Who does own the words?

A commonly repeated quote, or misquote, for writers is either: ‘Good writers borrow, great writer’s steal’ or ‘Mediocre writer’s borrow, great writer’s steal’.  I like both, because they remind me that writers have been continually and consistently ‘borrowing’ for centuries.

If Chaucer and Shakespeare didn’t quibble to re-use plots and ideas, why should we?  I know, you’re about to scream out, ‘plagiarism,’ and that word steal does seem to imply a danger.

For the aware writer though, this is a variation on theft: a kind of homage to literary predecessors or contemporaries.  Fielding, Thackeray, the Brontes, Eliot, Tolstoy, Sayers, Woolf, Joyce, Lawrence plus lots of others in-between, before and after, loved to drop literary hints on sources into their novels – and the writing they did about their novels.

Over time, some of those allusions have lost vigour – when the original has fallen out of fashion, for instance.  Often we read past references without recognising the relevance.  Or when the story is so entertaining we don’t stop for something that seems a little familiar…  Other connections might be so subtle that we absorb them without consciously understanding the colour they’ve added to our enjoyment.

Getting back to my quotes, though, you can find either of them ascribed, variously, to T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and more recently the screen-writer, Aaron Sorkin.  My immediate response to this has always been a pedantic one.  I wanted the origin pinned down definitely, none of this ‘reputed’ business, who said it?

Call me slow, but I had no idea I’d missed a joke.

Then yesterday, I metaphorically tripped over this piece of artistry:


It took a second look, and a moment, but having finally got there, I just had to share this with you.

I wonder, is this visual flash-fiction?

2 thoughts on “Who does own the words?

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