Dahlia Lithwick summarizes a recent U.S. Supreme Court argument regarding the nobly named Stolen Valor Act, which criminalizes lying about receiving a military medal. The article wonderfully discusses what else the Justices worry people lie about: mostly fibs to get jobs or dates.
The argument also includes an interesting exchange about the literary value of a lie. Chief Justice Roberts asks, “What is the First Amendment value in a pure lie?” “There is the value of personal autonomy,” answers the defendant’s lawyer. "What does that mean?" asks Roberts. “Well, when we create our own persona, we're often making up things about ourselves that we want people to think about us, and that can be valuable. Samuel Clemens creating Mark Twain.”
Of course, the writing world has had its share of lies. And the liars certainly have found value in their works. James Frey’s Million Little Pieces was an Oprah darling as a memoir chronicling overcoming addiction before it was found to be “semi-fictional.” The controversy didn’t stop Frey’s following works, including the fully fictional Bright Shiny Morning, from being bestsellers.
And just this week, Lizzie Widdicombe gives plagiarist Quentin Rowan a portrait/free ad in the New Yorker. The Paris Review published not one, but two, plagiarized stories of Rowan’s -- one copied from a 1913 sea captain’s memoir, the other a mélange of three writers, Janet Hobhouse, Stephen Wright, and a splash of Graham Greene. Rowan was set to publish a spy novel cobbled together from a myriad of sources before being undone by message boarder sleuths.
But Widdicombe is unpersuasive when she suggests that the “making of a plagiarist can be hard to distinguish from the making of a writer. Joan Didion has described learning to write by typing Hemingway’s fiction; Hunter S. Thompson did the same with The Great Gatsby.” Those are nice tales and all, but they describe exercises in learning to write, not submissions. Aleksandar Hemon has tasked his students here at NU with breaking down an author’s strategies and composing a similar story. Much can be learned by analyzing, copying, even “stealing” from other authors.
But a plagiarist is not hard to distinguish from a writer, and neither is the making of one. Certainly not the kind of plagiarism Rowan engaged in. Perhaps Widdicombe felt sympathetic to Rowan, or unnerved realizing she was giving a huge boost to sales of Rowan’s upcoming memoir. Sometimes lying pays. Maybe a fib is no big deal -- maybe it’s even worthwhile for literary purposes. It certainly is valuable as career enhancement if you can get away with it for at least a little while.