, 2008

"Words, words, words!!"1

This post is obviously written as Teach Me Tonight's (partial) response to the apparent plagiarism by Cassie Edwards that the Smart Bitches uncovered and reported. Much of what I might have said if we'd commented earlier instead of being mesmerized by the debate has already been said. ETA: And it was posted minutes before the post on SBTB that Edwards seems to have copied from a Pulitzer Prize winning novel as well, which changes the debate substantially. However, while there are many things swirling around in my head, I think I want to focus on the connection between academic writing and fiction writing.

Disclaimer time: While I obviously speak for Teach Me Tonight, this is also only my opinion about the topic that come from my ::sob--I'm OLD!--sob:: fifteen years of experience in academia. Eric and Laura (and all our other contributors) might have other ideas and might even disagree with me. If they do, I expect they'll let me know in the comments.

The one gray area that keeps popping up in debates is the question of exactly how fiction authors should use their research in their novels. Sandra Schwab asks in the comments at a Dear Author post:
Do you seriously propose that the same standards should be introduced in fiction? Have you any idea what novels would look like in this case (if anybody is interested I’d be happy to take a page of one of my novels and document my sources as I would do if I were writing an academic text)?
And whatever people may have said in the comments of the many posts both at Dear Author and at the Smart Bitches, I would say the answer is "No, absolutely not."

In my opinion, and in broad sweeping generalizations, no one actually expects fiction authors to cite all their research. That would defeat the purpose of fiction. We're not reading non-fiction, after all; we're reading fiction, and while we want it to accurately reflect reality, or as accurately as works for the individual story, we don't want all the nitty-gritty details of how fiction authors found all the reality they're reflecting to interrupt our novel reading.

Academia, of course, is different. In academia, everything has to be cited. In my syllabi, I say that plagiarism is the unattributed use of someone elses' words, thoughts, ideas, or structure (and by structure, I mean the structure of putting words together into sentences and into paragraphs, as well as the overall structure of a plot)2. And although what is expected of me as a literary critic and a professor writing academic articles for publication and what I expect of my students is different in content, the expectations of correct citations remain the same. If I or my students use someone else's words, thoughts, or ideas to come up with original analyses, we have to acknowledge that debt in a correctly formatted citation.3

Research for fiction, on the other hand, is supposed to be an accretion of knowledge that results in an original, creative work. Fiction authors do a whole bunch of research and then incorporate it into their stories in their own words. And I'm not a fiction writer, but I assume that they might come across a cool fact in just ONE source and put it into the mouths or thoughts of their characters in their own words, so it's not always a case of finding information from many different places and incorporating it into the fiction.

So, where's the difference? In academia, any use of someone else's facts or opinions needs to be cited and the use of someone else's words needs to be set off with quotation marks AND also cited. In fiction, the use of someone else's facts or opinions does not need a citation as long as the fiction authors paraphrase the facts/opinions in their own words. And because the use of someone else's WORDS cannot be set off in quotation marks as it can be in a work of non-fiction, because it would jump the reader out the world the story is trying to create, it should not be done.4 While it IS plagiarism in academia to "borrow" someone else's thoughts, opinions, and facts without attribution, it is NOT the same for fiction, as long as fiction authors aren't ALSO borrowing the non-fiction author's WORDS.

If I were to quantify this in order to answer the question, "Is it okay to use words, thoughts/ideas, or language structure from one source to another without attribution?" the table would look like this:

And, for me, it is because the specific words of non-fiction texts CANNOT be acknowledged with quotation marks if used in fiction that they should not be used. The thoughts/ideas, on the other hand, CAN be acknowledged in an historical note either before or after the story.

Non-fiction authors write about their topics precisely so that people will read it and say "That's cool!" and then want to use that knowledge. There wouldn't be any point in us writing if we didn't want people to use it. But the plagiarism comes in when fiction authors don't put the ideas/facts into their own words that fit their characters' thoughts and words. With the use of non-fiction sources in fiction, it's the *words* that counts. If Cassie Edwards had paraphrased the sources she used for research, she would have been fine. Paraphrase away, but don't hijack the specific creative expression of the original source. When Janet Dailey plagiarized Nora Roberts, the scandal was located in the fact, not that she was stealing Roberts' words, per se, but that she was stealing Roberts' creative expression. Edwards did the same, IMO: she stole the creative expression of the facts she wished to incorporate into her novels, and therein lies the outrage and the moral indignation expressed over the last week.

So, to all fiction authors out there, please keep researching. Keep filling your books with real facts and real ideas that we academics research and publish for the world to read. But don't use our words.

1. From the song "Show me" in My Fair Lady (Music by Frederick Loewe, Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Book by Alan Jay Lerner, Film in 1964.) I think it's a particularly appropriate song considering the writerly injunction of "Show, Don't Tell!" that we hear so often:
Words! Words! Words! I'm so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Don't talk of stars, burning above;
If you're in love, show me!
Tell me no dreams filled with desire
If you're on fire, show me!
Here we are together in the middle of the night!
Don't talk of spring! Just hold me tight!
Anyone who's every been love will tell you that
This is no time for a chat!
Haven't your lips longed for my touch?
Don't say how much, show me! Show me!
Don't talk of love lasting through time.
Make me no undying vow.
Show me now!
Sing me no song! Read me no rhyme!
Don't waste my time, show me!
Don't talk of June, don't talk of fall!
Don't talk at all! Show me!
Never do I ever want to hear another word
There isn't one I haven't heard.
Here we are together in what ought to be a dream;
Say one more word and I'll scream!
Haven't your arms hungered for mine?
Please don't "expl'ine," show me! Show me!
Don't wait until rings wrinkles and lines
Pop out all over my brow,
Show me now!
And for the sake of full disclosure, much of this post is a reworking of an email of mine to someone interested in this debate.

2. I once had a student who plagiarized in a way that TurnItIn didn't catch. I did, however, but only because he used the word "solipsism." I have only a tenuous understanding of what a solipsism is myself, so it made me go, "Hrrr?" I Googled "solipsism [text title]" and came up with the article that he used. While every word was different, the sentence-by-sentence structure of his paper was exactly the same as the original article. It must have taken hours of work with the Thesaurus function of MS Word--far less time, in fact, than just writing a paper using his own ideas would have taken. The only word he didn't change was solipsism, probably because he didn't know what it meant AND because it doesn't have a synonym according to MS Word. I failed him because, well, he didn't cite his source, so that was the major wrong, but it would have been a rewrite anyway because of the *structure* plagiarism.

3. Therein lies the difference between a Works Cited page and a Bibliography page. As I explain it to my students, a Works Cited page is exactly that--It's a list of all the works you've cited in your paper. A Bibliography page is where you can prove how clever you've been, by acknowledging all the books you've read while doing research for the paper, even if you didn't cite them in the body of the paper.

4. This statement does not take into consideration issues of intertextuality. I'm talking about a fiction author borrowing from a relatively obscure non-fiction source, and NOT about incorporating the words of a real person that the reader can be expected to recognize.


  1. You know, I think the thing that bothers me the most about all of this is how the emphasis has been on plagarism and not on simple bad writing. Yes, I know that plagarism is a big issue and concern but, frankly, isn't the ability to paraphrase something taught in writing 101?

    Or before that?

    And that's what everyone seems to be dancing around. I mean for years, people on various sites have panned her books and literally given them failing grades based on what they called bad writing. Well, now we have literal proof of just that and it seems no one wants to talk about it because they're stuck on the plagarism issue. Major though that is, I think it may be obscuring something just as important.

    A good writer doesn't just research those thoughts and ideas, they do "put them into their own words" to keep from plagarising in the first place. That's a learned skill, however. If one never learned it . . .

    The second aspect of this is that I believe the comment she (Edwards) made when she claimed she'd been told (allowed?) to do it that way all along. I bet she has been. Which only makes me curious as to how many other authors (and not all romance) were "encouraged" to do things the same way. It boggles the mind what those computer programs might find in some unsuspecting literary masterpieces.

  2. What strikes me about the whole thing is how in every instance, the passages Edwards amended are clutzier and clunkier than the originals. Now *that* is bad writing.

    I'm surprised that it has taken a hundred novels for this to come out. It appears that there is little overlap between the people interested in Native American customs (someone must have read all those non-ficiton books) and the readers of native-American-themed Romance.

  3. It appears that there is little overlap between the people interested in Native American customs (someone must have read all those non-ficiton books) and the readers of native-American-themed Romance.

    As a Native American Studies scholar, I DON'T read NA themed Romance (for the most part -- Susan Johnson being one notable exception, an exception who used footnotes, too, lol), so perhaps this is true more generally, as well, although I don't know, obviously.

  4. Sela pointed me in this direction and I'm going to give an example that I gave another friend as we discussed this.

    Make it work from cover to cover, make me believe you understand your worldbuilding well enough to make me believe in it.

    If research is involved, then use the points (not entire passages copied). The species of tree found in a canyon. The type of rock. If there's a river. And write it the way you (or your character) sees it.

    Some research is more involved then others, and I have no problem seeing that in an acknowledgments page, but full pages of research text boggles me. Historical romance is an example of this, but I don't need to know the tiniest details. That's me though. Some thrive on it.

    Word for word copying of a piece constitutes plagiarism to me.

    Fiction is fiction, it's make believe. Make ME believe and I'm fine.

    I think that's about all I can say without dredging up points not relevant to this post.

  5. I research folklore and mythology, archaeology etc for my writing-so I've been paying close attention. You want to follow the rite/myth whatever honestly-be true to it. But I agree with another poster-you have to internalize it-understand it-and then share it in your own or your character's voice...not the source's. If that makes sense. I can't imagine that those snippets I saw didn't fit oddly into the rest of the story-since she wasn't using her own rhythm-her own voice to explain it.

  6. So, where's the difference? In academia, any use of someone else's facts or opinions needs to be cited and the use of someone else's words needs to be set off with quotation marks AND also cited. In fiction, the use of someone else's facts or opinions does not need a citation as long as the fiction authors paraphrase the facts/opinions in their own words.

    Yes, indeed. That's exactly what I was trying to get at all this time. For some reason (perhaps the general lateness of the day when writing my posts), I don't seem to have managed to get my point across. Hence my mounting frustration over the last few days.