Is there a fine line between them?
Plagiarism or Inspiration? How do we define the difference?
Did you read Grapes of Wrath in school? What about Of Mice and Men? I know I even got to teach Of Mice and Men to my 9th graders. And I have to say, as much as many of them complained, it was actually one of my favorite texts to teach.
Steinbeck has a complex reputation in our literary canon. His books continue to reign on assigned reading lists, but people also tend to have extremely strong love/hate reactions to him. Perhaps, this is because he truly was a very complicated and controversial figure in life.
One of the thornier topics he encountered during his popularity was the source of his inspiration for The Grapes of Wrath. Few will ever forget that scene where Rose Sharon uses the breast milk from her stillborn baby to save the life of a starving man. But was this profoundly moving scene the fruit of Steinbeck’s imagination?
Smithsonian Magazine published an interesting piece a few years back about another author named Sanora Babb who published about the Dust Bowl. What was interesting about the piece was the mention of the copious notes Babb took during her firsthand interviews with migrant workers. These notes were shared with Steinbeck by the same editor who published both of their stories. In those notes- there was a scene with a stillborn baby and a mother sharing her breast milk.
This begs the question- what actually is considered plagiarism when it comes to authors’ inspiration?
I had a conversation about this recently with a book club I visited. We asked if any new story could ever entirely be new? Or ever told exactly the same way? Think on it- how many World War II historical fiction books are out there? How many authors inspired by the same chilling photograph or event in history?
Now think on eyewitness accounts in court. Do any two witnesses ever retell the same event exactly the same way or do each bring their own unique perspective to the retelling?
Kristin Hannah admits in interviews that the inspiration for her novel The Four Winds came from her love of Steinbeck. She wanted to write an updated version of his classic story. And although the books have similar themes and elements, I’d say she succeeded in telling her own unique story.
Perhaps there needs to be some grace given in storytelling. Although the word plagiarism is defined as taking of someone else’s words or ideas, I’d say it is very difficult to prove from where ideas originate or what happens after the same inspirational idea strikes.
I mean, if we were truly to take that definition at face value, couldn’t we potentially argue that every love triangle, natural disaster or genre-based trope is an idea born from someone else?
What are your thoughts on this topic?