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In Someone Else's Words

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The number of writers who repurpose other writers' words and call it legitimate original artwork (not to mention the number of advocates for such a practice) is -- very disconcertingly -- on the rise.

Kenneth Goldsmith, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, is a vocal advocate of the practice. Goldsmith has just written a book called Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, published this month by Columbia University Press, in which he argues that taking the writing of other writers and re-appropriating it is not only an acceptable practice but a praiseworthy technique that deserves to play a critical role in contemporary writing.

I couldn't disagree more.

Goldsmith teaches a class at UPenn called "Uncreative Writing" in which, in Goldsmith's (presumably not plagiarized) words:

"students are penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity. Instead they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering, and stealing. Not surprisingly, they thrive...We retype documents and transcribe audio clips. We make small changes to Wikipedia pages (changing an "a" to "an" or inserting an extra space between words)...Each semester, for their final paper, I have them purchase a term paper from an online paper mill and sign their name to it, surely the most forbidden action in all of academia. Students then must get up and present the paper to the class as if they wrote it themselves, defending it from attacks by the other students. What paper did they choose? Is it possible to defend something you didn't write? Something, perhaps, you don't agree with? Convince us."

Goldsmith seems to believe that students thrive in his class because the practice of "uncreative writing" is particularly well suited to today's technology-saturated world, a world in which an incredible and unprecedented amount of text has become easily accessible.

Based on Goldsmith's description of his class, I would argue that his students thrive not because "uncreative writing" is a revolutionary approach to literature that is particularly well suited to contemporary society but rather because the assignments sound, well, easy. Copying a document word for word? That's typing, not writing. Changing a single "a" to "an" on a Wikipedia page? If the following word starts with a consonant, that could be a test of how eagle-eyed and grammatically obsessive Wikipedia reader-editors are, but it is certainly not a writing assignment. The final paper is the most "difficult" assignment described by Goldsmith by virtue of the fact that the students must be prepared to (verbally) defend the argument of a paper that they did not write. But, again, this is not writing. It's the kind of exercise a debate team might take part in. Yes, of course it's possible to defend something you didn't write and don't agree with. School debate teams defend political issues they disagree with, a task that often involves citing and supporting text written by others (e.g., legislation). Goldsmith's requirement that students must sign their names to the paper they have purchased certainly exemplifies his opposition to academia's stance on plagiarism and what constitutes plagiarism, but it hardly proves that claiming another person's intellectual property is acceptable.

Of course -- and this seems almost unnecessary to have to say -- just because the Internet provides you with the ability to purchase an academic paper written by someone else does not mean that you should. More importantly, however, doing so doesn't make you a writer.

Goldsmith is hardly the only advocate of so-called "uncreative writing." Literary critic and Stanford professor Marjorie Perloff has gone so far as to call such poetry "unoriginal genius," a subject she explores in a book published last year called "Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century." The book explores the role of poets in today's world of "hyper-information." Perloff refers to this world as one in which, as Walter Benjamin predicted over 70 years ago, everyone is potentially an author. Perloff uses this as a jumping off point through which to explore what she views as the positive development of unoriginal writing.

Benjamin's prediction was right: Today, with the help of technology, everyone is potentially an author. Today, also thanks to technology, potential authors have access to an unprecedented amount of published writing as well. Reading and learning from the works of other writers is a valuable activity for any writer or aspiring writer, and it is wonderful that modern technology allows for such easy access to texts. But the only thing that makes a person a writer is writing, using one's own words. Retyping a chapter of, say, "Moby-Dick," and adding an adjective or two or inserting a few spaces in between words to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is not just plagiarism. It's offensive. Any self-respecting literary scholar, writer, or aspiring writer should know better.

This piece was also published in The Harvard Crimson.