Imitation as Flattery

Pat Rice here:

I had a reader ask if I’ve ever read a book or review and thought “That writer stole my idea!” Or title, or family name, or whatever. The answer is…certainly.

I can’t recall specific incidents but I’ve opened up RT Book Reviews many times to discover the plot of my current WIP, or similar character and family names, or book titles listed among their reviews.  I don’t have enough ego to believe anyone is actually imitating me, so I’m not flattered, just annoyed that I’ll have to change what I’m doing. <G>

It’s equally startling to call up the title of a book on Amazon and discover half a dozen of the same title by six different authors. I try to avoid that by checking Amazon before I title a book, but there’s no avoiding the collective unconscious. I’ve seen three books of the same title come out in a single month.  Conspiracy theorists may decide editors write down the titles of proposals they’ve rejected and keep a file to use later, but if editor brains operate anything like mine, that title just stuck in their subconscious and came out at the proper moment.

I can go to the bookstore and find recent books by new authors using my old titles, which makes me feel old but doesn’t otherwise bother me. We can’t copyright titles.  When I read a review that resembles my WIP, I’m annoyed because I prefer to think I’m original and don’t want anyone saying I stole their ideas. But always, if I buy the book and read it to be certain I’m not losing my originality, there is nothing remotely similar between the stories. Reviews are condensed to such basic genre tropes that after a while, it’s a testimony to the talents of the reviewers that they don’t all sound alike.

Writers have certainly sued other writers enough times to give anyone who plagiarizes nightmares.  I know everyone has read about the big lawsuits where unknown writers have sued J.K. Rowlings and the author of DA VINCI CODE.  In those cases, plagiarism wasn’t proved since all the plaintiffs had were similar character names and a vague idea.  You can’t plagiarize ideas or character names.

I could blame these similarities of titles and concepts on Jung’s “collective unconscious.” I don’t buy into the theory that archetypes are hereditary, but the appeal of the archetype does seem primeval if so many people are attracted to the same ones over centuries. But for the same archetypes to appear in mass market fiction at the same time speaks of a more immediate consciousness to me—the media. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the end of the Buffy TV series resulted in a torrent of vampire books hitting the market.

Has anyone else noticed the frequent similarities between book concepts, characters, etc? Do you think they’re directly related to the media? Or is art just imitating art?




Imitation as Flattery — 11 Comments

  1. Another factor is fashion, both longer and shorter term. Some tropes are just more in fashion this year than others: zombies, Smurfs. This too shall pass! An example of longer-term fashion is names. The Linda/Brenda tidal wave of fifty years ago was preceded by the Gladys/Mavis surge of the generation before that. Any time you find a heroine named Linda you can pretty well peg when the work was written.
    The other factor is that art is a conversation. Diana Wynn Jones writes a Chrestomanci novel, and J.K. Rowling writes a response to it in seven fat books, which elicits a three-volume answer from Jonathan Stroud. If at some point I hop in with a different answer to Rowling, it may well bear similarities to Stroud.

  2. I think these things are part of the Zeitgeist. The resurgence of the silver fork romance in the form of what are now called Regency romances were sparked by Georgette Heyer, so of course a lot of writers are going to be in dialogue with Heyer . . . or with Heyer’s immediate imitators during the seventies.

    Then others combine tropes–let’s make our duke a detective. Or after the popularity of Patrick O’Brian, we saw a lot of duke heroes as spies (easier to write than ship captains).

    All these ideas are part of the artistic conversation–it’s fun to see how they all evolve.

  3. Well, to be accuarte, Jack Aubrey wasn’t a spy. It was his ship’s surgeon, the messy, homely and none-too-clean naturalist, Stephen Maturin, Irish, Spanish and Catholic, who was the intelligence gatherer and transmitter. Jack was merely his conveyence — as if, of course, Commodore Aubrey couldn’t ever have been a merely anything! 🙂

    Love, C.

  4. So by imitating Heyer or Rowling or Whomever, are we flattering them or simply taking up where they left off and finishing the conversation to our satisfaction?

  5. Oh, it’s an -argument.- Somewhere in the first Bartimaeus book an older wizard says to the young apprentice, “What, do you think learning magic is like being in school, playing sports and going to class?” Stroud is saying that no, learning magic is not like Hogwarts — this is what it is like.
    I wrote HOW LIKE A GOOD because DC Comics went and rebooted Superman. At that time (they have since redone it at least twice) they bobbed out Superboy, Krypto, etc. and had Clark Kent simply don the cape as a young man. I read it and immediately knew it was nonsense. People cannot become Superman later in life without severe consequences. What consequences? I had to write the book to show you.

  6. I think it’s continuing a dialogue with them–like Brenda says. Like, I don’t think Spenser would have written Faerie Queene if Ariosto hadn’t written Orlando Furioso first. That doesn’t mean he might not have offered the same ideas–maybe as sonnets, or a play, or a rhetorical dialogue, but something in Ariosto sparked this response, with all its heavy political implications along with everything else . . . and so it goes.

  7. The big thing with stealing ideas is to scrape off the serial numbers until you get down to the pith and essence of what fascinated you — and then you engrave your own serial numbers on them.

    A lot easier when you read a story and think the author did a terrible job with that idea.

  8. LOL! The serial number concept works for me. or what was that song about taking a piece of a Cadillac from the plant year after year until the final result had parts from twenty different years? Unique.

  9. Mix-and-match is a good way to make it unique. But sometimes you can work at a single source idea to pull it off. (I discuss here — at length.)

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