On stealing writing, intentionally and not

by look i have opinions

“I get great pleasure out of stealing other people’s writings. Actually, I do that at least partly because of a peculiar and unfortunate quality of my mind: I remember things. Word for word. I’m not always aware of it. Once in college, I wrote a paragraph of a novel that was word for word out of Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’ and I wasn’t aware of it at all. I absolutely wasn’t. My teacher at the time said, Why did you do this? He wasn’t accusing me of plagiarism, he was just saying it was a very odd thing to do. I realized then that I had a problem.”

—John Gardner in The Art of Fiction No. 73 (Paris Review)

I have a (far less pronounced) tendency to do the same thing, so it’s a relief to see somebody I respect admitting to it. (When Kaavya Viswanathan was accused of lifting a few lines from another book, I had the same reaction as Bill Poser on Language Log—unconscious plagiarism was a perfectly plausible explanation, far more plausible than anything deliberate.)