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Workshop: Blog

David Bergen on plagiarism and leaning on other writers

The Giller Prize-winning author of The Time in Between
 looks at the fine line between admiration and mimickry.

In Living to tell the Tale, the first volume of his autobiography, Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells of his first novella, Leaf Storm, which he prematurely handed to Gustava Ibarra, his editor. After Ibarra read it, he sat Marquez down and said, 'This is the myth of Antigone.' At first Marquez did not understand until Ibarra took down the book by Sophocles and read to Marquez. Marquez writes: 

'The dramatic situation in my novel was in essence the same as Antigone's. I had not noticed their emotional affinities until then. I felt my soul stirred by happiness and disillusionment. That night I read the work again, with a strange mixture of pride at having coincided in good faith with so great a writer and sorrow at the public embarrassment of plagiarism. After a dark week of crisis I decided to make some fundamental changes that would rescue my good faith, still not realizing the superhuman vanity of modifying a book of mine so that it would not resemble one by Sophocles. At last, resigned, I felt I had the moral right to use a sentence of his as a reverential epigraph, which I did.'

I love this image of a young Marquez suffering a 'dark week of crisis' because he unknowingly borrowed from a work that had been written 2,500 years earlier. And then making substantial changes, and finally claiming his 'moral right' by inserting an epigraph. I love too this idea of coinciding "in good faith with so great a writer." 

For better or worse, I have always leaned on other writers. I have learned structure from Flaubert, subtlety from Evan S. Connell, the exuberance of the free indirect voice from John Updike, and the confessional from Edna O'Brien. It all began at the age of twelve when I entered a short story contest, and won a dollar for first prize. Two days later some grade 11 boys threw me up against a locker and accused me of stealing the story from a novel they had read that came from the library. I denied this vociferously, embarrassed at having been caught at plagiarism. Because the boys were right, I had stolen the story. Only in my case, I had taken a novel and distilled it into a short story, changing characters' names, embellishing the tone somewhat, making it darker, but ultimately using the plot line, because at the age of twelve I had no good ideas; I had no experience, I had no wisdom, and most important, I didn't know how to footnote my influences. All I had was the urge to write."


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