This month’s issue of the Romance Writer’s Report (the trade magazine for the Romance Writers of America) included a fantastic article by Erin Quinn and Kris Kennedy entitled “That’s My Book She Wrote!” about those painful moments when you pick up another book and realize someone else has written your story. The article talked about how common it actually is for writers to discover deep, deep similarities in plot, character, and situations in the work of others. Sometimes those books were published ages ago by bigger (or smaller) name writers, and sometimes two authors just randomly publish similar work at the same time.
The thing is, I’ve heard about this phenomenon before. In fact, I remember hearing a story years ago at a writers conference about some poor, hapless author who had just written a brilliant story about underprivileged kids in an inner city school whose math teacher taught them to count cards. Then they all went to Vegas and ended up making a killing. Apparently the book was smart, well-written, engaging…and pitched at exactly the same time as the movie “21” hit theaters. (“21” was based on the true story of MIT students, led by their math professor, who attempted to pay their tuition through gambling in Vegas) It didn’t matter how original the idea was to that author, the same story was already out there.
The solution to problems like this, we were told back then, was to read voraciously within your genre so that you could be sure not to duplicate anything. So imagine my surprise when Quinn and Kennedy in the RWR article recommend not reading anything in the genre you write at all! Hmm. Well, those are two entirely different approaches! So which one is the right thing to do?
The thing is, to a certain extent, I feel like writers are held to an impossibly high standard. On the one hand, we’re told that there are no original stories anymore. Everything is archetypal and has pretty much been done. True. At least in one form or another. On the other hand, we’re encouraged to write original stories, to come up with the spin that no one has ever thought of before.
Did you know that this is actually a relatively modern invention? Yes it is! Back in the eighteenth century and earlier, the mark of a true literary genius was a writer who could imitate the “perfect” styles and tell the same story in the most conventional way. The goal was not to come up with unique thoughts, but rather to perfect the form to the point where it was flawless. The same was true of music and art too.
Originality is new, all things considered. That doesn’t mean, however, that there is no place for exploring familiar tropes and retelling well-known tales. There’s a trend in historical romance right now to retell fairy tales with new and unique characters. I like that! And how many Jane Austen spin-offs are out there these days? Tons. I have an idea for one myself. I would also love to repurpose the plot of L.M. Montgomery’s novel The Blue Castle someday because I think the premise is just so brilliant.
But would I be criticized for that? I think I would. I was certainly criticized for repurposing the Robin Hood legend with my debut novel, The Loyal Heart. And Quinn and Kennedy cite tons of examples of authors who found themselves inadvertently rehashing someone else’s work, including Diane Gabaldon (NYT bestselling author of the truly excellent “Outlander” series).
Should authors be criticized when similarities appear?
Well, my gut inclines toward a little “Yes” and a little “No”. Mostly no though. Stories are universal, as are inspirations. There is an actual phenomenon that Quinn and Kennedy mention in their article called the theory of multiple discovery. It’s the reason why there are conflicting claims across continents as to who invented the car, the telephone, the discovery of oxygen, and the invention of calculus. Ideas are just in the air. It’s a well-known fact.
In a way, I feel like we should embrace these same-i-tudes. That’s where tropes come from, after all, and who’s to say that we can’t set out deliberately to pay tribute to a trope—or even a specific author—through imitation?
And at the same time, I think there are cases that skate so close to plagiarism they make me cringe. I don’t like the current trend of publishing fan fiction. Writing fan fiction is all well and good, and I recommend it as a way to hone your writing skills. But that work should be kept safely in a drawer. I have a hard time swallowing it when an author goes public and states that they deliberately copied someone else’s work and repurposed it for their own use. As in, there’s a difference between saying “I was inspired by L.M. Montgomery’s plot, so I looked for a way to adapt it to modern circumstances” as opposed to “I wrote fanfiction of L.M. Montgomery’s characters, then changed the names and published it”.
Does that make sense? Is it a clear enough distinction? Or, like some people claim about porn, is it an “I’ll know it when I see it” proposition?
What do you think? Are similar stories just a result of the theory of multiple discovery and something to be explored and embraced, or should authors be diligent about not repeating anything?