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Plagiarism 'is a cornerstone of writing'

18th January 2010

As two French novelists resurrect a long-running plagiarism dispute, an expert has claimed that a certain degree of copying will always be seen in the literary world.

Last week, Camille Laurens and Marie Darrieussecq both published works looking at plagiarism. The two have been arguing since 2007, when Laurens accused Darrieussecq's Tom est Mort (Tom is Dead) of copying her own memoir Phillippe.

Commenting on the feud, Robert McCrum, the Observer's associate editor, pointed out that writers have always been influenced by each other's work, sometimes to the point that they have been accused of stealing.

He pointed to the example of William Shakespeare, who took the plots for all of his plays, aside from A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night, from other sources.

In addition, McCrum noted that J.R.R. Tolkien relied on the Norse sagas for inspiration, John Milton took influence from Jesuit poet Masenius and T.S. Eliot was a borrower of anything he found inspiring.

The expert said that as this practice is so commonplace, it should barely create a fuss, explaining: 'No writer, if he or she were honest about it, would ever deny that, when they come across a good thing in someone else's work, consciously or unconsciously they store it up for a rainy day.'

However, McCrum claimed there is a fundamental difference between borrowing a reinterpretation of a story archetype, which he finds understandable, and outright theft of another's sentences or phrases.

Literary journalist Toby Lichtig recently wrote in the Guardian that authors have to repeatedly visit themes, subjects and genres to define their style, but said it can feel like they are recycling material if taken too far.

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