The Art of the Plagiarist

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Title: The Art of the Plagiarist
Creator: Jane Carnall
Date(s): September 1997
Medium: print
Fandom: The Professionals
External Links:
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Art of the Plagiarist is a September 1997 essay by Jane Carnall. It was printed in Discovered In A Letterbox #3, a Professionals letterzine.

It is about how the essay's author is haunted by a story she wants to write, one that she'd have to borrow from another author, and how when she contacted the author, was given a blunt refusal.

Some Topics Discussed

From the Essay

There is a story I've wanted to write for over ten years. I never will write it. I don't have permission. This story is a nagging ache in me, with lines of dialogue and scenes and moments that appear and disappear; lacking permission, I refuse to write any of them down.

Eleven or twelve years ago, long before I was a Profs fan, a friend of a friend came to town bearing slash stories. One of them was a then-new and now very well known Bodie/Doyle novel. We had a slash fan party in the friend's flat... I wasn't particularly a Profs fan, but any slash in a storm, and I had read maybe half the story before anyone else woke up. I finished reading it and returned it, but I remembered it.

And I saw it, suddenly, as a Bodie/Cowley novel. Not with the simplicity of changing Doyle's name to Cowley's throughout, or even by changing Doyle's name to Bodie's and Bodie's name to Cowley's, or throwing Murphy into the equation and doing some more complex juggling. No. I saw the novel with all the characters in their places playing out the story, only in my hands, with a brief flicker of mirror magic, the thrust and will of the story would be in the relationship between Bodie and Cowley. It would be the same story. The same novel just... changed.

Having seen it, I wanted to write it. That was five years ago, maybe more. I thought about it, off and on, for three years. I thought that it would be a good story, that it could be, perhaps, one of those stories that only fandom makes possible, where a story (like Consequences becomes all the more for the number of sequels and prequels and paraquels it inspires. If it had been a simple sequel or a prequel or even a paraquel I wanted to write, I would probably have written it by now. If I had been personally acquainted with the writer, I would have asked her long ago.

Just over two years ago, I was discussing this well-known B/D novel with a friend, and I mentioned this idea I had for a re-take on the novel. She asked me why I didn't do it. Because I need the author's permission, and I don't even know who she is. So the friend did some digging, and through a friend of a friend she located the author's real name and real address. And I wrote to her. I explained what I wanted to do. Effectively, I wanted to borrow the story. Not the plot, or the story idea, I wanted to borrow the story itself, and use it for another story. I wanted to be absolutely clear in this letter how much I wanted to take from her original story, because I hoped very much she'd say yes, and I certainly didn't want any unpleasant surprises when she read my story. I wanted to steal descriptions. I wanted to steal whole scenes. I even wanted to steal lines of dialogue, because the story I had conceived all those years ago was very much a retake of her own novel - her novel, looked at from a slightly different angle.

Well, she said "No". She said no in such away that it was clear that I had hurt her feelings very much simply by asking, and also that she would never change her mind, nor her feelings, about that novel. (She was also very annoyed that anyone had given me her real name and address so I assured her in my return letter that not only would I not write the story, I would also destroy her real name and address... as I have done. I can't even remember what her real name is now.)

To tell me "No' was her right. That was why I had asked her in the first place. To tell me "No" with contumely, as she did, offended my honour so much that it made certain I would never write the story - which was possibly her intention.

She suggested that I should try writing my own stories, not plagiarise from other writers. It was not clear from her letter whether she knew I had written anything else or if it was the first time she had heard of me.

Well, I do write my own stories. Sometimes. More often than not, particularly these days, I steal with cheerful abandon from various TV series, and often, also, professionally published novels set in those TV series. You can't argue with inspiration when it touches you. Sometimes it wasn't a story you wanted to write. Sometimes it's a story you can't write. Sometimes it's just a story you will never write. But you can't deny you wanted to write it.

Where does plagiarism begin, and where does it end? I have used, without the slightest pang of guilt, scenes and stories and lines of dialogue that were written by other writers - because the series for which they were written is not, in my mind, fenced by copyright (Well, of course it is, legally. But if we were going to worry about that none of us could write fanfiction). I don't worry about who planted the crop and who tended it: I just harvest it. And thanks to the wonders of modern technology, this crop can be harvested at any time by any number of fanwriters, and all of us (and even LWT, though it would die before it admitted that) are the better for it.

So that isn't plagiarism, not in fandom.

I have never used a scene or a line of dialogue or a story outright from any professionally published novel set in any of the series that I play in. But I have stolen bits and pieces; proverbs, middle names, customs, family history, religions . . . And usually with acknowledgement. If we think of the professional writers as being part of the series, then we harvest there as legitimately as we do from the screen, from the scripts. If we think of them as fellow fanwriters (and many of them are) then often their work has become part of fandom's perception of the series, part of the great structure of belief which we have all had a hand in erecting. (Um... so to speak). So... not quite plagiarism. Not in fandom.

We write fanfiction, and publish it, most of us, for fun not profit. So in the first two instances above, we are stealing from people who published for profit, to use for non-profit purposes. (Even when the faneditor wants to make a profit, this does not alter the fact that the fanwriter is usually not writing to make a profit - and certainly not in slash fandom). Does this make the difference?

Within fanfiction, I have seen ideas of mine leapfrog into other people's stories - and it's not the least of a fanwriter's rewards, to know that her writing has changed other fans' perceptions of the series. To know that in some small way her work has become canon...a small but perpetuating monument Plagiarism? Who cares?

People have written sequels to stories I wrote, and prequels, and I have usually egged them on, and sometimes even nagged them to do it Plagiarism? No, enthusiasm, the sincerest form of praise.

Someone once wanted to take a B7 story I wrote, "But Love Has Never Known A Law, and write another version of it, which she thought would be more fun. She wrote to ask me. I was faintly dubious (mainly because I was dubious about the talents of the writer) but on the whole I thought it would be fun to read it, and I said yes. Plagiarism? Not with consent.

I wish I could write this story I want to write. I won't take the risk of writing it for my own pleasure, or just for my own circle of friends; my circle spans three continents and a dozen people. I trust them all implicitly and completely - up to a point. "Mindfire", EPS's wonderful Avon/Blake story, was written for and distributed to only ten of her dearest friends ... and now I'd hate to guess how many people have a copy, but at least exponentially more than the original list. But I can't, and not just because the writer's letter of refusal offended me so much. Because the structure of fandom is held together by mutual consent. We are a community because we decided to be a community. We are a society of anarchists, held together by LeGuin's Odonian standards of cooperation and consent, and while I will protest that fanwriter's refusal - as I am doing in this article - I will not contest it. I'll just wait for that damned flash of inspiration to go away.

Fan Comments

Jane raised some fascinating issues in her article on plagiarism. And I agree with her totally; within fandom, where there's consent it isn't plagiarism. But to pinch knowingly (to knowingly pinch where no fan-writer has pinched before - sorry, too much caffeine) someone's idea or characters and not to acknowledge the fact is not on. Not that I can remember an incidence of it happening between fan writer and fan writer in B/D fandom. But it must be torture to have a story that's begging and gibbering to be written which you can't because the original author has vetoed it I can't really understand that - even if whatever the concept is doesn't appeal, it's such a compliment that something you've created has sparked a stranger's creative juices. Also, surely anyone with an ounce of curiosity would want to see what someone else made of 'their' characters.

Three stories I would like to see sequel-ed spring instantly to mind:

1. For sheer self-indulgence, and only because I love it so much rather than because the story requires it, Professional Dreamer. I like that couple so much and would just like to see their continuing life together. That Doyle is going to drive that Bodie slowly crazy and I'd love to watch it happen.

2. More Larton. More of anything written by Rhiannon, come to that.

3. A sequel to Ellis Ward's "The Return", to see how the relationship works out long-term, given the shadowing effect of knowing the emotions were 'forced' initially.

The editor adds: You just have to tease, don't you? The mere thought of any of these has me drooling. Particularly the prospect of Nanny Ogg getting her hands on Bodie (and she would get her hands on him, no doubt about it). Hadn't occurred to me that Doyle would be distinctly miffed at being ignored but you're right, he would wonder if he and Greebo would enter into some diabolical compact to nip the Ogg passions in the bud? Would it be more intriguing if he and Bodie were already lovers, I wonder? Or would it be the ideal catalyst for dear Raymond to realise how possessive he is? Please slash-sisters - won't one of you write it?[1]

Continuing your point about plagiarism, I don't understand either why someone would worry about their characters or universe being used or built upon by others. Surely that has to be the greatest of compliments? It is exactly what fandom has done with the original series. Just think how much poorer life would be if plagiarism from those source materials had never taken place. Using someone else's storyline, though, is not on. The second person has to do something different. [2]


  1. ^ a fan's comment in Discovered in a Letterbox #4
  2. ^ a fan's comment in Discovered in a Letterbox #5