As the Columbia Journalism Review chronicled in 1995, plagiarists suffer vastly different punishments for similar offenses. Some are sacked for a single misdemeanor shoplifting. Some keep their jobs after numerous felonies. Some are briefly suspended; others sidelined for months. Some pay huge settlements to the writers they have ripped off; most don't pay a penny. This variation, says Mallon, indicates our deep confusion about plagiarism. "We don't have a clear set of sanctions for it. We don't even have a clear idea what it is," he says. "Thinking about it is really intellectually unformed, even my thinking, and I wrote a book. It is extremely elusive."
It's so difficult to think about plagiarism for several reasons. First, all writers, especially good writers, borrow and imitate. That's how we learn. We are constantly influenced unconsciously by things we read. And it can be hard to distinguish an homage from an imitation from a borrowing from a bank robbery.
Writers are uncertain about plagiarism because none of us are certain that we are innocent. I frequently imitate the style of writers I admire. I surely have recycled snappy phrases I've read. I can't tell you what they are, but I bet they're out there. I have a fear—which I suspect is shared by most writers—that somewhere, in something I wrote, I may have even stolen a sentence. I don't remember doing it. I would never do it intentionally. But could I swear that it never happened? No. This is—to steal a phrase—our anxiety of influence.
Plagiarism is also confusing because we don't know whom it hurts. Plagiarism doesn't harm readers. They rarely know that something they read is ripped off. If anything, readers of The Wild Blue benefit from Ambrose's jacking Childers, because they get to read some of Childers' glowing sentences. (The Wild Blue does commit a crime against readers, but it's not plagiarism. The book is slapdash. Ambrose seems to have written it between lunch and dinner one day. The Wild Blue bears almost no resemblance to Undaunted Courage or Band of Brothers or Ambrose's other marvelous pop histories. The Wild Blue exploits Ambrose's name for a distinctly un-Ambrosial project.)
In a 1997 New Yorker essay, James Kincaid argued that plagiarism should not bother writers so much. Most journalism is mediocre, unoriginal prose, Kincaid says, so writers shouldn't mind if it gets recycled. Some literary theorists minimize plagiarism for a related reason. They are skeptical of the ideas of authorship and originality, contending that everything new is cobbled together from older sources.
But these scholars, you will note, publish their articles under their own bylines. And both they and Kincaid ignore what makes the plagiarist so sinister. For writers, the act of putting particular words in a particular order is our hard labor. Even when the result is mediocre and unoriginal, it is our own mediocrity. The words are our proof of life, the evidence we can present at heaven's gate that we have not frittered away our three score and ten.
The plagiarist is, in a minor way, the cop who frames innocents, the doctor who kills his patients. The plagiarist violates the essential rule of his trade. He steals the lifeblood of a colleague. A few paragraphs have made Stephen Ambrose a vampire.