Unoriginal sins

Unoriginal sins

A few years ago I wrote a speech for a Jewish men’s club. It went over pretty well, so I decided to share the gist in the column I wrote for that week’s paper. (It’s hard enough coming up with one good idea per week, let alone two.) A few days later I got an irate e-mail from a member of the men’s club, chastising me for recycling my insights in the paper. “I thought we were getting exclusive material,” he wrote.

It was, I joked at the time, the first time I had ever been accused of plagiarizing myself.

It turns out, however, that recycling your own material can get you in trouble — if you do it in forums that are big enough and prestigious enough. A number of weeks back, the hotshot science writer Jonah Lehrer was accused of recycling, verbatim, material he had written for the Wall Street Journal in his debut entries for a blog at The New Yorker. Journalists debated whether this was a felony or a misdemeanor — or no crime at all. Lehrer’s editor was miffed: “We’re not happy,” he told a reporter.

Still, Lehrer held on to his staff writer job at The New Yorker — until this week, that is, when he was caught in a much larger journalistic fraud. Lehrer was accused — by a writer for the Jewish on-line magazine Tablet — of fabricating Bob Dylan quotes in his bestselling book Imagine: How Creativity Works. When confronted with the charge, Lehrer lied about it, and then admitted he lied. “The lies are over now,” he said in a statement. “I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.” His publisher is recalling the book.

Compared to the News Corp. scandal — featuring phone hacking, illegal surveillance, and bribery — Lehrer’s misdeeds seem like small change. Because Lehrer is young and successful — at 31 he has three books under his belt — there is also a degree of schadenfreude attached to his rise and fall. I understand how young writers, with pressure to live up to the confidence put on them by major publishers, might be tempted to cut corners or shave points. I am willing to consider the possibility of genuine mistakes. But I don’t understand why they think they won’t get caught. Twenty years ago you could plagiarize or make stuff up in the confidence that no one would be able to do an instantaneous search across vast storehouses of data — and even then, there was Lexis/Nexis. In the age of Google, there’s nowhere to hide.

On the moral scale, lying about your sources and inventing quotes is very bad; recycling your own work is bad, but forgivable. I don’t have a problem with (ahem) writers who turn their work into speeches and vice versa. Occasionally, I have quoted myself in things I have written. I wouldn’t adapt something I’d previously written if I felt there was overlap between audiences. Luckily, I don’t have a huge readership.

I invariably give credit for the insights I’ve borrowed, and actually offer citations in conversation — for example, if I share a joke, I reflexively mention where I got it from: “as Louis C.K. says” or “it’s like what Homer Simpson says about doughnuts….” I do this because I’m ethical, yes, but also because it highlights the jokes I consider original.

Plus, I hate people who steal jokes. First, it’s false advertising — like the Hollywood actresses whose singing voices were dubbed in the old musicals. Second, it devalues the gifts of people who are genuinely witty. And third, it amounts to an act of theft, robbing the original author of the credit for an idea he or she shaped out of language and imagination.

Finally, plagiarizing — your own work or anybody else’s — is corrupting. “Mitzva goreret mitzva, avera goreret avera” is the appropriate mishna in this regard — one mitzva leads to another, one sin leads to another. If you get away with small transgressions, you convince yourself you can get away with larger ones. One day you’re too lazy or busy to write something new, the next day you’re too lazy or busy to research and cite the actual quote.

I have heard rabbis debate the ethics of either recycling their own material or “borrowing” their material from others. Rabbis feel pressure to come up with fresh material week after week, and some congregations demand originality.

I don’t see a problem with occasional recycling, so long as they don’t inflict the same sermons over and over. As for cribbing material from other sources — the Jewish tradition is a long conversation among rabbis and thinkers, each building on the ideas of others. Quoting another’s work is not the sign of a slacker, but of a great teacher There is no shame, and actually great merit, in sharing a quote, insight, or argument so long as you give proper citation. (I like the Hebrew phrase “Baruch she’kevanti” [“Blessed is he who guided me”], which is the verbal equivalent of a footnote.)

As I always say, “Anyone who says a statement in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world.”

Oh wait — that was Ethics of the Fathers, chapter 6, verse 6. Baruch she’kevanti….

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