In his book, The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker says that most works of literature are repetitions of one of seven basic plots. Those seven plots are: 1. Overcoming the Monster, 2. Rags to Riches, 3. The Quest, 4. Voyage and Return, 5. Rebirth, 6. Comedy and 7. Tragedy. Thus David Copperfield is an imitation of The Ugly Duckling and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws has more in common with the ancient Beowulf than you might imagine.
Nothing is really original. Can’t be. Long ago, Plato said that art is an imitation of life. The philosopher was not quite happy about that either. The imitation takes you away from the ideal reality, he thought. You become like a cave dweller who mistakes a moving shadow for the reality. Plato’s disciple, Aristotle, was kinder towards writers and story tellers. Imitation is an essential aspect of human nature, he accepted. We can’t help being story tellers. We are all story tellers. And we take our stories from out there. We copy from the life around us.
Copy makers, that’s what we are. My fellow blogger, Anita, seems to be worried about this quintessential human nature. She raises the question at Indispire this week: How do you react when you come to realize that your idea has been copied? What would you like to say to the copycat? Obviously she doesn’t mean the kind of copying that people from Plato to Booker meant. She means lifting of your lines by someone who then claims them as her/his own.
You can copy ideas. Every artist does that. Plato would say that God is the only original creator. We all just make copies of the ideals created by God. Well, if you think like me that God is only an idea created by us human beings, you will nevertheless agree that there’s a lot of copying of ideas in the world of writing. Most of my ideas come from great writers of the past. I owe much to Albert Camus and Dostoevsky and many others.
You shouldn’t copy words, however. You copy ideas. There aren’t too many ideas out there anyway. Whatever there are have already been taken. What do you do then as a writer? Steal the same things, wrap them in new clothes and present them as your own to the world. What else? That’s how it goes from the epic Mahabharata to Steinbeck’s East of Eden.
Steinbeck didn’t copy words from the epic, however, as, say, Melania Trump did at the Republican National Convention in 2016 when she allegedly plagiarised Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech. Melania stole ideas rather than words, I think. Maybe, that wasn’t stealing even. Because she spoke about the values of hard work and respect for others which were taught by her parents. Michelle said the same thing. Now, can’t two parents teach the same things to their children? Well, Melania could have dressed the words in her own clothes. Maybe, she’s not much concerned about clothes, you see.
British author Adrian Jacobs claimed that J K Rowling stole many of her ideas for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire from the book, The Adventures of Willy the Wizard. Even J R R Tolkien was accused of stealing from Ring of the Nibelung, a Wagnerian opera. There are infinite such allegations. The world moves ahead in spite of them. People continue to read Tolkien and watch Harry Potter or vice-versa.
Now, to answer my friend Anita. If I see someone copying me, my first reaction would be: “Wow! Did I deserve this?” Imitation is a form of admiration, isn’t it, Anita? The person who copies you or from you is telling you indirectly that you are worth it. I’m still waiting for such a noble person to come along and make me feel so worthwhile.