The art of the steal: ‘I have poached shamelessly from my enemies’

When writers ‘borrow heavily’ from people they know, is it theft? Australian writers weigh in on limits of creative licence

Down through history, writers have stolen material from those nearby. Family, lovers, friends – even writing group members. Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, two of the most prodigiously talented and personally obnoxious writers of the 20th century, turned their endless feuds and estrangements into rich quarries for their fiction. They made little effort to conceal it, and they didn’t care who knew it.

For writers, there’s not just the quiet thieving: there’s also a process of unsolicited giving. Caught up in any strange or amusing situation, someone invariably tells them “Oh my God, this will probably turn up in one of your novels.” It’s almost a guarantee that it won’t: somehow the purloined stuff is always the gold. I heard a story years ago about a bunch of comedians in a share house: every time something funny happened they’d all sit there in stony silence in case the others recognised it as material.

If you’ve read Robert Kolker’s much-discussed New York Times essay, “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?”, or even just followed the avalanche of debate over it, you’ll know the set-up. It involves two women, members of a writers’ group and maybe friends. One, Dawn, donates a kidney – not to a suffering patient, but to the world at large. She makes concerted efforts to publicise this deed, including posting a letter on Facebook, addressed to her kidney’s unknowable new owner, exhorting him or her to enjoy the organ.

The other woman, Sonya, publishes a short story which includes a contemptuous depiction of a woman who donates a kidney. So far, so coincidental, you might think. But she includes in the story an almost verbatim rendering of that letter.

The letter changes everything.

There are other twists and turns, too many to recap here – they sue each other, because they’re American – but the bit that turns this story from a tale of personal animus to one of writerly ethics, it seems, is the letter.

The seeds of ideas

There’s a narcissistic impulse in each of us, varying only in the degree of its concealment, that says the details of our lives may be worthy of storytelling. If this were untrue, then there would be no social media, because the majority of all posts is people sharing details of their lives in the belief that they’re story-worthy. How then can we bristle at the notion that writers might catalyse the process?

Australian crime writer Emma Viskic finds discussions of the ethics of other people’s stories fascinating: “I think about it a lot, and I’m torn by this – I think I’m a moral person and I feel deeply uncomfortable if I go outside my moral boundaries. I wouldn’t hurt anyone with my writing. On the other hand, we take what’s in the world around us as the seeds of ideas. After all, writing is about life.”

But back to Sonya and Dawn. There’s a practical dimension, Viskic points out, to small matters like the allegedly plagiarised letter. “It’s ethics,” she says, “but it’s also not very imaginative. Like, really? That’s the best you can do? If something happens, I start mulling over the possibilities; but that’s the point at which you should then spin off into another whole direction. As a reader I’m always deeply disappointed when a writer has taken a real event and put it directly into fiction.”

It’s one thing, according to Viskic, to mine your life and loved ones for anecdotes if you’re writing memoir like Rachel Cusk or Rebecca Solnit, “but if you’re writing fiction, then be creative.”

In “Bad Art Friend”, Kolker sets this challenge: “By arguing what she did is standard practice, [Sonya] is asking a more provocative question: If you find her guilty of infringement, who’s next? Is any writer safe?”

This perhaps frames the question the wrong way around: shouldn’t other people be careful around writers?

“No more so than anyone armed with a social media account,” says Viskic. “I don’t think there’s a single thing in my life that I’d be upset to see in someone’s fiction. But it depends how they do it. If I was using someone’s trauma I’d give them a heads-up. And that applies to writing Koori issues – it’s personal and it’s family in my case. It’s nice as a human being and as a friend if you say something.”

As much as there might be analogies to make with social media, the difference in publication is the permanent, widespread platform it provides. Thankfully, it also comes with more mediating layers: most published writing is done in cold contemplation, not drunk at 3am, and there will be editors and publishers wringing their hands at the scurrilous stuff before it gets out.

Screenwriter Andrew Knight freely admits to having stolen material from friends’ lives, “but never in a way that exposes or hurts them. I will sometimes, with their permission, use funny or smart things they’ve said or indeed life experiences they’ve shared, but ultimately friends are there to be protected.” Which is nice, but he’s not quite done: “That said, I have poached heavily and shamelessly from my enemies, collecting their little bons mots and using them in a way I hope deeply offends them.”

Knight thinks writers take up the craft not because they’re quick-witted and capable of brilliant dinner-table repartee, but rather the converse. “If I’m insulted, it’s only days later I think of an appropriate retort, by which time the offending party is usually out yachting and dining on freshly-caught lobster,” he says. “My only revenge is, with an enormous amount of effort, writing something acerbic that appears off-the-cuff.”

Novelist Toni Jordan, like Emma Viskic, sees a distinction between the personal ethics and the writerly ones. “I’m sure I’ve stolen a million situations from people over the years,” she says. Jordan’s instinctive reaction to the blow-up between two writers is to want to write a short story about two women fighting about a short story. “It’s so meta!” she laughs. “Elizabeth Tan would do it.”

Inadvertence and nemeses

There’s a particularly kind and well-spoken female writer – see?, I didn’t name her – who was asked at a festival how she gets away with “putting all the arseholes in” her memoirs. She responded that the marvellous thing about arseholes is that they never recognise themselves. So it’s possible to commit acts of authorial theft in broad daylight, unnoticed.

“In all the years I’ve been doing this,” says Jordan, “no one’s ever spotted themselves. They may have sometimes misidentified themselves as someone else.” Which is, of course, different from saying Jordan didn’t put them in there.

When asked about the possibility of inadvertently calling up something from a friend’s life, Jordan resorts to an unusual simile. “My brain is like a cave complex,” she says. “Everything I hear and eavesdrop and read sits on a cave wall and grows barnacles, and one day I pull it out into the light …” The inference being, it can be hard to remember provenance when the perfect line presents itself from memory. So inadvertence is a factor.

There is one line in one of my novels where temptation took over and I used the favourite expression of a real-life bully whom I detested. I put it in the mouth of the most contemptible character in the story. It sits there in print, a j’accuse that points at me, not the bully. Perhaps it’ll get me in trouble one day. But more likely, as the writer at the festival put it, he’ll never recognise himself.


Jock Serong

The GuardianTramp

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