Does Addiction to Books Lead to Accidental Plagiarism?

By Rose Scott


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When talking about plagiarism in academia, the cases that require citation seem to be quite obvious: Whenever you refer to someone else’s idea or statement, give proper credit to the author. But do these attribution rules remain the same for you as a writer? This is where doubts creep in for many.

One of the reasons for these doubts is that writers do tend to read a lot. The deeper they dive into researching some issues, the more engaging their writings become. Without this, we simply wouldn’t have so much pleasure exploring witty parallelisms, profound metaphors, or striking allusions. As William Faulkner once said once said, “Any experience the writer has ever suffered is going to influence what he does, and that is not only what he’s read, but the music he’s heard, the pictures he’s seen.”

Basically, the influence described by Faulkner is what may lead to subconscious duplication of something learned, the source for which was eventually forgotten. The problem is that you can unintentionally succumb to this repetition, which is called cryptomnesia. What’s special about it and what should you be aware of?

Cryptomnesia Deceives the Mind

Cryptomnesia is a very subtle thing. It is a kind of a brain trick making you think that the plot, characters or jokes you decided to flavor your novel with were produced solely by you.

The cryptomnesia phenomenon was first researched in 1989 by Alan S. Brown, a University of Georgia Psychologist and PhD who carried out a number of interesting experiments proving the fact that it happens to human minds quite frequently and cannot easily be controlled. Whenever participants of the experiment were asked to focus on generating new words, they accidentally borrowed from the contributions of others without realizing they were doing it.

It occurs because of the peculiarities of our thinking process. With our attention being totally concentrated on extracting new ideas from our memory, we often fail to analyze their original source. Does it mean that everything has already been written and said or that our writings are just recycled thoughts expressed by somebody in the past? Well, here’s how Mark Twain commented commented on this: “The kernel, the soul, let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances is plagiarism.”

This doesn’t mean, however, that originality is nothing but a myth of our own making. You really cannot live in total isolation (unless you are stranded on a remote island like Robinson Crusoe) and avoid discovering ideas or achievements of others, which is a good thing because it enriches your knowledge and helps you not to spend hours reinventing the wheel.

A Thin Line Between Cryptomnesia and Plagiarism

When digging deeper into the topic of cryptomnesia, you are likely to notice that it is often mentioned together with “plagiarism,” which makes sense. The cases of cryptomnesia in literature are rather numerous and most of them cannot provide enough evidence to prove whether it was intentional plagiarism or simply another trick of cryptomnesia.

One of many examples is Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. The author never admitted its interconnection with a short story created by a German writer long before Nabokov’s Lolita was published, and yet the two works do have much in common. Even the names of the main characters of these two stories were the same! Having thoroughly examined both writings, Michael Maar still didn’t dare come out with accusations of plagiarism. Instead, he insisted that it was a case of cryptomnesia. But this resemblance stirred up much agitation. Later, it was Jeremy Noel-Tod who speculated on the matter in his Telegraph article and gave more food for thought to a wide readership. Some even said that these similarities were made on purpose and could even be treated as purposeful allusion.

Should we blame him for that? Before making any judgments, take a closer look at a great number of masterpieces recognized worldwide. You will definitely come across thousands of similar examples. Is it an excuse? No, not at all. The greatness of each work should be evaluated on the basis of the author’s personal contribution. The bigger the contribution, the more value it brings. That’s why all these reflections on the originality of Lolita didn’t change Nabokov’s fans’ minds; he’s still considered a distinguished genius.

Things to Be Done to Reduce the Cryptomnesia Effect

The problem with cryptomnesia is that you can inadvertently plagiarize while fully believing the words and ideas are your own. This may result a lot of speculation regarding your authorship and put your reputation at risk. Is that the only negative consequence? Unfortunately, no. Our brain capacities aren’t limitless. Therefore, we aren’t able to store much information in our heads for a long time like recording devices.

Cryptomnesia may also evoke false memories or lead to autoplagiarism. The former often turns into unintentional duplication while the latter can be considered as nonprofessional behavior.

Needless to say, it’s hard to avoid doing subconscious things. Still, you can take precautions to increase your brainpower by involving multiple senses in order to remember facts and data, practice doing your everyday routine tasks differently (e.g., use your non-dominant hand to write something) and choose

tasks differently (e.g., use your non-dominant hand to write something) and choose other activities on a regular basis.

Does Reading Lead to Plagiarism?

The answer is both yes and no. On the one hand, the more your read, the less you are able to single out borrowed statements from the ones you created. So yes, you may fall victim to accidental plagiarism. But on the other hand, to refuse to read means to shut the door on broadening your horizons and depriving yourself of developing into a more proficient writer. When engaging your writing responsibly by paying close attention to proofreading ready-to-be-published texts and attributing sources, you will be on the safe side. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!

Rose Scott is a literature teacher and writer from Omaha. A lifelong dreamer, she finds her inspiration in pep-talks with meaningful people whose enthusiasm is contagious. Outside of her teaching pursuits, she cannot imagine her life without writing. It is something more than just a hobby. Writing is her passion. Not so long ago, she became a regular contributor to College Raptor and run her own blog where she is eager to create a small online world for educators and literature lovers.

Method to the Madness: 10 Essential Novels About Insanity

Authors have often been bound to the cruelties of their own obsession. When inspiration strikes in all hours of the day, when writing a single sentence can exhaust the most firm-footed of minds, and when literary greatness may be subject to mere luck,  it is not difficult to see why insanity has been a topic of great interest for novelists since the early 19th century. Here are ten novels that explore the artful underpinnings of madness within society and within the mind:
Djuna Barnes – Nightwood (1936)
Djuna Barnes - Nightwood
Barnes herself called this novel of ill-fated passions the story of “a soul talking to itself in the heart of the night.” Based on a actual 8-year love affair she had with an American artist named Thelma wood, Barnes chronicles the destructive love life of an American heiress in the cultural milieus of Paris and Berlin just years before the continent would dissolve into chaos.
Barry Unsworth – Losing Nelson (1999)
Barry Unsworth - Losing Nelson
One of the most celebrated British authors of historical fiction, Unsworth offers a very different treatment of the genre by having his protagonist, a man obsessed with Horatio Nelson’s life, descending into madness and murder as he “investigates” the famed war hero’s execution of Italian revolutionaries.
Antonia White – Beyond the Glass (1991)
Qwiklit - Antonia White - Beyond the Glass
Referred to by some as the British Bell JarBeyond the Glass is the semi-autobiographical story of White’s eventual admittance into a psychiatric institution and the subsequent experience she has living a dual life with a broken consciousness. Her last novel, White communicates the frustrations of mental illness with a tyrannical and ultimately destructive relationship based on corrupted Catholic mores.
Charlotte Brontë – Villette (1853)
The Brontë sisters were no strangers to including trauma and everyday mental illness in their groundbreaking novels, and Charlotte’s novel about Lucy Snowe, a schoolteacher struggling to make ends meet as a schoolteacher in the fictional country of Villette, challenges conventional models of reading by implicating her delusions and hallucinations into the narration.
Graham Greene – Brighton Rock (1938)
Set in the seedy underworld of Brighton during the 1930’s, Greene follows Pinkie, an 17 year-old sociopath mob boss who tries who struggles to cover his tracks after murdering a journalist who may reveal his culpability. At once an examination of Roman Catholicism in a broken society and also an introspective look at the destructive capabilities of adolescence, Pinkie is a terrifying look at lost morals and the effects it has on innocent people.
Herman Hesse – Steppenwolf (1927)
Written at the peak of a midlife crisis, Hesse’s novel about a down-and-out intellectual attempting to find reason for higher intellectual pursuits through vice is a mix of psychadelia and high art. Steppenwolf puts much emphasis on the volatile nature of illusion, and how the 20th century’s descent down the rabbit hole threatens to destroy the links between knowledge and pleasure.
Franz Kafka – The Trial (1924)
When a man named Josef K. is arrested one morning for an unknown reason, it sets off a virtually-interminable quest to get at the heart of a crime he fears does not exist. Both a satire of society’s endless legal quandaries and a look into the fragile mind of a persecuted man, Kafka’s unfinished novel is–without monsters, demons or ghosts to haunt the reader–the great nightmare of 20th century life.
R.K. Narayan – The English Teacher (1945)
When an Indian English teacher’s wife succumbs to illness soon after his wife moves to live with him, his journey for spiritual solace ends up being much more profound and mysterious than he expected.The English Teacher is a painful but ultimately hopeful novel about the vicissitudes of happiness and sorrow after in a world where answers to the more pressing questions are few and far between.
Malcolm Lowry – Under the Volcano (1938)
When Malcolm Lowry finally received critical acclaim for his entrancing and moving tale about an alcoholic expat in Mexico, it had come at the end of many years of mental instability, drug addiction and alcoholism. Under the Volcano is an examination of both personal and societal madness hitting their apex only months before the world would erupt into global war once again.
Vladimir Nabokov – Despair (1934)
Qwiklit - Vladimir Nabokov - Despair
One of his earlier Russian Novels, Despair prefigured many of the themes that would later adorn works like Pale Fire and Lolita. Set around an unreliable narrator’s supposed doppelganger and his eventual murder, Nabokov dissects the language and mannerisms of delusion in ways only an obsessive novelist can understand.