Copy at Your Own Peril: Plagiarism in Old School
Over 2,000 years ago, the philosopher Aristotle stated that with regards to “the origin of poetic art as a whole…the habit of imitating is congenital to human beings from childhood and so is the pleasure that all men take in works of imitation.” This depiction of poetry illustrates that the impulse to write is derived from an innate tendency to imitate the world around us, a tendency that all men take pleasure in. Similarly, this portrayal of plagiarism as a necessary prerequisite to works of art persists to this day, as Tobias Wolff discusses this idea in his piece Old School through the narrator’s struggles with plagiarism in a school with “a system of honors that valued nothing you hadn’t earned yourself,” an idea “so deeply held it was never spoken” (Wolff 4). This concept of original authorship is heavily contested in the novel, as Wolff provides insight into the positives and negatives of imitating other authors’ works. While indeed punishing the narrator for plagiarizing, Tobias Wolff still suggests that plagiarism stems from admiration for the original writer.
Wolff suggests that the narrator admires Susan Friedman after he plagiarizes from her story for his submission to the school literary contest. Although the narrator’s transgression is very typical of a schoolboy, his reason for plagiarizing is atypical – it has nothing to do with a fear of failure or desire to submit better work. Although he does desire to meet Hemingway, he legitimately believes that Susan Friedman’s story tells the story of his own life in a manner never framed before, as he states, “The whole thing came straight from the truthful diary I’d never kept” (125). Thus, the narrator sees the various “obvious parallels” from Susan’s life, and he feels a connection with Susan at such a high level that he states he himself “couldn’t tell us apart” (125, 161). Consequently, when the narrator does submit Susan’s story as his own, he feels that he is paradoxically representing himself truthfully for the first time in his life. By internalizing Susan’s work as his own, he admires its similarity to his own life, conceding that he never believed Susan’s story was “anything but his own” (142). The narrator believes this to be true because he believes that the story itself is disconnected from the writer, as he states: “The life that produces writing can’t be written about. It is a life carried on without the knowledge of even the writer, below the mind’s business and noise…” (156). Consequently, because the story is detached from the writer, as long as the story resembles the narrator’s life, he feels no remorse at submitting it as his own. In an expressive interview with The Missouri Review, Tobias Wolff concurs: “It’s often a very good, passionate reader who plagiarizes a story—someone whose connection with a given work becomes so powerful that his sense of it being “his” story…A story—a written story—is a series of black marks on a white page. That’s it” (p. 12). As a result, the narrator’s appreciation for Susan’s work reinforces the idea that by plagiarizing her story, the narrator is acknowledging that the story is powerful and worthy enough to be plagiarized in the first place. Thus, Susan writes to the narrator, “Plagiarism, not imitation, is the sincerest form of flattery” (157). This clearly indicates that the narrator’s plagiarism is sincere flattery – he truly admires Susan’s writing style and emotional insights, and identifies with her story so much so that he doesn’t even recognize he’s plagiarizing in the first place. Wolff further suggests that plagiarism is a form of admiration of the original writers by portraying imitation as necessary for writers to learn how to write. In the same interview with the Missouri Review, Tobias Wolff proclaimed, “I learned by imitating—and that’s fine. People don’t appreciate the extent to which writers need to imitate in order to get where they’re going, or how long the apprenticeship will be” (p. 13). By stating that he himself “learned by imitating” he lets all his readers know the motivation behind why he makes the narrator in Old School have all these experiences with plagiarism. Specifically, the narrator states, “I knew that Maupassant, whose stories I loved, had been taken up when young by Flaubert and Turgenev; Faulkner by Sherwood Anderson; Hemingway by Fitzgerald and Pound and Gertrude Stein” (156). As evident, the narrator concludes that all preeminent writers were, at one point, apprentices of other great writers before them. This period of apprenticeship often led to the apprentice imitation both the style and content of the master, as the narrator further concludes: “All these writers were welcomed by other writers. It seemed to follow that you needed such a welcome, yet before this could happen you somehow, anyhow, had to meet the writer who was to welcome you” (156). The fact that these distinguished writers “welcomed” new apprentices is the reason why there existed such a fierce competition to meet Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway throughout the literary contests in the novel. Even just the potential of meeting such exalted novelists causes such clash between students, indicating how much each student admired these luminaries and how valuable each student thought this meeting would be. In fact, the narrator himself learned from Ernest Hemingway, as he often typed out all of Hemingway’s stories. Moreover, the narrator imitated Hemingway to such an extent that he even “used the typewriter because Hemingway famously did,” and once “the final period smack[ed] home,” then the narrator felt “the joy of completion, the joy of Hemingway himself” (145). Thus, the narrator reveres Hemingway to such an extent that he is capable of vicariously experiencing the joy the original author feels when he finishes his work. The narrator further divulges how much he owes his literary abilities to Hemingway when he states, “I myself was in debt to Hemingway…I even talked like Hemingway characters” (156). This realization clearly delineates how the narrator has learned to write from imitating Hemingway, as he considers himself “in debt to Hemingway” for everything that he has learned from him. In essence, the narrator’s imitations of Hemingway reflect the overall trend of writers imitating from their forerunners, another form of admiration for their work. In the same interview with the Missouri Review, Tobias Wolff entirely agrees: “[I]t’s rather flattering to be plagiarized….the sort of plagiarist who does it for…advantage at school…is the dullest and most contemptible kind, and a very different thing from plagiarism of a creative work, which usually proceeds, paradoxically, from admiration” (p. 13). This quote lends insight into the mindset of Wolff, who believes that authorship that imitates other creative work stems from admiration from the original work, and Wolff consistently constructs the narrator’s experiences in Old School with regards to this theme.
Wolff contests that plagiarism, although a punishable act, is positive because it flatters the original writer, because the imitator often uses plagiarism to jumpstart his writing career. Essentially, Aristotle’s theory of imitation being intrinsic to human nature persists to this day, and he would approve of Tobias Wolff’s depiction of plagiarism in Old School. Wolff encourages us not to shy away from imitating outstanding writers in our own search and development of becoming a better writer as we admire the great writers that came before us.
Bradley, William, and Tobias Wolff. “An Interview with Tobias Wolff.” An Interview with Tobias Wolff. The Missouri Review, Dec. 2003. Web. 25 Jan. 2016. Wolff, Tobias. Old School. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2003. Print.
Moral Ambiguity in Old School
The narrator of Old School, by Tobias Wolff, is a character that can be characterized as morally ambiguous by the reader. This moral ambiguity is accentuated by the complexity of the character, and the fact that the story takes place from his point of view. This element gives the reader a look at his inner reasoning and debate, the difference between what he thinks and what he does, and the positive reasons for his negative actions. The not-so-clear line of his morals are a central tool to expressing the meaning of the story, which is focused on the confusion of being young and trying to find oneself, and that growing up is a messy and not strictly positive or negative process.Because we see the narrator and his actions through his eyes, and therefore see not just the decisions that he makes but his reasoning behind them, we are more likely to feel sympathy for him, and understand why he does what he does. If the character was described through the eyes of another, the reader would just see his actions and judge him on the outcome of his decisions rather than the emotion and thought behind them. For example, when he enters a writing contest with his name on someone else’s work, the initial instinct to just his actions is that he was stealing someone else’s work, which is morally wrong. However, since the reader has access to his thoughts, we see another layer of moral reasoning below the surface. The narrator finds a story in an old literary magazine, and connects to it on a deep emotional level. Not only does he wish he could write so fluently, he finds that the writing almost seems to be written by him, because it is a scene so close to his own life. When he finds this passionate connection, he feels desperation to make this his own writing. In this, and also in his exhausted and worn out state, he types the story himself and forgets that the writing is not in fact his own. The reader understands this on some level, because we too feel his desperation, passion, and confusion. Because we have a link to both his physical actions and his mental process, we are torn between categorizing him. Because we can see into his mind, all of his actions can be explained, even the most overtly wrong. Because we experience the conflict between these two different aspects of his life, and because in the narrator’s point of view he sees himself differently than the rest of the world, the question of his innate morality does not have a clear-cut answer.This link into his inner thoughts also affects the way we see his judgements, because his thoughts are not always equal to his actions. When George confides in the narrator about the character he felt an inappropriate affection for, the narrator’s first reaction is to be condescending to him in his thoughts. He thinks he is silly and naive. However, his actions are not condescending; the narrator advises George to keep this to himself, for he knows that their peers would not take kindly to this information. The narrator’s actions show compassion to George, because he warns him of possible taunting from other classmates. However, his inner thoughts show him taunting and looking down on George himself, which is how he is able to warn George. This incident is an example of the narrator being morally ambiguous by having different thoughts than actions, and again is an example of how the point of view of the novel affects the reader’s view of the character.The moral ambiguity of the narrator is central to the theme of the story, which is about being young and unsure of oneself. The difference between his actions and his thoughts, and his decisions of varying morality, both demonstrate that being a teenager means changing your mind constantly. Because he is unsure of himself, his opinions will be constantly be changing as he checks out all options. The story is a classic tale of a young person growing up, and the audience can relate to the humanity of the complex main character. Everyone who has been a teenager knows that the journey into adulthood is a messy process. As young people, we have to make decisions that we’ve never made before, and that may be questionable to those who have more experience. We all make mistakes and learn from them, and this cycle is pivotal in the novel. The main character in Old School is a morally ambiguous character for these reasons, and this makes him recognizable to the reader, and is central to the story.