This week Twitter has been abuzz over what is always a hot topic in the literary world. I am, of course, talking about the P-word – plagiarism. In her was-to-be-published debut collection of poems, American writer Ailey O’Toole was accused of stealing language from the work of fellow poet Rachel McKibbens. O’Toole was publicly called out by McKibbens and has subsequently had her debut collection cancelled by Rhythm and Bones Press. Since then, several other poets have come forward to claim that O’Toole has appropriated work belonging to them. The writing community, always a febrile place where plagiarism is concerned, rounded on O’Toole who issued an apology to McKibbens. So far, so ugly.
I’ve been thinking about the concept of plagiarism in creative writing ever since. What constitutes plagiarism? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.’ With the exception of Roald Dahl, though, we’re all using words created by someone else (and how I wish I’d invented ‘gloriumptious’). Can passing off a phrase count as plagiarism? A word? What about mise en scene? One thing is certain – we know plagiarism when we see it. This was not one for the judges. There were no fine lines here, and precious little attempt to disguise the language.
It’s important not to understate what has happened to McKibbens. Along with being beautifully written, this was a poem full of sensitive source material. This wasn’t simply theft of words, but theft of McKibbens’s experiences, of deeply personal and painful narrative. The indiscretion is also notable because of the vulnerability of the victim. As authors, we are uniquely susceptible to intellectual property theft. Our product is in most cases free, with previous little protection or control once it is in the public sphere. To steal something designed for public consumption seems base.
There was little nuance in this case, then; O’Toole either stole someone else’s work outright, or (and my credulity is being stretched to breaking point here) was guilty of a lack of due diligence so blithe it is astounding from a student of writing. Nevertheless, amidst the gnashing of Twitter teeth it is perhaps important to reflect on why someone might seek to appropriate another’s work. Why might someone try to pass another’s poetry as their own, particularly work belonging to someone as gifted and well-known as McKibben? What is the risk/reward ratio for such an endeavour? Surely not attractive enough to risk the kind of reaction that O’Toole received.
I can only imagine how McKibbens felt upon hearing her own words read back to her, but I can’t help but feel sorry for O’Toole as well. The whiff of plagiarism will stay with a writer for the rest of their life – just ask Johann Hari. If O’Toole is ever published again, it will be with a large asterisk next to her name. She was castigated in the writing community and has deleted her Twitter account after being buried by a social media pile-on. There are worse crimes than theft, and I hope she returns stronger from what must be a chastening experience.