Sunday, November 6, 2011

Nothing New under the Sun: Plagiarism, Literary Cloning or Inmortal Formulas?

Whether it deals with vampires, conspiracy tales, or the old-as-ages Macguffin, formula plots sell and are here to stay. Most bestselling books, films and even television series will elicit replicas in the never-ending search for sales and ratings. But do literary formulas grow old? When do they become immortal archetypes, and why some bestselling ideas never bring forth clonification?

There is nothing wrong about formula. Just call it “genre” and make it respectable. Without formula we wouldn´t have great detective mysteries, great love stories or complex genres like science fiction or fantasy. Details vary, but you always have the same ingredients. The art consist in combining the basics, and reaching out to an audience hungry for a story similar to the one that just captured its imagination.

Recently, I read that part of Boardwalk Empire´s appeal lies in that it attracts The Sopranos’ large fandom. All the producers had to do was take elements that had turned The Sopranos into a hot series and reset them into another milieu: Atlantic City in the Twenties. But not all winning formulas are ripe for imitation.

                  Boardwalk Empire o What if Tony Soprano had lived through The Prohibition?                          

Few television series have merited the accolades that befall on Mad Men, and yet one would expect a thread of series cloning that bitter view of Madison Avenue in the 60’s. Recently there were two attempts (PanAm and The Playboy Club) to recycle that nostalgic fad. Both have poor ratings, showing that mediocre reproduction does little honor to the real McCoy.

                                          The Real Mad Men: Beware of cheap imitations

But the search for novelty is becoming exhausting and futile. The Biblical proverb “there is nothing new under the sun” applies even to literature. Most fiction is, to some extent, formulaic. It’s why many of us have turned to fantasy, the last refuge of originality. However, even in Fantasyland you will run into the “copycat syndrome.”

We live in the Era of Fangs. A plethora of vampires lurks on our TV screen, in Hollywood blockbusters and hide between the pages of bestselling novels. All over the world, writing about vampires has become a lucrative business. As long as readers remain mystified by bloodsucking protagonists, the vampire formula will live on.  Universal folklore has plenty to offer in vampire habits and etiquette, so variations on the subject are inexhaustible. It´s why Count Dracula, The Cullen Family and Sookie Stackhouse’s paramours are so different, sharing only a thirst for human plasma.
                                    Eric and Sookie, a far cry from Dracula and Minna Harker.

The problem is that several of the current vampire yarns are too similar for comfort. Sometimes they are nothing but duplications of a successful novel, and publishers aid in the plagiarism scheme by even using the same marketing techniques. A good example is Claudia Gray’s Evernight. Its cover is a blatant New Moon's take off.

Some of us who do not care to read or write about vampires (werewolves are my game) just hope and wait for the craze to go away, because formula is not forever. The best plots have their day of reckoning.  There is an unwritten law that popular books (as well as film and miniseries) will spawn clones, but the formula can be done to death.

After J.K. Rowlings struck gold with Harry Potter, cutesy teen witches and wizards flooded the literary market. A plot centering on a brooding maladjusted adolescent that found her/his secret powers at boarding school was tried and tried all over again, until it ran its living time. Now, no respectable agent would touch a manuscript that deals with such a tedious, predictable and overly-tried subject.

Not all fantastic elements have expiration dates. The quest for a particular object, otherwise known as Macguffin (according to the late Alfred Hitchcock), has been around since the Holy Grail, and you may find it in all genres not only fantasy. Historical fiction, thrillers, adventure and detective stories twirl around various documents, parchments, utensils, gems and even statues, think of The Maltese Falcon. Although agents may clench their teeth at reading another tale of a magical object that needs to be found in order to save the world, the Macguffin has become an immortal archetype.

We tend to associate the fad of conspiracy tales with the publication of The Da Vinci Code. But secret societies, mysterious agendas and Templar mysteries have been around since Sir Walter Scott. A serious writer like Umberto Eco made a name for himself mixing all those elements that have made Dan Brown rich and infamous. But since Eco was considered a “high literature” master, nobody would dare accuse him of being formulaic or using worn out literary premises.

In truth, those premises are not really worn out; you may still refresh and refine them. Sadly not all writers do it. It´s much more comfortable to rewrite the same formula with just the necessary variations to prevent plagiarism. The main problem of this semi-plagiaristic craze is that it encourages sloppy style, mediocre storylines and cardboard characters.  That is why “formula” has become a bad word in the writing community.

The industry’s lame excuse is to cry out “the public demands it!” But we readers are the first to notice when our favorite themes are cloned mercilessly. For fifteen years, I was a bodice-ripper addict. I read and collected the best of the genre, eschewing dull imitations. Eventually it came to my attention that even some of my favorite authors were displaying signs of writing fatigue.

By the time I grew out of my obsession with the genre I was conscious that Rosemary Rogers’ heroes were all mean, chauvinistic pigs and her heroines were a bunch of promiscuous losers. With Beatrice Small, the boredom arrived when I found myself reading the same bedroom scene sequel after sequel.

Have you gone through a similar experience? As a reader,  how can you tell when even your favorite formula is growing stale? And as a writer, how do you battle the need to be innovative while trying to pay homage to that novel you so much love? After all, imitation is a form of love.


  1. Thank you for this interesting post. I couldn't agree more. I enjoyed Baldachi for a quick read, then moved on, too much hacked-out stuff. My eyes cross when I see Nora Roberts and so on. I have a friend who wants a book with big print, a simple plot and plain sentences - "So I don't have to think," she said. So, the beat goes on - !

  2. When someone told George Bernard Shaw that he was being plagiarized, he is reported to have said, "Good, it's the sincerest form of flattery" I tried to look up the exact words on Google. What I found were dozens of sites, claiming the could supply essays on all of GBS's works, guaranteed to be disguised enough to avoid plagiarism. What a sad comment on our educational institutions! Apparently all that students want is the degree. Learning anything is secondary. But without some letters after your name, you can't move up. There's no back door, as there was 75 years ago.
    I have used Grammarly. com and received some good corrective help, but I have heard that many of the users, are teachers,looking for plagiarism in student's papers. Is this true? Comments?
    'Cloning and 'Novel factories' have been profitable ever since Dickens' time. Regis

  3. Wonderful post! I agree - but if people didn't want to read/see these things, there wouldn't be a market...and there continues to be one.

    And vampires are just kind of "modernized". I remember when all the Anne Rice stuff was in full swing, but I don't remember if there were "copycats" of her work.

  4. Thank you Katie for commenting. Maggie and you mention the root of the problem, an audience that seeks extremely light reading. This reminds me of a Spanish lady called Corin Tellado who was famous throughout the Spanish-speaking world for her romances. They were very short, very simple stories that were exactly the same, down to the writing style. She wrote incessantly, from the Fifties until the early 90’s, her novels changed characters’ names, but included the same endings, the same structures, the same adjectives, she even cloned her own sentences! And yet she had a huge audience, Women of all classes from cooks to college girls read her novels, because they were “easy to read” and “you could read them in the train.” I used to called her followers “Tellado zombies” because they were not real fans. If you asked them they couldn’t tell you what the stories were about or why they liked the characters.
    People like that are not real readers! And it´s unfair that the industry would grant them that much importance. You can’t let literature (even pulp fiction) be guided by the tastes of those who have no taste. I don´t mean they have poor taste; they just don’t have real preferences.
    Now, don´t get me wrong , I like formula and I don´t mind reading novels that are close to one I happen to love, but what bothers me is when the cloning gets so recurrent that you find yourself reading the same sentences, the same adjectives. Funny, but you don´t find that in Stephen King, so he still has my respect.
    Katie you mentioned Nora Roberts. I have never touched her, because just by reading a first chapter in Amazon I can tell which way she is going. She reminds me why I gave up on Judith Krantz, Sydney Sheldon, Barbara Cartland and Victoria Holt (and her alter egos Philippa Carr and Jean Plaidy). They were good writers but they all fell prey to self-plagiarism. The same story with Danielle Steele, but I have only liked one Steele novel (Echoes).Its plot was so original, it trapped me, but her writing was sloppy, because if you keep retelling a story using the same stylistic elements, you’ll never grow as a writer.

  5. Regis you are right. Dickens had “admirers” who copied his style, but his work has survived while their writing is lost. That´s a telling sign isn’t it?

    I am so glad I don´t teach anymore, but I know students (in my country) that pride themselves in their forgery skills. And the Net aids them. And I do remember (even in graduate school) classmates who plagiarized shamelessly. Teachers knew and looked the other way.

  6. Maggie, you mentioned Anne Rice. Although we think of her as a vampire writer, she explored so many different genres (including erotica) that she couldn’t help having ”copycats” all over the place. I don´t remember vampires being fashionable in her day, although she invented that vampire=good guy equation which opened all kind of new possibilities for the genre. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro was her closest imitator. But again, one thing is to be inspired by the work of others, and imitate their style while adding touches of your own genius, other is to merely and shamelessly copy an overly-tried subject.

  7. Violante, your interesting discussion of the Tellado books reminded me of a series of books I read as a ten year old. I can't remember the name, but I got bored because of the repeated plot. The hero invented something marvelous, or had a great moneymaking idea. One story I remember was "Seven league stilts." He and his two friends always tried to profit in some way from the idea, but a bunch of ruffian boys from another neighborhood tried to wreck their plans, however the MC always found a way to win with great approbation from family and teachers. Girls were absent, except for a difficult but admiring sister.
    Thanks for an interesting blog Regis

  8. Regis, your books reminds me of Horatio Alger, the champion of all cliché formulas. Juvenile lit. of old was notorious for being simplistic and trite. It´s why those children’s book that have survived the passing of time, are only the best. But you see? Even as a 10-year old you could tell what made them boring. A good reader will always demand a more challenging reading material.

  9. Pardon me for dragging this out. Wikipedia says that Leo Edwards wrote over forty novels in 7 series for young boys between 1922 and 1940. Here's one series.
    Poppy Ott and the Stuttering Parrot - 1926
    Poppy Ott's Seven-League Stilts - 1926
    Poppy Ott and the Galloping Snail - 1927
    Poppy Ott's Pedigreed Pickles - 1927
    Poppy Ott and the Freckled Goldfish - 1928
    Poppy Ott and the Tittering Totem - 1929
    Poppy Ott and the Prancing Pancake - 1930
    Poppy Ott Hits The Trail - 1933

    Note the catchy titles. "Formula" writing can be profitable! Regis

  10. Don’t apologize. You got me thinking. As a child I used to have my book collection divided by series. Those in pink covers were all Louisa May Alcott’s, yellow were this Spanish take off on British schoolgirls adventure series. Next to them were my Dad’s childhood books that I inherited, and they were also divided by color. Now I realize (Simone De Beauvoir speaks in her memoirs about a “Bibliotheque Rose” series of children stories centered around a family or a girl character that bonded the series together), that children’s lit consisted in series of stories, all formulaic to the max (and rottenly didactic). What we have now is adult standard stories that do not even have the excuse of being part of a series (in fact modern adult series try to be assorted in their subject matters)

  11. It helps, in breaking tropes, when one sets out to do this, and is informed by a different swathe of influences than the usual genre author. I write fantasy, but hardly read the sort (shock horror, yes I know). I tend to read sparingly, and then often; history books and watch documentaries of all sorts of things, history, religion, politics.

  12. Vampires! Ugh! If I never see another vampire novel again, it will not be too soon!

    For me, formula gets old, fast. I have a hard time staying interested in a writer if all they do is write about the same characters in book after book after book.

    And you bring up a good point. Does plagiarism even exist anymore? I have a hard time believing it does. Every plot line seems to have been rehashed time and time again. It's incredibly hard to find anything fresh unless it's in nonfiction pertaining to a person or event that has never been written about. Found any of those lately? Probably not. I must say, though, that I love to see where the roots of genres come from and how they've gotten off course when it comes to formula.

  13. Hi Nodgene, would you say then that a well-read author would not fall into the formula trap?

  14. Sister Mary, Mary,
    let´s not be too hard on poor vampires. Some vampiric literature is quite original, but I resent paranomal romances that seem to find their inspration not in Gothic Lit, but bodice-rippers. Tey even have Fabio clones on the cover Ugggh!
    I would say that drifting away from modern ideologies, current sensibilities and political correctness may offer a path to originality, but it´s dangerous. I am now exploring a new genre, historical thrillers. So far, my reading proves enjoyable. Everything seems new there, but I am counting the minutes to stumble upon some dissappointing trait.

  15. I think when we say "formula" we mean a few different things:

    1. The particular elements of a genre. For example in romance, the dual narration of hero and heroine, the focus on the relationship over any other subject, the happy ending. Or in a mystery, the dead body on chapter one and the detective/investigator/old lady who must solve the crime.

    2. The methodology of storytelling such as the hero's journey or the three-act-structure, which have been applied to tons of stories throughout the centuries.

    3. The repetition of the same exact elements of a successful book or series (such as the teenage vampires in Twilight or the wizard school in Harry Potter) or the use of a very similar book cover, like the examples Violante gave us.

    I think the first two are valid because they only conform the blueprint of a story, but the particulars belong to each author. The third one is, IMO, a mild form of plagiarism (not one that is illegal, but unethical). However, like Violante says, it's going to continue to happen, just like with ANY other product in the market that proves successful (cell phones, computers, sodas, clothes). When something sells, there will always be someone else who wants to profit by offering something that is very similar. It's just something we have to accept. As an author, however, I would HATE to be the one who has a book that looks exactly like Twilight or Harry Potter. I wonder how much say the authors of these "clones" have on their book covers and whether or not they care (probably not since they wrote such a similar story in the first place.)

    Where do you think movie/novela remakes fit in this equation?

  16. I heard somewhere that when Corin Tellado got older, she had secretaries who wrote those novellas (or short stories) featured in Vanidades for her. I've heard the same of Sydney Sheldon, but I think he at least gave his assistant(s) an outline of the story or the main character's design. I remember reading Corin Tellado's stories in fifth grade. (At the time I liked them so much that my best friend and I wrote our own story to send to the same magazine, back when we didn't even know how to type!). Past that stage, I strongly disliked her stories, especially the endings!! (The couple always ended up sitting around the fireplace with their 5 (or more) kids!)

  17. "When something sells, there will always be someone else who wants to profit by offering something that is very similar. It's just something we have to accept." I think you're right on the nose here, Lorena.

    But regarding plagiarism specifically: I was trying to remember what legal plagiarism is, and finally just went to Wikipedia. Their entry is interesting:

    "Plagiarism is defined in dictionaries as the 'wrongful appropriation,' 'close imitation,' or 'purloining and publication' of another author's 'language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions,' and the representation of them as one's own original work, but the notion remains problematic with nebulous boundaries.

    "The modern concept of plagiarism as immoral and originality as an ideal emerged in Europe only in the 18th century, particularly with the Romantic movement, while in the previous centuries authors and artists were encouraged to 'copy the masters as closely as possible' and avoid 'unnecessary invention.' The 18th century new morals have been institutionalized and enforced prominently in the sectors of academia and journalism, where plagiarism is now considered academic dishonesty and a breach of journalistic ethics, subject to sanctions like expulsion and other severe career damage.

    "Not so in the arts, which not only have resisted in their long-established tradition of copying as a fundamental practice of the creative process, but with the boom of the modernist and postmodern movements in the 20th century, this practice has been heightened as the central and representative artistic device. Plagiarism remains tolerated by 21st century artists.

    "Plagiarism is not a crime per se but is disapproved more on the grounds of moral offence, and cases of plagiarism can involve liability for copyright infringement."

    Gosh. Nebulous, indeed!

  18. Sister Stephanie thanks for showing us how bogus this plagiarism thing is. What I find repellent is the industry's encouragement to plagiarize. A writer knows he can get through the loophole as long as his MS is very close in plot to the latest bestseller. Agents do it too when they tell their potential clients "please let us know if your book is similar to XXX (the latest bestseller)" and they sell it as such "This is the next "The Help" or” he writes like a young Nicholas Sparks"

  19. Sister Lorena,
    As I was writing the post, I kept n thinking how many definitions hide under the “Formula” umbrella. Some, as you said, are quite legitimate. Others are just writer’s ruses to weasel out of the problem of how to sell their novel.
    What I find more pathetic is the self-plagiarism issue. We see it on telenovelas all the time. But pitiful is the writer who cannot tell he just writes the same novel all the time, just because there are no fresh ideas sprouting in his brain.
    About the Corin Tellado factory line novels, I can visualize her drafting a plot template and just leaving it there in her PC for her secretaries to fill in the blanks.
    As I said before, Stephen King’s novels share certain quirks and common elements, but he always comes out with something that makes them different.
    Well, remakes are a different thing. I happen to like them when they are artfully made. A remake is not plagiarism but a retelling of a beloved story.

  20. I have noticed this more in movies than in books, and this is because I will get sucked into watching anything on cable, but I read more by recommendation and author reputation than by genre. But I have no doubt that you are correct.

  21. Formula is inexorably tied to genre, and film and television works only with genre, so there you have it! But that shouldn´t leae out the possibility of just one tiny touch of novelty.


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