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Jonathan Safran Foer: any more of a plagiarist than any other writer?

August 19, 2010 \pm\31 5:40 pm

The Awl points out today that Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent short story in the New Yorker, “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly,” is strikingly similar to a story by one of Foer’s wife Nicole Krauss’s MFA students, Jessica Soffer, entitled “Beginning, End,” which appeared on Granta Online in 2009.

Soffer:

We got a place. We read a lot. We rescued a dog. You worked at a shelter. I was a terrible handyman. My father called friends. We moved to the city. We ordered in. We picked up dry-cleaning. We hailed cab after cab. We were promoted. We hardly saw each other. I drank too much. You wouldn’t kiss me. You said I was my father. I stood there, half-listening, sick of your hoping. You said, you weren’t angry just tired.

Foer (thanks to Lovely Day for the excerpt):

I was always watching movie trailers on my computer. You were always wiping surfaces. I was always hearing my father’s laugh and never remembering his face. You broke every one’s heart until you suddenly couldn’t […] At a certain point you became convinced that you were always reading yesterday’s newspaper. At a certain point I stopped agonizing over being understood, and became over-reliant on my car’s G.P.S.

Plagiarism? First of all, Foer’s tone and sentence structure are different. It’s entirely possible that he borrowed the premise of his story from Soffer, but even if so, clearly he’s done something different with it. (Note that many initial commentators at the Awl seem to prefer Soffer’s story.)

Second, it’s possible that both hit on the same idea simultaneously. The idea of showing the course of a relationship through a series of small snapshots has probably occurred to more than a few writers. I know for a fact that I have a poem that works in a similar way, and I’d be willing to wager quite a lot of money that Jonathan Safran Foer has never read my poem.

Third, it’s entirely possible that both Soffer and Foer are drawing from another short story as a common source. Reading these stories, a potential source immediately leapt to mind: Rick Moody’s short story “Boys,” from his best-selling collection Demonology, every sentence of which is a variation on the phrase “the boys enter the house.”

Moody:

Boys enter the house with lacrosse sticks, and soon after, tossing a lacrosse ball lightly in the living room, they destroy a lamp. One boy enters the house sporting basketball clothes, the other wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. One boy enters the house bleeding profusely and is taken out to get stitches, the other watches.

More:

Boys enter the house and kiss their mother, who feels differently now they have outgrown her. Boys enter the house, kiss their mother, she explains the seriousness of their sister’s difficulty, her diagnosis. […]

And so on:

Boys don’t enter the house at all, except as ghostly afterimages of younger selves, fleeting images of sneakers dashing up a staircase; soggy towels on the floor of the bathroom; blue jeans coiled like asps in the basin of the washing machine; boys as an absence of boys; blissful at first, you put a thing down on a spot, put this book down, come back later, it’s still there; you buy a box of cookies, eat three, later three are missing. Nevertheless, when boys next enter the house…

Moody’s story works somewhat differently, but its existence suggests either that “Boys” was a seedling for both stories or simply stands as proof that this is not an original way to structure a narrative.

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12 Comments
  1. August 19, 2010 \pm\31 6:22 pm 6:22 pm

    My guess is that both pieces were generated using the same writing exercise, which is one commonly taught in creative writing classes. The one I’m thinking of was done best by Atwood. The exercise is simple: write a novel in the course of a short story. There are sometimes other limitations on it, but it generates a hyper-fast narrative that often leads to similar stylistic choices, and a very similar voice most of the time.

    • August 19, 2010 \pm\31 6:23 pm 6:23 pm

      Also, I genuinely thought the Foer story was a good one, a sentiment that surprised me at the time.

  2. August 19, 2010 \pm\31 6:58 pm 6:58 pm

    The problem with this “thing” is that it can lead to a very unoriginal voice. Foer does a decent job of making it seem better than most by way of using contemporary details (movie trailers on the computer, GPS, etc) but ultimately, a big meh.

  3. August 20, 2010 \am\31 9:27 am 9:27 am

    The Awl doesn’t exactly play the plagiarism card — it just says they’re two takes on the same conceit, and that they like the student’s story better. I don’t see that as a veiled accusation of plagiarism at all, just a jab at whether he deserves his fame, probably.

    • August 20, 2010 \am\31 10:01 am 10:01 am

      He’s not saying above that The Awl is playing the plagiarism card at all. Nor is Richard; he just asks the question here as a kind of rhetorical straw-man trope, all by way of talking about influence and the perhaps the anxiety of it. The p-word holds a lot of power, even when it’s brought up on a theoretical way.

      • August 20, 2010 \am\31 10:11 am 10:11 am

        I think the post is written in such a way, whether or not it was intentional, that if you didn’t read the post on The Awl, you’d assume they were saying JSF plagiarized the story. That’s what I assumed, until I clicked through. He says that TA points out that it’s “strikingly similar,” then asks “Plagiarism?” You’re right that the P-word holds a lot of power, so I thought it was worthwhile to point out that TA didn’t use it.

        Either way, it’s certainly worth talking about the line between plagiarism and plain-old fair-game recycling. It reminds me of the time Last Orders (Graham Swift) was accused of copying As I Lay Dying, when it’s pretty obviously an homage.

        • August 20, 2010 \am\31 10:58 am 10:58 am

          Think it’s just exploring the definition of plagiarism by way of asking it. Provocative headline and all that. If anything, The Awl’s scoop wimps out: if you’re going to go to the trouble of making a jpeg of an opening paragraph from the firewalled New Yorker archives, then say these passages are from the “same conceit” and then points out the “fun fact” of there being one degree of separation between the two, why doesn’t the writer bring up the reason why?

      • August 20, 2010 \am\31 11:00 am 11:00 am

        Ah yes, the old provocative headline bit :)

      • Richard D. Allen permalink
        August 20, 2010 \pm\31 1:47 pm 1:47 pm

        I did think the Awl writer was playing the plagiarism card. You’re supposed to draw your own conclusion, but I think that’s what he/she is implying, especially with the detail about Soffer being Krauss’s student.

        If I need to make my own position clearer, I think that the term “plagiarism” is often either overused or incorrectly used, and that there is a difference between plagiarism and just plain borrowing, which is essential to literary creation. Even if Foer did borrow from Soffer’s story structure, he clearly did something different with it… but it’s also more than likely that he didn’t borrow from her at all, just hit on a similar approach somehow.

      • August 20, 2010 \pm\31 2:36 pm 2:36 pm

        Hi Richard,

        Totally agree that it’s not plagiarism, even if he did read the student’s story. Writing your own story/poem/book based on the same conceit as another is not plagiarism. It’s an exercise. (Which is not to say that exercises can’t have good results.) A conceit is not a plot.

        I’m not sure I agree with you on what the implication of the Awl piece is though — I thought they really were just saying “JSF borrowed this idea from a student and his version doesn’t work. Kind of funny.” In other words, not only is he unoriginal, but he’s not a very good writer. (Just my interp of the post, I haven’t read either story.)

  4. August 20, 2010 \am\31 11:46 am 11:46 am

    Jessica Soffer was a Hertog Fellow thru Hunter College in 2008 and paired with Nicole Krauss to work with her, do research for her, etc. (see the link above) . Maybe she, Jessica, shared her story with Nicole Krauss who in turn shared it with her husband, JSF, or something of the sort. There is definitely a connection. I like her story better.

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