One might wonder, at first glance, why a 1998 journal would be reviewing a 1989 book, one that was actually first published in 1988. My answer is that a lot has happened in print culture studies, a lot that sheds new light on Thomas Mallon's Stolen Words. Old it may be (I'm calculating time here in book- review years, which are roughly comparable to dog years), but it has attained canonical status in English departments. Let the subject of plagiarism arise, and someone will recommend Mallon as the definitive treatment.
A substantial part of the book's appeal is Mallon's ethos, both extrinsic and intrinsic. He is a well-regarded novelist, a regular contributor to publications like the New York Times Book Review, his fiction reviewed by John Updike in the New Yorker. But the ethical appeal of Stolen Words also derives from Mallon's unswerving confidence in the justice of his cause: Thomas Mallon is the enemy of plagiarists and most especially the "apologists for plagiarists" (35) whom he accuses of cowardice (187, 190). Plagiarism threatens the institution of Western letters; if left uncontained, it will destroy a key motivation for writing (237-8).
As an antidote, Stolen Words offers cautionary case studies of plagiarism. Mallon is an accomplished narrator, and these stories are vivid and compelling. Chapter One offers a wry but authoritative history of plagiarism, "Oft Thought, Ere Expressed: From Classical Imitation to International Copyright." Here Mallon acknowledges that the notions of literary originality and plagiarism became important only in the eighteenth century (24); plagiarism is, Mallon's readers might conclude (though he himself does not), an historical construction rather than a moral category. He acknowledges, too, that our ideas derive from our reading-what Elizabeth Bowen calls "a compost of forgotten books" (25).
So much for counterevidence. Notwithstanding the author's pervasive sense of irony, the remainder of Stolen Words supports Mallon's thesis that plagiarism is bad and that allowing plagiarism is even worse. He expresses contempt, for example, for critic Thomas McFarland's explanation of Coleridge's plagiarism as "'a mode of composition-composition by mosaic organization'" (33). Instead, says Mallon, Coleridge's annotations of books reveal "an almost predatory intimacy ... between author and reader" (29). So much for compost; Elizabeth Bowen and her theories have been left behind.
By the time one reaches Chapter Two, "A Good Reade: Malfeasance and Mlle.de Malepeire," Mallon's method is clear. Stolen Words offers an entertaining catalogue of plagiarists, but behind the entertainment lies a serious social mission, which Mallon pursues with a good deal of psychologizing about plagiarists. The case of Charles Reade, a Victorian playwright and novelist who was considered second only to Trollope, demonstrates that plagiarists want to be caught (86, 120-1). They commit "literary suicide" (120). Their courage, Mallon believes, must be great, since they leave irrefutable evidence of their thefts. At one point Reade adapted a Trollope novel for the stage without Trollope's permission. He did notify Trollope of his intent and declared he would give Trollope credit, but the episode inspired Trollope to muse that Reade really didn't understand the plagiarism against which he so loudly railed. Mallon speculates that this failure to understand might be attributed to stupidity or to mental disorder (86), and he links the decay of Reade's body with his inability to suppress his compulsion to plagiarize (81). Plagiarism for Mallon is a "pathological" compulsion (192). It is committed by diseased persons.
Chapter Three takes on Jacob Epstein, plagiarizing scion of an American literary family, and Chapter Four describes Jayme Aaron Sokolow, an historian who fared reasonably well in academia, despite what Mallon describes as chronic plagiarism widely known. Chapter Five closes the book with plagiarism in Hollywood, in the television series Falcon Crest.
Stolen Words amounts to a seemingly authoritative history of plagiarism. In it Mallon maintains his own distance from and superiority to his subjects. While rejecting plagiarism as a dangerous disease, Mallon keeps his own cultural capital always on display. His authorial stance accords him control over his material, plagiarists all and sundry, the respected and the excoriated. Full of unsubstantiated assertions of taste that put the droll, amused Mallon at a distance from -- and in a superior position to -- the poets and novelists about whom he writes, Stolen Words acts out the ambivalent attitude that the preface attributes to our society: this is intended to be an amusing yet persuasive book, describing plagiarism as funny, fascinating, repulsive, and dangerous.
From this book the English department reader can derive considerable comfort: plagiarism can be catalogued and contained; it can be understood. Anchoring all our ambivalence are enduring textual truths upon which we can act. Notwithstanding whatever qualms we may experience, when we prosecute plagiarists, we are saving Western literacy or at least our own moral scruples. Nowhere is this message more clear than in Mallon's account of student plagiarism at his institution, Vassar, where it is motivated by panic and is "mostly due to the conduct not of students but faculty" who handle things themselves rather than prosecute. While the diligent, overworked professor searches the library in vain, "Heather's back in Wyatt Hall blowing a joint and watching a Billy Idol video." Even when she is caught, the suspended plagiarist, far from wallowing in shame, will "only go to Aspen for a couple of weeks" (95-8).
Why does all this matter a decade later? Because, despite all the work done in print culture studies, all the history of authorship that demonstrates the historical contingency of categories like plagiarism and originality, all the hypertext theory and experience that demonstrates the permeability of all notions of the author (whether on line or off), in our classrooms we continue to sustain notions of plagiarism inherited from Romantic literary theory and current-traditionalist rhetorical theory. And when the Plagiarism Time of Year rolls around in November and writing program administrators and others begin online fretting about the phenomenon, someone will predictably invoke Thomas Mallon's Stolen Words. What we are being reminded of or directed to is an argument in which our plagiarizing students are diseased, one in which we are morally obligated to prosecute them while suppressing any doubts that postmodern, hypertextual theory and experience may have given us. Stolen Words functions as a beacon from the past, affirming us in classroom practices that, however messy and problematic, are a whole lot more convenient than would be the reconciliation of our classroom practices with our beliefs about authorship.
In a review of James Boyle's Shamens, Software and Spleens published in this volume of Kairos, Paul Amore worries about similar issues. Amore's suggestions for vitalizing composition pedagogy through an attention to current authorship theory are right on the mark. He and other scholars of composition and rhetoric are doing fresh work that asks important questions such as, Does anyone ever compose alone? When we compose, are we collaborating with the texts we have read? Is it possible to acknowledge all our textual collaborations? Is it useful to do so? What if we assume that all writing is collaborative and that collaboration can take place with texts as well as with people; can we then sustain a composition pedagogy in which individuals receive grades for texts produced? What if we graded our students not on having individually generated a text but for having taken responsibility for a synthesis of ideas and even words? For those interested in reading rhetoricians' efforts at reconciling contemporary theory of authorship with traditions in rhetorical education, I would recommend
Ervin, Elizabeth, and Dana L. Fox. "Collaboration as Political Action." Journal of Advanced Composition 14.1 (Winter 1994): 53-72.
---. "Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty." College English 57.7 (November 1995): 708-36.
Hull, Glynda, and Mike Rose. "Rethinking Remediation: Toward a Social- Cognitive Understanding of Problematic Reading and Writing." Written Communication 6.2 (1989): 139-54.
Matalene, Carolyn. "Contrastive Rhetoric: An American Writing Teacher in China." College English 47.8 (December 1985): 789-808.