Why Witi Ihimaera did wrong

The plagiarism row surrounding Witi Ihimaera's new novel is a reminder of something more profound: if you want to get respect, you've got to give it

A disclaimer to open with. I haven't read Witi Ihimaera's latest (and now infamous) novel, The Trowenna Sea. Nor am I likely to—while I respect Ihimaera's talent and importance as a writer, his later work just doesn't excite me that much. My failure, I know, but so it goes.

That said, the fluster of excitement generated by The Listener's revelation that passages of The Trowenna Sea bear an uncomfortable resemblance to other authors' work almost makes me want to have a read of it. Furthermore, Ihimaera's highly laudable commitment to personally buy back all remaining copies of the book before issuing a new, properly credited edition next year makes me think there's an investment opportunity here. Chances are that this first edition will become like mistakenly printed stamps, that much more valuable in the future for the flaws it contains.

But what of the cause of the controversy—the alleged plagiarism involved in an uncredited incorporation of others' historical writings in a work of fiction? It seems to me there's two grounds for being concerned about this practice.

The first is that it allows a writer to claim an unfair or unearned advantage. So Vincent O'Sullivan is quoted in the NZ Herald as likening plagiarism to "drug cheats in sport" (while making it clear he isn't commenting on Ihimaera in particular). And that is fair enough—if you come across a passage that explains something or describes something in language you yourself could never construct, it is wrong to pretend that you came up with it all by yourself.

That is why, for instance, my faculty is tough on law students who lift chunks from text-books, articles, or other students' work and try to pass it off as their own original work in the hope of "earning" a higher grade. It's a form of fraud on us as markers, and eventually on those who rely on our marks as an indication of that student's academic ability.

However, in the immediate case, I'm not sure Ihimaera really did benefit in this way. The whole issue was detected because The Listener's reviewer, Jolisa Gracewood, felt that aspects of Ihimaera's historical descriptions jarred with the rest of his writing. In other words, the use of other people's writing actually made this a worse, not a better, book.

Not that this excuses ihimaera's actions. For there is a second reason why the unattributed use of others' words is wrong, and that is because they are other peoples' words. As someone who does a fair bit of writing, albeit in the non-fictional (I hope) academic realm, I know how much mental blood, sweat and tears each sentence requires. So to have another author come along and appropriate that effort without acknowledging that you've expended it is plain disrespectful.

I note that this remains true irrespective of the legal niceties of copyright, such as whether the taking of your words falls within the definition of "fair use". The question isn't necessarily "can you get damages for the taking?" but rather "is the taking right?" And it's on this point that I think criticism of Ihimaera is justified. His failure to acknowledge his lifting of other peoples' efforts treats them as mere servants to his grand endeavour.

It's also a reason why C.K. Stead is right to question Auckland University's softly-softly response to the issue. Not only does it make it more difficult to tell students "this practice is wrong", but it fails to support the moral right of other academics. I'm not saying they should sack Ihimaera from his position, but a public gesture to show support for academics' rights would be nice.

Of course, it also is important not to get too precious about the genesis of written ideas. The picture of any book springing fully-formed from the mind of its author, untainted by contact with any other previously written work, is ludicrous. And at times it is quite acceptable to borrow wholesale from the words you find others have used. So, for example, the recent "controversy" over the UK poet Andrew Motion's "found poem" for Remembrance Day strikes me as an example of "plagiarism detection gone mad".

But Ihimaera didn't just borrow. He took the words unto himself, and apparently not for the first time. Which leads me to this conclusion: Great novelist though you may be, if you want the respect of fellow wordsmiths, then you need to give them that respect back.