Writers as Thieves

Conscientious InconsistenciesIn my ordinary life, I do my best to avoid taking things that don’t belong to me. I only eat grapes when I’m shopping if there’s a display inviting me to taste them and I will point out to waiters that they forgot to charge me for an item.

But as a writer, I steal, obviously and on purpose. For example, the first story in my collection, Conscientious Inconsistencies, owes its existence to The Three Musketeers. And the title — “A Mere Scutcheon” — is from Shakespeare. (Falstaff says it of honor, which should give you a broad hint about the story.)

Of course, I intended for you to recognize the relationship to the novel by Alexandre Dumas. It wouldn’t be any fun to change d’Artagnon’s gender if most readers didn’t know the original story.

I’ve also stolen more than titles from Shakespeare. I’m currently revising a novella that rewrites As You Like It and sets it in a near future dystopia.

Of course, everyone steals from Shakespeare. Look at Akira Kurosawa’s great movie, Throne of Blood, a Japanese retelling of Macbeth. Kurosawa also used King Lear to make the movie Ran.

Besides, Shakespeare stole his plots, too. The Comedy of Errors comes from Plautus’s Menaemachi (which may have been taken from a work by Menander that disappeared in the Middle Ages). And As You Like It apparently owes a lot to Thomas Lodge’s novel Rosalynde, which in turn is adapted from an even older story, The Tale of Gamelyn, sometimes attributed to Chaucer but apparently not written by him.

And Gamelyn also has roots in Robin Hood stories, which have been used by almost everyone (my favorite version is Robin McKinley’s Outlaws of Sherwood).

It occurs to me that this is rather like writing fan fiction, though since the authors are safely dead, there’s no one around to be horrified at what you’ve done to their characters or plot. (I’m not at all sure Shakespeare would like what Kurosawa did.) But when one does it with classical literature, it’s more likely to be considered art than when one does it with television shows.

Even when writers aren’t taking a plot or characters hook, line, and sinker from another author, there are influences that affect their work. For example, another story in Conscientious Inconsistencies, “Thirty-One Rules for Fulfilling Your Destiny,” will probably lead readers to conclude that I have read a lot of epic fantasy and space opera in my time. (I also wanted to try my hand at writing a story in aphorisms. I don’t remember where I got that idea, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t invent it.)

The upshot of all of this theft is that many writers and readers say there’s nothing new under the sun (including that observation). I don’t think that’s true, though.

I have certainly read work that struck me as very original. While that might just mean I’m not familiar with the writer’s influences, I don’t think that’s always the case.

Much more frequently I have read work that shows the effect of earlier works, but does something very new and original with those tropes or ideas. The story may not be new, but the writer’s approach to it certainly is. I particularly like that kind of work.

Laurie J. Marks’s Elemental Logic series is a good example of one or the other of those things. The magic system in those books is pretty original, though it might have a few roots in other stories, but what Marks does with the magic and the culture and the whole story is damn unique.

Of course, all this type of stealing has nothing to do with real theft, such as passing someone else’s work off as your own or publishing an author’s work without permission. Don’t take the kind of borrowing I’m talking about here as justification for plagiarism or scanning a favorite book onto the web so everyone can read it for free and the author doesn’t get paid for doing all that work.

This post is about creative stealing. That’s ordinary stealing and it’s wrong.



Writers as Thieves — 5 Comments

  1. It’s not stealing. It’s a conversation. You are saying to Shakespeare, “Bill, what if Hermione was gay?” or whatever, and then writing the story to prove your point.

    I wrote HOW LIKE A GOD because DC went and rebooted Superman, which they do every decade or so. The reboot that frosted me was the one where they completely lost Superboy (plus the Legion of Super Heroes) and had Clark simply pick up the cape in his early 20s. This was so wrong, on every level, that I wrote a novel to show why it wouldn’t work.

  2. Pedantically, I point out that it may be that the Robin Hood stories absorbed the tale of Gamelyn. Hard to tell with oral stuff, of course, but the tale appears independently first, and then gets mixed up with Robin. Which would not be the first time. Maid Marian also appeared in an independent tradition, and in May plays, and probably crossed over when there was a fashion for May Robin Hood plays.

    • Mary, I remember that the two stories were connected, but I don’t recall which one was considered older. I had a copy of an early Gamelyn, but it was on an old computer.