In the Digital Age, Is Plagiarism an Acceptable Literary Technique?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

Today’s lead story covers the work of French writer Oliver Adam, who lost the Prix Goncourt to Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq courted controversy by admitting to lifting a trio of passages for his novel La Carte et Le Territoire directly from Wikipedia. According to an article by Vincent Glad, who broke the news for, Houellebecq denies that what he did was plagiarism. In a video interview, he calls his style “[a] patchwork, weavings, interlacings.” He continued:

Lots of people have done it. I was especially influenced by [Georges] Perec and [Jorge Luis] Borges. Perec could do it even better than me, because he doesn’t rework the fragment at all, which always creates a very strong linguistic discrepancy. Me, I can’t manage that kind of discrepancy, so I rework the text a bit to make it closer to my own style. … I’d like to be able to modify them a little less than I do.

In other words, as Glad points out, “Houellebecq is apologizing for not copying Wikipedia more directly.”

The novel has garnered almost universal praise from critics, with Glad himself asserting that, “Wikipedia, where the cold, unemotional writing is based on the soft consensus of its contributors, is a perfect match for Houellebecq’s prose.”

The digital age — and the web in particular — is rife with writers whose sole technique appears to be cut, paste, modify. (Not unlike what I did above). Is this acceptable literary technique? Or does it signify a weakening of the imagination — or at least the ability to re-imagine — something? To me, it’s the literary equivalent of bringing home a prepared meal from the grocery store, popping it out of it’s plastic container, adding some spice, garnish, and side dishes on my own plates, and serving it up as a “home cooked meal.” Come to think of it — this would work on my ex-girlfriends (who never stuck around long enough to realize the trick), but would never work on my wife, who always knows when I’m merely dressing up something I’ve reheated. The problem with reheated meals — and Wikipedia — is you never really know all the ingredients you’re serving up are exactly what they purport to be.

Let us know what you think in the comments.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.