The Problem With Saying True Detective Was “Plagiarized”

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 6 2014 5:35 PM

The Problem With Saying True Detective Was “Plagiarized”

Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle in True Detective
A new article argues that many of Rust Cohle's most iconic lines were "plagiarized."

HBO

On Monday, Mike Davis, editor of the Lovecraft eZine, published a conversation between himself and Jon Padgett, founder of the website Thomas Ligotti Online, under the headline: “Did the Writer of True Detective Plagiarize Thomas Ligotti and Others?” Their answer to that question is an emphatic yes. The charges were summarized on Tuesday by the Week, which declined to take a position on the matter, and on Wednesday morning they were written up by IndieWire, which described the piece as a “strong accusation.” The story has since been picked up by several other outlets, most of which have summarized the accusations without taking sides.

The exchange between Padgett and Davis may spur interesting questions about pastiche, homage, attribution, and influence, but a “strong accusation” of plagiarism it isn’t. Consider perhaps their strongest example, these lines from Rust Cohle, the character played by Matthew McConaughey: “I think about the hubris it must take to yank a soul out of nonexistence into this meat … Force a life into this thresher.” At different points in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Thomas Ligotti refers to people being “stolen from nonexistence,” says “we are meat,” and asks, “Why should generations unborn be spared entry into the human thresher?” It’s clear from these similarities that Pizzolatto has read the Ligotti book and borrowed from it—something he has himself acknowledged, about which more below. If True Detective was not a cop show on HBO but a term paper in a philosophy class, then it would indeed be wrong for him to lift such ideas and metaphors from an author without citing him in the work itself. But Davis, at least, does not seem to fully grasp that distinction: He explains his charges by quoting a Cambridge University statement on plagiarism that was explicitly provided for people giving and taking written examinations.

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Nic Pizzolatto was not taking a test. He was writing a fictional TV show. It is of course possible for a writer of fiction to plagiarize: Padgett cites the book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, calling it a “similar” case. But that novel included dozens of passages lifted either verbatim or nearly verbatim from similar novels. That is not what Pizzolatto did with Ligotti’s work. He created a character who thinks much like Ligotti thinks, and he had that character express ideas similar to the ones that Ligotti expounded upon in a work of philosophy—albeit an unusual one, which Padgett says “morphs into metafiction”—occasionally using phrases similar to Ligotti’s. (It should be noted that some of the similarities cited by Padgett appear purely coincidental and unremarkable. Cohle refers to “seeing straight into the true heart of things,” and Ligotti refers to the “horrible ‘inner Truth’ of things.” Including that as an example of plagiarism seems like wishful thinking.)

In addition to highlighting similar ideas and phrases in True Detective and The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Padgett also provides a timeline of people noticing those similarities and Pizzolatto acknowledging them. True Detective premiered on Jan. 12, and nine days later an interviewer mentioned “Cohle’s Ligottian worldview” in a question. In his reply, Pizzolatto didn’t refer to Ligotti by name. Nine days after that, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, Michael Calia, wrote admiringly of the parallels between Ligotti’s work and Pizzolatto’s, citing some of the same passages that Padgett has reproduced this week. (Padgett says he helped with research for Calia’s piece.) A few days later, Calia published an interview with Pizzolatto, in which the showrunner listed Ligotti first among the writers of weird fiction he’d point people to and said that the premiere episode of True Detective featured “two lines in particular (and it would have been nothing to re-word them) that were specifically phrased in such a way as to signal Ligotti admirers.” Padgett says that in subsequent interviews, and on the first season’s DVD commentary, Pizzolatto has not mentioned Ligotti at all.

For Padgett and for Davis, this amounts to a guilty man trying to duck his crimes and only admitting to them when “cornered.” (I emailed Calia asking if he agreed with Padgett’s take, but he forwarded my message to an editor at the Wall Street Journal, who told me, “Michael’s two excellent Speakeasy posts on the subject speak for themselves and we don’t have any other comment.”) When it comes to the specific charge of plagiarism, though, this behavior is neither here nor there. With fiction, plagiarism does not come down to whether or not a writer is willing to acknowledge what he or she has borrowed from someone else. It comes down to how that borrowed material is used—and True Detective creatively borrows a lot of material from many different sources.

As was widely noted when it aired, the show’s finale featured two lines that were taken from comic books: Rust’s kiss-off “L’chaim fatass” comes from a Daredevil installment, and his final speech, about how the stars prove that “the light’s winning,” is lifted from an obscure comic by Watchmen author Alan Moore. In my view, that last example veers from inspiration into mere imitation. But given the quotations and visual allusions sprinkled throughout the series—even the title was taken from a long-lived pulp magazine—it is of a piece with the show as a whole, which should probably be thought of as a pastiche. Not as blatant a pastiche as, say, a movie directed by Quentin Tarantino (has Tarantino “plagiarized” kung fu movies and spaghetti Westerns?), but a pastiche nonetheless.

How does one properly credit one’s sources when you’ve made a pastiche? Legally speaking, you don’t have to explicitly credit them at all. On a more personal level, it’s probably appropriate to direct one’s fans to the works that have inspired you, especially if your own success ultimately exceeds that of your inspirations. In this context, it’s perhaps notable that when Pizzolatto talked at length about the show’s final line with Alan Sepinwall, he didn’t mention Alan Moore. It seems to me that people can reasonably debate whether Pizzolatto has suitably credited Ligotti and Moore with their influence on True Detective.

I have not been able to reach Pizzolatto or Ligotti to get their comments on this issue. (Padgett told me he knows from past correspondence that Ligotti “prefers not to comment on True Detective in any way.”) I emailed Derrick Hussey, founder of Hippocampus Press, which published The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, and he told me that his publishing house had no comment on the matter. In an email exchange today, Jon Padgett patiently and thoughtfully expanded on his thoughts for me, reiterating that he believed Pizzolatto had plagiarized Ligotti “by any measure,” but also suggesting that even if I disagreed, I should concede that it was “unethical at least.” Readers can decide for themselves whether any of Pizzolatto’s behavior was unethical, but what he wrote was not plagiarism.

Update, Aug. 7: Nic Pizzolatto has released a statement on the matter through HBO, in which he mentions many other writers not named Thomas Ligotti who influenced the thinking of Rust Cohle. (He does not mention Ligotti.) You can read the statement in full below.

Nothing in the television show True Detective was plagiarized. The philosophical thoughts expressed by Rust Cohle do not represent any thought or idea unique to any one author; rather these are the philosophical tenets of a pessimistic, anti-natalist philosophy with an historic tradition including Arthur Schopenauer, Friedrich Nietzche, E.M. Cioran, and various other philosophers, all of whom express these ideas. As an autodidact pessimist, Cohle speaks toward that philosophy with erudition and in his own words. The ideas within this philosophy are certainly not exclusive to any writer.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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