Stolen Words

Plagiarism is a subject that arouses strong and often contradictory emotions. Perhaps for that reason it has received relatively little attention, despite its manifest importance. Thomas Mallon’s STOLEN WORDS: FORAYS INTO THE ORIGINS AND RAVAGES OF PLAGIARISM is thus most welcome. Mallon begins with a historical overview, briefly tracing the development of the modern notion of “literary property,” which was firmly established by the end of the eighteenth century. He rightly gives special attention to the massive plagiarisms of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, documented in Norman Fruman’s COLERIDGE: THE DAMAGED ARCHANGEL. Fruman’s book, the best contemporary study of the subject, was published in 1971, yet as Mallon notes, scholars have largely continued to ignore or explain away Coleridge’s plagiarism, preferring instead to speak of “composition by mosaic organization.”

Mallon then offers four quite diverse case studies, focusing in turn on the nineteenth century British novelist Charles Reade, “both a loud champion of international copyright and a shameless smuggler of work penned on the other side of the English Channel"; Jason Epstein, whose first novel drew heavily on a novel by Martin Amis; an obscure academic historian, Jayme Sokolow; and finally a lawsuit involving the television series “Falcon Crest"--the last a cautionary exception in that it appears to be a case in which plagiarism did not actually take place.

Mallon is both witty and refreshingly down-to-earth, rejecting elaborate defenses of what amounts to theft. Nevertheless, his book is not as good as it could have been. He seems to have tried to write two books in one: a thoroughgoing, serious study of plagiarism and an entertaining but superficial piece of literary journalism. The result is an uneasy mix of the two, though overall the journalist reigns supreme.